Barcelona's summer transfer window was, by requirement, grandiose, sweeping and and a little speculative. The impending transfer ban enforced by FIFA, ultimately delayed until the January just gone and covering the upcoming summer window, meant that any new arrivals had to carry the team through one-and-a-half seasons of Liga and Champions League football, challenging for titles in both.
At the same time, a new managerial appointment was made in Luis Enrique, who edged out the likes of Ernesto Valverde for the job. The changes in personnel and in head coach meant a slight style alteration was always likely, but this season has seen Barcelona subtly alter their method of build-up and creating chances alongside the changes in names and faces.
The main reasons: Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic.
Two of Barca's summer signings, Suarez and Rakitic brought star quality and proven ability at the highest level. Rakitic excelled in La Liga with Sevilla; Suarez was the joint-winner of the Golden Shoe for his goalscoring exploits at Liverpool. Individually, they are not necessarily archetypes of the players we are used to seeing coming out of La Masia—but they didn't need to be.
While Rafinha and brother Thiago Alcantara are of undoubted star quality, too many of the other Masia graduates headed for first-team action and schooled in the much-vaunted Barcelona style of play were not quite of the same level. Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca, Jonathan dos Santos and even, so far, Gerard Deulofeu—none have quite shown they are ready to come in and take the place of the ageing or departed stars of the past six years and more.
A change was needed to an extent, and that came the way of external forces.
Previously, the strength and quality of Barcelona had lain in the centre of midfield. Yes, Lionel Messi was the talent, but the team as a whole was dominant and relentless in their on-the-ball work because of the midfield trio retaining the ball, moving it around quickly and creating space by making the opposition chase around.
Given time and concentration, the constant recycling and retaining of possession would eventually draw someone out of position—and that's when Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta would strike, playing the telling pass and finding one of the many talented forwards they played with.
Now, things are a little different. There is still the expectation and the excellence in possession, but it is certainly noticeable that, in certain games, Barcelona are quicker to move the ball through the central third of the pitch and up toward the attackers.
The Neymar-Suarez-Messi combination is a formidable one, but it is formidable in that they are all well above average in their technical abilities, their confidence in one-on-one situations and, of course, their prowess in front of goal.
Luis Enrique's idea to maximise this goal threat has been to fire the ball forward to these players as early as possible—and that's where Rakitic has made a difference. Sure, his form has been up and down as he's adjusted to both the rotation policy of earlier in the campaign and the demands of being expected to win every week, but he has by and large been a huge success.
Part of the reason for some onlookers thinking the Croatian is not on top of his game at times has been that subtle difference. Rakitic is not always looking to recycle, to go infield, to offer another body to take a touch and move the ball on. Instead, he will drive forward, he will play the quick ball into space and, crucially for Barcelona this year, will look to support inside the penalty box.
Nobody in their right mind would ever criticise the way that Xavi and Iniesta have dovetailed over the last few years, with their intellect and incision on the pitch a huge part of Barcelona's success. Theirs was a partnership that few have managed to match in understanding or consistency, but neither has ever been particularly prolific. That's not down to being poor inside the area but rather their style; they simply don't look to make breaks into the box each and every game.
Rakitic does. Yes, he can hit the odd screamer from range, but his most dangerous moments are with his penetrating runs from deep, getting alongside and beyond the forward to become another target in the area. That's just a huge added bonus, though; tactically, the great value he has to Barcelona is playing those faster balls into the front men, particularly Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan is a fierce competitor, a tremendously skilful player and a horribly narky opponent. Most of all, he is a relentless bundle of energy, a non-stop mover in the game who not only seeks out his own space but looks to create it for others to run into, particularly Messi with his runs from centre to right.
Rakitic's Champions League goal against Manchester City was an illustration of both. Messi entered the space vacated by Suarez's run to the right channel, while the Croatian made the unexpected entrance into the box, unmarked, to score.
The recent match against Rayo Vallecano provided a perfect example of how the two new players are such an important part of Barcelona's altered approach, linking up a number of times to create chance after chance. Suarez scored twice in that game but, in truth, could have doubled his tally.
Just like when he was at Liverpool, Suarez is receiving the ball often and quickly, with runners moving off him in the final third. He has options to pass or run at the defence, thereby opening further avenues to attack—and he has some of the world's finest playing alongside him.
Elsewhere in the midfield, there is no real "decline" of Iniesta. No goals and no assists this term in La Liga is a statistic that has tongues wagging, but it's really just a measure of him playing the "second" midfielder role at times—the link from defensive to attacking players rather than being the most advanced midfielder himself—as well as injuries giving him fewer minutes.
Rafinha is somewhere between the two, having had some standout games but also a few appearances that have shown he is unsure of whether to play the offensive, forward-thinking game that can be spectacular or the keep-ball, technically reliable game in which he has doubtless been schooled.
El Clasico on Sunday isn't an absolute make-or-break game, though Real Madrid certainly can't afford to lose it and should really be trying to win.
Even so, they'll be playing a counter-attack game against Barcelona's dominance of the ball—and yet that is where Barcelona themselves can be a danger. They still press, they still have immense midfield balance. However, now with the instruction and intent of going forward quicker, once the ball is won back, it's an immediate trigger for Suarez and co. to start their runs, looking for a quicker pass in to feet.
Real Madrid's defence might stand up to the dominance, the passing and the probing of the Catalan club for 90 minutes. Carlo Ancelotti is more than capable of setting up a team to do just that, while Sergio Ramos, who is fit again, can organise and instruct and ensure those directions are carried out.
But an early pass from deep and a well-timed run? Even the best defences can't always stop those.
Barcelona have made subtle rather than sweeping changes this season, but those alterations have certainly added another, very dangerous, dimension to their attack.