“This is not our Barca” screamed the front page of Sport newspaper, the daily Barcelona cheerleader. Losing 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao, their first league defeat of the season, meant few on planet Barca were happy, despite remaining top of the league.
It was the second setback in four days after failing to win at Ajax, yet doubts about the style of play under new manager Gerardo Martino have been prevalent for much longer. Fans compare everything to what Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side achieved.
For months, Barca players played down the doubts. They said everything was normal, that there was no concern in the dressing room.
As recently as Monday, Andres Iniesta said that the two defeats had not made one iota of difference to the mentality of the players, that the team spirit remained undiminished. Barca watchers begged to differ.
On Wednesday, Gerard Pique faced the media. He is intelligent on and off the field.
Friends say that if you tell him something once then he soaks in the information. His view is a respected one and it has changed.
“When we used to have the ball a lot we could rest,” he said. “Now we play in a more direct way, we find it harder to hold onto the ball. We still press but it’s impossible to press for 90 minutes.”
It was an acknowledgement that Barca’s style has changed. Many say it had to do so, because it was becoming too predictable.
Now, they hit more long balls, especially long diagonal cross-field balls. In San Mames, too many were cut out by Athletic defenders. There also appeared to be confusion among Barca players regarding their tactics.
The attacking 4-3-3 system is ingrained into every player at the club from a young age, but it has been tweaked. Players are not sure if they have to push a high defensive line or play deep, or play balls short and long.
There appears to be a lack of leadership on the pitch, on the bench and from the boardroom.
It is baffling why a new top level central defender hasn’t been purchased. Carles Puyol starts, but he is not fit. And if they are to hit long balls forward, wouldn’t it be wise to have a big forward rather than their diminutive strikers?
Barcelona did not play badly in Bilbao as they had done in Amsterdam. Two defeats caused concern, yet they are still top of the league with 13 wins and a draw from 15 league games.
It hardly constitutes crisis, especially as they are also missing Lionel Messi, Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba, all key players. Nonetheless doubts are growing.
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