Barcelona supporters who were hoping their team's dip in form was an aberration—a mere unlucky patch in the midst of a long season—were given a rude awakening in Wednesday night's Copa del Rey Clasico at the Camp Nou.
Though the match could have gone differently had the referee been more generous with a pair of penalty appeals from Pedro, true Barca fans will ruefully admit: For the first time since the start of the Pep Guardiola era, Barcelona have struggled to score—and perhaps more importantly, failed to inspire—through a series of crucially important fixtures.
Not all of Barcelona's problems can be easily remedied, with the form of Lionel Messi of particular concern.
But Barcelona's collective woes in attack are diagnosable and fixable, and with the talent their players possess, the Blaugrana have no excuse not to return to form, and quickly.
Barcelona's major problem at the moment is a dearth of deceptive movement in key areas of the pitch at crucial moments in their attacking buildup. They have too many players looking to get on the ball and make key passes and not enough players willing to make planned, committed runs that will deceive defenders.
Of course, it's easy to say the players aren't making the right runs, but it's harder to specify exactly what kinds of runs will unlock defenses and get them back to their goalscoring ways.
A few examples from Wednesday night's match will demonstrate how Barcelona can again combine dangerously in the attacking third. They are instructive not just for what Barca got wrong in the match but also what they got right and need to build on.
First, a relatively simple clip, from what could and should have been a promising attack.
Dani Alves receives the ball in an advanced position and plays a clever but ultimately simple one-two with Pedro to get in behind Fabio Coentrao. As the ball is played to Alves, Messi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro are all well positioned to take part in the attack.
Messi and Iniesta, however, drift forward aimlessly, even leaving the frame of view as Alves carries the ball. Pedro admires his pass to Alves after he's played it instead of seeking a return.
That leaves Fabregas as the sole potential beneficiary from Alves' good work. But even Cesc rather jogs in the general direction of the ball, instead of making what would be a much smarter run in behind Raphael Varane for a square cross. If Fabregas starts his run and commits to it as the ball is on its way to Alves, Varane would have much more trouble keeping track of him, and then Fabregas might have had a chance at a clear goal attempt.
Barcelona lacked that commitment to getting in behind, ahead of the defenders, and all four attackers were culprits on this occasion.
If David Villa had been in the game in the first half, things might have gone differently, as we see in the next video.
Again, this was one of Barcelona's more promising attacks on the evening, and the difference between Villa's movement and that of his colleagues is instructive. While Messi, Iniesta and Fabregas were all looking to receive the ball square at their feet throughout the evening, Villa knew exactly how to test the Madrid back line.
In particular, Villa makes his acceleration as the ball is in transit from Xavi to Iniesta. He needs to evade the attention of Coentrao and Sergio Ramos, and he picks his moment perfectly. They're busy tracking the ball for that split second when he makes his move, and that's all he needs to get in behind them for Iniesta's pass.
Unfortunately, by the time he came on the pitch the result was practically sealed, and so he didn't have much chance to make an impact.
The last example was perhaps Barcelona's most creative, intricate attack of the match. Again, it all comes about because Jordi Alba makes a run taking him past Madrid's last line of defense at the right time—while the ball is on its way to Iniesta—allowing for a first-time through pass that cuts open the defense.
Alba's run here has another advantage that Barcelona should look to exploit as they have done in the past: It crosses the path of the ball. This type of run is especially difficult to defend for cognitive reasons, and defenders screw it up consistently. Notice how Di Maria glances at Alba and intends to follow him but simply can't do it because he has to devote some attention to the ball. (Other great examples are here and here from Patrick Kluivert and Thomas Muller, respectively.)
In the end, Barcelona's most dangerous runs on the night came from Alves, Villa and Alba. Pedro was also threatening the back line, but he certainly needs to do more.
The obvious omission from the list, though, is one Leo Messi.
While his dribbles and passing may be frustratingly off-kilter, Messi should take the opportunity to sharpen the other tools in his attacking tool kit. He's become too accustomed to receiving the ball and running at defenders, instead of making that crucial striker's run to receive a first-time pass from Xavi or Iniesta.
Let's hope he, and Barcelona, get their movement back on track.