With three leagues and two Champions League titles (along with the most widely admired brand of football in the world) in the past three years, FC Barcelona are widely recognized as the world's best team. But Pep Guardiola isn't a man to rest on his laurels; he wants to keep rewriting history books in this new season.
Barcelona have set such high standards of excellence that failing to win the league or the Champions League this season would be considered an underachievement.
But the club and the manager have taken the adequate measures to ensure that the squad will keep improving. Here are five reasons why this year's squad is even better than last year's.
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Pep Guardiola is one of the best managers in the world right now, maybe even the best. His three seasons at Barcelona have shown that. He reached the peak in his first season but, more impressively, he has managed to remain there, improving his already peerless squad with each passing season. He has created a juggernaut, one of the best sides in the game's history.
Under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona will keep improving this season. Every year, Pep knows exactly who he must sign to improve the squad and introduces a new tactical innovation to keep the opponents guessing. Last season saw Lionel Messi emerge a false nine with great success and Pep seems to have more tricks up his sleeve this season.
The first step to remain on top was to keep all the key players from the previous campaigns, which was done without much difficulty. The future of the La Masia graduates (essentially the core of the team) was never in question, while the likes of David Villa, Daniel Alves, Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano were kept too. No starter or important rotation player from last season was sold.
The importance of this can't be stressed enough. The players now have an extra year of experience of playing with each other, meaning that the chemistry will be even better (if that's possible). Young players like Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodriguez, Gerard Piqué and even Lionel Messi will also continue their natural development as footballers. Maintaining all the players alone would have been enough to make Barcelona an even more fearsome unit.
While some saw Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Thiago Alcantara as mere squad players, that is just not the case at all. They are indeed squad players, but not your regular squad players. They bring the kind of quality depth that will take Barcelona to the next level and they'll all feature a lot.
Last season, the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Villa and Pedro had to play pretty much every match and some of them were visibly tired towards the end of the season, namely Villa and Pedro. These players had to play almost every game because their replacements weren't quite of the same quality.
This year, that is very different. Cesc and Thiago's presence means that both Xavi and Iniesta can get plenty of rest without a significant loss in quality. If Xavi and Iniesta were great when they had to play 50-plus matches per season, just imagine how much greater they will be now that they will get adequate rest.
Barcelona's midfield has just become even more potent—a scary prospect for opponents. Last season, Keita was the only viable alternative to Xavi and Iniesta, and the Malian isn't exactly known for his creativity. This season, he's being used as a backup for Sergio Busquets; a position that might suit him much better.
Up front, Sanchez's arrival will allow Villa and Pedro to have the rest they couldn't have last season. Even Messi can be rested, with Sanchez and Cesc both capable of replacing him decently.
Besides, all these players bring certain qualities that the squad didn't possess.
Thiago and Cesc are more direct and have a better eye for a goal than Xavi and Iniesta (in fact, they both scored in Barcelona's recent demolition of Villareal); they offer a different kind of threat. Alexis Sanchez is a much superior dribbler to Pedro and Villa and might be very useful unlocking the parked buses Barcelona will inevitably face. We can't forget Ibrahim Afellay; when he returns from injury, he will be a valuable rotation player at both midfield and attack; his versatility will come in handy.
Overall, the squad got stronger and deeper. Even if, for instance, Xavi, Iniesta and Villa were all injured at the same time, Barcelona would remain a magnificent team, favorites against anyone.
This is one of Pep's greatest achievements. He has made his players better, more complete and more versatile over the years. The likes of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano can excel at both holding midfield and centre-back, with the Argentine having adapted to his new centre-back role in a remarkable fashion. Eric Abidal is world class at both left-back and centre-back.
Andrés Iniesta can pretty much play in every midfield and attack position, the same (to a lesser extent) for Affelay. Cesc Fabregas can play in every midfield position and as a false nine. But these are just the most notable examples. Most players in the current Barcelona squad can perform at a high level in at least two different positions. This gives Pep Guardiola unlimited options to build a lineup for each game; he can always surprise the opponent.
This also means that potential injuries will have less impact, as there will always be someone to cover. In the last game, Guardiola only fielded one natural defender—a testament to the squad's overall versatility.
As a product of the added depth and the squad's versatility, Pep Guardiola has a lot more tactical options this season. In the last game, he tried a 3-4-3 formation, which worked devastatingly well. But this is just another option; we'll soon see Pep try yet another system, or merely tweak the traditional 4-3-3.
The current Barcelona squad is so complete that the tactical possibilities are endless; we'll just have to wait and see what Pep does.
For now, the 3-4-3 has looked like a fantastic alternative system, yet another headache for opposing managers as they keep trying, so far in vain, to put an end to Barcelona's domination in Spanish and European football.
You can follow me on Twitter @Manueltraquete.