At long last, and perhaps just in time, the penny’s dropped at Barcelona. Tata Martino’s previously all-conquering Catalan side has finally returned to its essence, playing the style of football it has always played better than anyone else. And that suits the squad they have.
And that could be very bad news for Manchester City, whom Barcelona meet in the last 16 of the Champions League.
So what’s brought about this most welcome of U-turns?
In retrospect, Barcelona’s 3-2 home defeat against Valencia in the league, the first since Real Madrid won there in April 2012, could well go down as the most valuable result in the club’s season.
Tata Martino’s search for a different, more direct approach was very much conceived with the idea of taking on the best in Europe as well as closest rivals Atletico and Real Madrid.
It missed one important point. Barcelona does not have the type of player for that type of football. And in the match against Valencia, despite an OK half hour or so, the walls fell in.
An overly direct approach, the desire to play box-to-box football without the necessary personnel, an unwillingness to pressure high, coupled fatally with an inability to defend deep, finally brought what we knew was coming.
Perhaps also, in his search for alternative styles, the wrong blend in midfield was being utilised with a player like Andres Iniesta, especially after his injury, in and out of the team.
Players and coaches have spoken since, and what has been decided is to go back to the essence of what Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona always was, to the style that made them the best in the world: a side packed with world-class midfielders who play between the lines, build from the back, counter-attack when appropriate, are not over-direct and press high up the pitch with the assistance of the full-backs that press forward.
It's a system, above all, that plays according to its strengths—one that allows them to control the game, to recognise themselves on the pitch. Horses for courses, round pegs in round holes, call it what you will.
Because the team now controls the midfield, Messi doesn’t have to drop as deep as he has been doing and can now play in the false-nine position closer to the box where he can use his mazy dribbles and explosive pace to maximum effect.
I don’t remember a single long, diagonal ball being played from the centre-back to the winger in the last two games.
Against Real Sociedad, the good old boys were back in town with Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc in the lineup. Xavi was missing against Rayo, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the side for the City game, where they will play once again with a packed midfield with probably Pedro, who was replaced early against Rayo, or maybe Alexis, to give a bit of depth to the team.
Had you asked me two games ago who I would have considered favourites for the tie, I would have had no hesitation in saying that it was a very tight fixture and that City had more than a chance. The style being attempted by Martino had converted Barcelona into just another team that depended too much on the stars.
The new-look (or rather, return to the old-look) Barcelona changes things radically. Whereas before, victory over City would have depended on individual performances, going back to their essence means the team can now perform as a unit.
Tata Martino might have listened just in time, and that could be bad news for Man City.