Barcelona's 5 Greatest Weaknesses and How to Solve Them
There is no doubting that the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola vintage is nothing but a distant, albeit happy, memory.
Tata Martino has lost only two out of his 22 games as manager so it is slightly unfair to be too critical of him, yet we can't escape the feeling that there is something missing from his Blaugrana side.
Whether that can be attributed to his constant rotation policy, a growing injury list or a deviation from Barca's tiki-taka ideology will be debated to death by cules everywhere.
With a view to a successful end to the domestic and European season, Martino and his staff will need to constantly assess where any improvements to the team can be made.
Let's take a look at five weaknesses that need addressing.
Defending the High Ball
It's not a secret.
Barcelona's inability to defend the high ball has blighted their performances in the recent past and so far there appears to be little remedy to their Achilles heel.
Whether from a set piece or a free-flowing move from the opposition, despite some height in central defence, the blind panic if a ball comes in over head height is palpable.
The uncertainty extends to the goalkeeping position too, Pinto especially adding to the confusion and often punching clear when gathering the ball would be the safer (and more sensible) option.
How does Tata extricate his players from the issue?
Firstly, Marc Bartra must be a fixture in that back line. Bartra has been literally head and shoulders above his contemporaries this season and his omissions make no sense whatsoever.
A spell on the sidelines for Gerard Pique will do him no harm either. It will allow him to reassess his own game, whilst giving him the necessary kick up the backside as a reminder that no one is indispensable.
Javier Mascherano has not impressed in the position this season, so the purchase of a highly-rated centre back in the January window is a must.
The Cross Field Diagonal
After half a dozen games this season, Tata Martino's tactics were being hailed as a breath of fresh air.
Gerard Pique was one player who broke ranks to eulogise, per Gazzetta Dello Sport h/t Marca:
Barcelona was a slave to tiki-taka. We've had a number of years with homegrown coaches in charge, first Pep and then Tito and we tended to exaggerate our style of play to the point where we were almost slaves to it.
Now Tata has come in from the outside. He has the same football philosophy, to maintain possession of the ball, but he also has other options and that's a good thing, in the sense that it gives us alternatives.
If the pressure is on, there is nothing wrong with a long ball now and then. It can change the pace of the game and give you a breather. In football you have to keep improving and developing, otherwise you become predictable.
Whilst Pique's stance at the time was admirable, even if his wording was a little ill-advised, the issue is that Barcelona are not using the long ball "now and then."
22 games in, there is now an obvious over-reliance on the move as some sort of "get out of jail free card."
It's not the Barca way and, in fact, the longer cross field diagonal ball is becoming as predictable as tiki-taka was previously. Teams are wise to it now, and Barca aren't having nearly as much success as they would like.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A few tweaks here or there are perhaps required but not a complete overhaul of a system that has served the club so well over the years.
A couple of Champions League fixtures aside, the short, incisive passing game is what Barcelona were, and are, all about.
Another early plus point for Martino was a refreshing rotation of the squad, something that both Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova steadfastly refused to entertain.
One should assume that behind this was the idea to end the season as strong and as fresh as Barca began it.
An occasional rest. As we cast an eye back over the last few months, the continuity of previous seasons has all but disappeared.
In a World Cup year, the benefits of each player arriving at the tournament in peak form are obvious. That the likes of Xavi cannot play 60 games a season now is a given.
But that doesn't mean we need to see a constant mix and match from the Argentine.
The team seem unable to build up a head of steam at times and should Barca's recent poor form continue, Martino needs to provide urgent solutions.
That should come in the form of a more settled XI.
Not Enough Strength in Depth
Is the manager stuck between a rock and a hard place?
If Martino continues to rotate, then he needs to make use of the wider squad, but does he have the necessary strength in depth to be able to do so effectively?
You could argue that Alex Song is a reliable enough defensive midfielder, but he's no Sergio Busquets. Similarly, Martin Montoya does not offer enough in the right-back slot to be able to dislodge Dani Alves on a regular basis. Cristian Tello might have pace, but not much else.
Can you even have a squad of 24-25 players and keep them all happy?
Sergi Roberto and Adama Traore are two of a number of other La Masia youngsters now banging on the first team door, and it brings Martino's choices into sharp focus.
As we may shortly see with the departure of Antonio Sanabria, these talented young players won't hang around for ever. If Martino doesn't fancy them then let them leave, and replace them with players who you trust to throw into the lions den.
Reactive, Not Proactive
The Champions League loss against Bayern Munich was a real wake up call for anyone connected with Barcelona.
Take a look at this clip from that match and in the build up for the first goal, track Gerard Pique's movement. Don't watch anyone else, just Pique. The ball-watching at that level of football is frankly beyond belief.
Where was the man-to-man marking, the awareness of what was happening around him?
It was a prime example, but by no means the only example, of Barcelona becoming a more reactive side.
The Barca we know was always two steps ahead of the opposition, whether in possession or not, and it's a worrying habit that Barcelona are allowing to seep into their play.
Guardiola even alluded to the Barca way, per Andy Mitten for The National:
Players have to think quickly and to play with intelligence, always knowing the next pass. It is how we have all been taught and how the public expects us to play.
How does Tata alleviate this issue? Time to go back to school, kids.
Strip everything back to basics and learn the simple stuff all over again. Remember what made this team great in the recent past and replicate it. It won't be easy but it needs to happen or else Barca become "just another football team."
And that would be the biggest travesty of all.