Last week Barcelona opened their 2015-2016 season in the same fashion they ended last season: by winning another trophy. Their 5-4 extra time victory over Seville, gave the club their 4th trophy of the calendar year. The celebration was quickly ruined however by a crushing 4-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup and then a 1-1 draw back in Nou Camp. Bilbao’s victory handed them their first trophy in 41 years and ensured that Pep’s 2009 Barcelona squad remains the only European club to win 6 trophies in a calendar year.
Despite the recent poor showing in the Spanish Super Cup, much is expected from Enrique’s Barcelona this year. The club’s starting eleven is back and with the transfer ban ending in January, Barcelona already has some fresh blood ready to arrive. Although repeating a treble winning season is nearly impossible, it is exactly what many are expecting for the Spanish giants. So what awaits Enrique, Messi, and his merry men this year?
A good place to start in predicting how Barcelona will perform this season is last week’s UEFA Super Cup game against Sevilla. In winning the Super Cup, Barcelona flexed their offensive muscles and showed why in the second half of last year the club was nearly impossible to beat. When Barca is firing on all cylinders in the final third- pressing well, strikers in sync, and the midfield is controlling the box to box region- there is almost no stopping them. They are going to create numerous chances and more than likely put a lot of them away. Even without Neymar and one of the best offensive defenders in the game-Jordi Alba- Barcelona had no problems putting 5 past the reigning Europa Champions.
The match against Sevilla also highlighted Barcelona’s biggest problem this season, their defense. Against Sevilla they let up 4 goals in 90 minutes and then did the same thing a few days later against Athletic Bilbao. Barcelona and others can claim it is due to tiredness, but that is only a faction of the problem. Barcelona has been in dire need of a new central defender for years. Mascherano is a brilliant midfielder but he is not an exceptional defender.
Last year’s 21 goal’s against in thirty eight games was amazing but a large part of that was due to Pique’s phenomenal year, teams playing defensive due the relationship built up by Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, just some luck (opposition missing what should have been easy goals- like Sevilla did twice in the final minutes of the UEFA cup), and the ability of Barcelona to bring on Xavi to calm the game down and control possession to run out the clock (more on this below). This isn’t to say that Barcelona’s defense will be like a puncture dam, but it is a real concern.
The worrying for Barcelona then is what will happen when suddenly they cannot score-due to injury (no more Pedro to save them), excellent keeper player, posts playing a factor, or just dumb luck- and a team can take their chances as well as Atheletic Bilbao did. In that instance, Barcelona lost 5-1 over two legs. In most games in La Liga, this will not be a problem such is the talent of Barcelona. But it could happen enough to jeopardize their chances of another league title and definitely be a big factor in Europe.
Beyond scoring and preventing goals, this will be a very interesting season for the reigning champions as Enrique will have plenty of challenges.
First, teams in Spain and across Europe now have had plenty of time and tape to figure out how to stop the direct way Enrique’s Barcelona play. Does Enrique decide to stay with what has worked or try to add a few new wrinkles into the club’s strategy to stay a step ahead of their rivals?
Also, how will Enrique keep the players motivated and hungry without alienating them? Remember last year it was Xaxi and other veterans who got Enrique to change his direct approach towards Messi which helped turn the club’s season around. If Barcelona falters, how will Enrique walk the fine line of getting the most out of his players without losing them?
Next, how does Enrique handle the new signings that will be able to play come January? On the plus side the new arrivals will give the club a shot of energy at the half way point, help keep the team hungry (more competition for spots and an eagerness to win trophies), and allow Enrique to ride his players hard in the first half knowing that reinforcements are on the way.
On the other hand, Barcelona is not a club where a player can just walk into and start excelling (as Rakitic explained to Sid Lowe). Superstars like Cesc and Ibrahimovic have arrived with much fanfare only to leave the club a year or two later with a whimper. The fact the new arrivals can train with the club will help but there will be a learning curve regardless. If that learning curve is short then the signings could be the thing that helps Barcelona contend for another treble. If the the learning curve is long and difficult or the signings are not able to produce, Barcelona will be left with a thin bench and as the first leg against Athletic Bilbao showed, that is not a reassuring thought for the club and its supporters.
Another concern is the keeper situation. Last year, Ter Stegen and Bravo both did excellent between the posts in all competitions. But they are professionals and want to be considered the number 1 for all games. Winning three trophies last year helped to placate both keepers, but at some point Ter Stegen is going to want to play every game. Can Enrique find a way to keep them both happy and producing or will January come around with Barcelona left with just one keeper that they can rely on?
Finally, the Xavi question. Despite the legend’s limited role last year, he played an instrumental part in keeping Barcelona on the winning track. He was used in the later stages of games when Barcelona was winning but not controlling the game. His introduction onto the pitch would allow Barcelona to hold onto possession and give Barcelona back their shape, helping to solidify the defense in the process. Enrique no longer has that option. If a game feels like it is slipping away, who will Enrique turn to to slow the game down and carry Barcelona safely to the end whistle?
Last year Barcelona became the only European club to twice enjoy a treble winning season. There is a reason why that was historic. It is the same reason why no team has repeated as the Champion’s League Champions. There is so much that can affect a season, a game, or even a goal.
Barcelona were brilliant last year and in all likelihood will be brilliant again this season. But that does not mean another treble is in the cards. History is against them in Europe and Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have sights on the league and the King’s Cup. A safe expectation would be one trophy (either the cup or league) and a real challenge for the other with a semi-final exit in the Champion’s League. However, if Barcelona makes history again by celebrating another European title, don’t be surprised, after all have you seen their front three?