Barcelona are a different animal these days; they're more direct, more potent and more open than they ever were under the famed Pep Guardiola.
But in light of the Catalan club's 5-3 aggregate victory over Pep's new charges, Bayern Munich, it's perhaps timely and appropriate to deliver a full and frank analysis of what exactly Luis Enrique has done with the Blaugrana this season. The club's playing style has changed, arguably for the better, and finally steered itself clear from the overwhelming shadow Guardiola cast.
How has "Lucho" arrived at the precipice of a possible treble-winning season?
The basic principles are still the same: Barcelona play possession football with the ball on the deck and produce some of the finest individual moments each and every weekend. They've averaged 69 percent possession across 36 Liga games this season, per WhoScored.com—the highest in Spain and indeed the second-highest in Europe (Bayern average 0.5 percent more)—and utilise a base 4-3-3 formation, as is Barca tradition.
But they no longer retain possession for possession's sake, and they've moved away, to an extent, from working tight openings through shorter interchanges and runs. Enrique has opened this side out in several ways, varying the way they are able to attack, and three key components have risen to the fore.
First off, Ivan Rakitic overcame a slightly slow start to emerge as a key link player in attack. Barcelona move forward more rapidly and more incisively than ever before, with Plan A very clearly reading as: Get the ball to the feet of our vaunted front three, pronto!
That's where Rakitic excels; Sevilla utilised his raking passing ability to great effect in 2013-14, and rather than force the Croatian to undertake a footballing re-education in Catalonia, they've asked him to play a similar role.
Defence, to Rakitic, to attack. Three steps, hard to stop, terrifying to see unfold in front of you. Once the ball is with any of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, danger looms, and their willingness to interchange and serve one another is truly breathtaking at times.
Take Barcelona's first goal at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday, for example: The ball is fed to Messi, who slides Suarez in behind the defence. He enters the box and commits Manuel Neuer before sweeping the ball back across for Neymar to tap home. Three players worth at least €70 million each, no superiority complexes in sight.
Messi and Neymar's celebration following the latter's goal in the first leg was especially telling; the friendship between the two has translated to the pitch.
Messi's relocation to the right side—at first tentative, involving rotation and swapping with Luis Suarez, before settling there on a near-permanent basis—has also been key. Forgive the extremely crude comparison, but he presents the same positional dilemma as Marouane Fellaini does for Manchester United, as both players occupy a zone in which no natural opposing player plays (that is as far as that comparison goes).
Bridging somewhere between a right-wing, right-central-midfield and attacking midfield slot, Messi constantly forces opposition players to make a decision. The midfielder has to come out 10 yards or the full-back has to come out 10 yards. In reality, to cover him properly, you have to play a low-to-the-ground, dogged marker whose sole responsibility is to (try to) shackle him.
That makes the right side an absolute weapon for Barcelona, and Dani Alves has started joining the attack (his form has dramatically increased since the turn of the year) on that flank and begins overloading with Messi and Rakitic.
Once sufficient opposition numbers have been pulled to the right side, Messi swings a cross-field pass over to Neymar, who is inevitably left one vs. one with the full-back on the far side. Messi's 18 Liga assists matches his highest-ever tally, per WhoScored.com, and he still has two games left to play in.
Build up on the right with Alves and Messi, switch to Neymar on the left, goal. A lethal combination—one that teams have failed to adjust to all season long.
To underline this shift in philosophy, it's notable that Andres Iniesta is no longer the key player he once was. The criticisms of his poor goal and assist tally (zero and one, per WhoScored.com) are not fair; they were never strong anyway, and he's not being asked to create any longer.
He was once the major dribbling threat, the game-breaker in Barca's time of need, but with Messi seizing the creative mantle, Iniesta has been marginalised somewhat and isn't relied upon any longer. As B/R's Karl Matchett notes, he's the "second midfielder"; he's no longer the most advanced, so his impact is dulled.
When Barca do use the left to attack, it's through Jordi Alba from left-back. If Messi can't find space, Suarez can't create any and Neymar is marked, they turn to their bustling speedster, who overloads the opposite flank and hits the byline. He's not surging forward as much as he once was, but he's still near-undefendable at breakneck pace and causes chaos in the box when he roams forward.
The scary thing when considering Barcelona as an entity is that they appear the complete package, and they've peaked at the right time. They counter-attack well, they still control well and they have the best front three in the business. Conceding just 19 league goals in 36 games is astonishing, Gerard Pique is back to form, Javier Mascherano has had a world-class season and the depth in the squad is rather enviable.
They're on the cusp of a historic season, and this writer thinks they'll land three trophies. All the ingredients are there.