Barcelona need to be invigorated. The team Pep Guardiola built are still on stage, but the rest of Europe is no longer watching on in awe. The best of Europe have found an answer.
But before we write them off, let us not forget this Barcelona team still boasts arguably three of the best five players on the planet—including the best of them all, by some distance: Lionel Messi.
Perhaps the biggest problem is not the talent; it's the tiki-taka tactical execution and the fact that a lot of teams have come upon a way to counter it. AC Milan built a shield in front of their penalty area, while Bayern Munich and PSG pressed so hard even Barca's goalkeeper Victor Valdes was put under pressure.
Observant coaches have figured out that stifling Barca on the flanks, especially Dani Alves on the right, forces them to play through crowded central areas. If you shut down space in the hub, Barcelona's passing becomes more desperate.
Then there's what happens when you focus on Xavi or Andres Iniesta and stop them playing. Douse the flames of a major catalyst and Barca's attacking engine stutters. It's not easily done, but when it's done well—as Bayern did—Barca aren't able to break lines with their passes so effectively.
Defensively there are major concerns also. Barca have looked naive and unorganised dealing with crosses and susceptible to swift counterattacks. B/R's tactical analyst Sam Tighe told me much can point towards the fading powers of Carles Puyol.
A lot of Barca's recent shortcomings can be traced back to Puyol's decline via age and injury. When he was in his prime they were getting away with it, but without him Pique has been shown up.
So what next? What can Barcelona do to answer the answer? Great teams need to evolve to stay ahead, and Barca are no exception. Something has to give; something has to change. Tito Vilanova will spend his summer wondering what.
The best solution to his defensive problem would be the capture of a player already equipped to take on Puyol's mantle. Marc Bartra, at 22, is seen as a player of great potential, but a combination with Gerard Pique would appear to lack authority at this point in time. Javier Mascherano is not the answer either, especially given Barca's aerial weakness.
This is why Barca are being linked so strongly to Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels. The suggestion (as per ESPNFC) is that their president Sandro Rossel has made signing 24-year-old Hummels a major summer priority.
Hummels, much to the disappointment of Dortmund fans who have already lost Mario Gotze to Bayern, appears to be open to the move. If they can get him, Barcelona should do everything possible to make it happen.
"Barcelona are one out of two or three teams that could make me consider a summer transfer," Hummels told German newspaper Sport Bild recently, as per the Express.
Hummels would solve the Puyol problem. His strength and presence would replace what Barca have been slowly losing from their spaniel-haired talisman, and you would see an immediate improvement on their defending from high balls.
So what of the attacking conundrum? What could Barca do to set their opponents a different question and force the rest of Europe to rethink their strategy?
First #Neymar, & now #Barcelona eye Mats #Hummels. Scary if those two arrive at Camp Nou this summer. http://t.co/SxNJSVl5Nj @barcastuff4/16/2013, 9:07:53 AM
The best answer to that is sign Neymar, a player who would inject a new impetus to their attack and make Barca a more dynamic force going forward. The Brazilian is a drifting threat who can create and score goals and would appear to be well-suited to life in La Liga.
A Goal.com exclusive revealed Neymar will hold talks with Barcelona after this summer's Confederations Cup. We've also had the suggestion that Barca have paid a deposit to secure his services (Sport360).
Neymar's father has confirmed he's moving to Europe but said it won't happen until after the 2014 World Cup (Daily Mail).
You have to imagine Barcelona, especially after what happened against Bayern, will try and bring that forward. Should they be offering enough money it might prove very difficult for Santos to turn it down.
With the Neymar hype in overdrive, they are still many who question his credentials, but I'm not among them. The 21-year-old is every bit as good as you've heard he is and potentially a player to define the game as Messi does right now.
If Barcelona were to get him this summer, they would enter next season invigorated. Vilanova would be able to add pace to his passing game and develop the Plan B Barcelona are so often accused of lacking.
His team are badly bruised right now, but if Barcelona were to land Hummels and Neymar before battle recommences in August, they could very well find a way back to their all-conquering best.
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