FC Barcelona: 5 Things We Learned from September's Matches
In a short time, the 2011-12 season is already a month old. A lot had been written and said before the season began. Predictions were made, words were exchanged and there was a whole lot of speculation about what would happen.
Everyone is, however, wiser with hindsight. The matches over the past month have answered quite a few questions, and shown us quite a few things we can expect as the season progresses.
Here are just some aspects that we have learned about Barcelona from their performance over the past month.
Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique Must Play Together
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Injuries to both first team center backs, Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol, were bitter blows to Barcelona's start to the season. When the two have started together, the team has only lost three games under Guardiola's reign.
Puyol began the season recuperating from a knee surgery and has not managed to play a full 90 minutes yet. Piqué suffered a leg injury in training camp and has not yet recovered.
Without both of these highly influential players, Barcelona has managed to leak in goals at the most inopportune times. This was most noticeable against AC Milan. Barcelona conceded one goal each in the first and last minutes of the game to yield a 2-2 draw.
Also, Barcelona's deputies for these two stalwarts are not nearly up to the mark. Javier Mascherano does an adequate job, but Sergio Busquets is simply unsuited for a role as a center back. Busquets lacks the pace and the tendency to get stuck into tackles, which makes him a very shaky choice.
Hopefully, with both Puyol and Piqué on the final stages of recovery, Barcelona will soon regain the center back pairing that is Europe's best.
Seydou Keita Is Not a Defensive Midfielder
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A direct side effect of playing both Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets in central defense was the shifting of Seydou Keita to defensive midfield. It is a side effect because, quite simply, that is not his role.
Keita is a box-to-box midfielder whose role in the squad should ideally be to come on from the bench to close out a victory. He provides a physical presence in midfield, but he does not have the attributes that a defensive midfielder needs to have to play in this Barcelona team.
He cannot hold up or distribute the ball, lacks positioning sense and discipline and is generally poor at contributing to the passing game that Barcelona plays.
Keita started the games against Valencia, AC Milan and Real Sociedad. Coincidentally, the Barcelona midfield generally looked poor in each of these three games. Each of the games also ended in 2-2 draws.
Due to his lack of contribution in the team's possession game and build-up play, Keita should ideally be the fifth choice to start in midfield, after Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Thiago. He should also not, on any account, be allowed to play as a defensive midfielder.
Believe It or Not, Lionel Messi Just Got Even Better
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When a player assists the only two goals scored by his team, and is still considered to have had a poor game, we know that we are witnessing something truly special.
Messi started four of the five games that Barcelona played last month. The only match that he didn't start was the 2-2 draw against Real Sociedad. In that game, he came on as a second half substitute.
During these games, Messi had a return of six goals, which came in the form of hat tricks against Atletico Madrid and Osasuna.
Aside from his goal-mouth prowess, Messi also took up the reins of being a creative mastermind. He assisted six goals, which was a very valuable contribution considering some rather sticky draws that the team managed to come away with.
It may seem astonishing, but Messi is currently on course to break his insane scoring record, when he managed 53 goals from last season. A recent report in Catalan daily El Mundo Deportivo calculates that Messi could score 73 goals this season, and that figure could rise to 86 if Barcelona reach the finals in all their club competitions this season.
Unbelievably and astonishingly, Messi might just end this season even better than he did last year.
When Xavi Plays Well, Barcelona Is Untouchable
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Considering the amount of literature that already exists to extol Xavi's virtues, this may seem a little too obvious. However, it cannot be emphasized enough.
Games are won and lost in midfield, and the midfield is what Barcelona looks to control at all times. Xavi's intelligence and cerebral vision ensure that he conducts the midfield play and tempo single-handedly.
Xavi's poorest games came against Valencia and Real Sociedad. Barcelona never looked like they would dominate either. When Xavi played well against Atletico Madrid, Osasuna and AC Milan, Barcelona looked frighteningly dominant. While Atletico and Osasuna were comprehensively beaten, AC Milan managed to make the most of defensive errors to secure a draw.
The sort of possession game that Barcelona plays needs a lot of calmness and a composure, and very large dollops of these are provided by Xavi. Poor performances by him could be disastrous later in the campaign.
Cesc Fabregas Is Not Xavi's Replacement, He Is Something Else Entirely
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Fàbregas brings talents that are quite different from those offered by Xavi. He is not the sort of player who will look to get onto the ball and dictate the tempo of the game in the way that the Maestro does. His years in England have turned him into a different animal altogether—a midfielder who can score bucket loads of goals and play anywhere on the field.
Because of this dimension to his game, Fàbregas was never seen in the deep role that Xavi typically plays, and it is safe to surmise that he may not have been brought in to play this role at all. In fact, it seems Sergio Busquets is better suited to playing the orchestrator role than Fàbregas.
That is not to say that Fàbregas is a poor player—quite the contrary. He is not only an excellent player, but he is also unique within the Barcelona setup. In the games against Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, his movement caused a great deal of trouble and ensured that even in Iniesta's absence, the midfield would not become static.
Fàbregas is a quality addition to the squad. However, he seems to have been brought in for a totally different reason than first assumed.