We have reached a pause in club football as national selections continue their struggle to qualify for the World Cup Finals in Brazil next year. So a good time for an early reflection on what, if anything, we have learned about the new Barça of Tata Martino. In truth not a lot as yet. Though top of the league after the first three matches and undefeated in official matches, the team shows much the same strengths and weaknesses of previous years. The new coach has kept the same formation for the team – the well established 4-3-3. Barça still tend to dominate possession of the ball and to play high up the pitch inside the opposition half. As a result of course the team is still vulnerable to fast, skillful counter attacks by the opposition. Clear evidence of this is that goalkeeper Victor Valdés has been the saviour of the team in a couple of games. It is not clear just what can be done to avoid this. One slight difference is that Barça are more willing move the ball quickly up to their attackers, bypassing the midfield with a long ball from defence to one of the wide players. In this way, even if possession is lost, the rest of the team are still in a defensive set-up. We should not make too much of this as Barça will continue to try and pass their way to the opposition goal.
The key as always with this kind of approach, is that you have to score enough goals from your attacking play to reduce the effectiveness of any counter attacks. And this is where Barça continue to be a bit irregular. Leaving aside the 7-0 stroll against a weak Levante, the team only managed to score two goals in their following three matches. One goal each away to Atlético Madrid and away to Málaga. These single goals did prove decisive as Barça won 1-0 against Málaga in the league, while the single away goal in a 1-1 draw was enough to win the Supercopa, as the home leg was a 0-0 draw. The failure to score at home against Atlético was particularly disappointing. Chances were created and Messi somehow managed to miss from the penalty spot. However the team had to rely on a providential Valdés to secure victory overall.
Their most recent match demonstrated just how important it is to score lots of goals when on top. Away to a good and aggressive Valencia, Barça were three goals up after 40 minutes – hat-trick by Messi. Yet, almost from nowhere Valencia managed to pull two goals back before half time! The second half was a bit of a ding dong battle as each team tried unsuccessfully to score more goals. I didn`t see this match, but from all reports while both teams could and probably should have scored more goals, Barça created more and better chances. But they could not finish the game off and were mighty relieved to win all three points in a game that they should have won with greater ease.
All down to not scoring enough goals. In part this is due to another long standing issue – apart from Messi, no-one else in the team seems to be a consistenly reliable goal scorer. Step forward Neymar. The Brazilian has had a gentle introduction to the team, coming off the subs bench in the first three matches. It will take time for him to develop a fruitful understanding with his team mates and in particular with Messi. Though already the signs are promising. As the season develops, Barça will almost certainly need lots of goals from Neymar if they are to win anything important. Pedro, Alexis and Cesc will all need to contribute their fair share of goals, but Neymar was bought because he is expected to make a difference.
The biggest surprise so far is that once again no new central defender has come to strengthen the defence. Just about everybody assumed that one would arrive this summer. But no. It seems that Tata decided that none of the possible signings was up to his liking. He has also apparently been convinced that Carles Puyol will make a full recovery and will shortly be able to compete for a starting place. A fully fit Puyol would be like a new signing as he has played so little over the last two seasons due to successive injuries. We shall see.
Another question mark hangs over the young players in the squad. Tata has made all the right noises about valuing these youngsters and even convinced Jonathan Dos Santos to reject a transfer and stay at the club. He has also stated very publicly that he is in favour of rotating the players in the squad, giving rest to regulars. Yet, so far these young players have hardly featured at all in the team, despite the rotations. Bartra has not played at all and the others – Montoya, Tello, Sergi Roberto and Dos Santos – have only had testimonial appearances towards the end of matches. In fairness, the first games were, apart from Levante, all hard matches and three were away. It will also be a long and hard season, so there is still time for the young players to get their chances.
The final point to make about these first few games is the ferocity with which the opposition has approached these matches. Always with the exception of an innocuous Levante, the other teams – Atlético twice, Málaga and Valencia – have sought to thwart Barça with aggressive tackling which has often veered on the wrong side of legality. But with little in the way of corresponding bookings. While all Barça players have suffered in this respect, Neymar seems to have been singled out for special treatment. As this is his first experience of Spanish football, the opposition seem to have decided to target him with a succession of fouls. In a way this shows how much they fear Neymar and are keen to do everything possible to prevent him from getting into his stride as it were. What is most curious about all this is that Neymar, a rather slightly built player, has already accumulated three yellow cards. Almost certainly more than any of the opposition players who have regularly crashed into him. I am not suggesting that Neymar did not deserve his bookings. Merely pointing out that if the same rigorous standard was applied to the opposition players, very few of these teams would be able to finish a match with 11 players on the field. Some consistency would be good!