Start of April, 2016. Club football after international break. Four straight losses and Barça are out of the Champions League and in jeopardy of their nearly completed league title. A team that was seemingly unbeatable starts self-destroying at the worst possible moment. But why?
Over in Madrid, there is always instability. Constant manager changes, constant player shuffling, and no one as great as the ones La Masia produced. Yet there is money, and a strong squad. Always. It is the utmost credit of the Barcelona squad that they have won as much as they have despite facing a much economically stronger club in the domestic league.
April 2016 was an eye opener at the gaping issues. ‘There was no bench’ wouldn’t be stretching the truth too far. Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen were stopgate solutions, with the latter spending almost all his time injured. La Masia was being neglected, with promising players being sold off for pennies (Alex Grimaldo, Adama Traore, Alen Halilovic…) as none of them had develop enough to truly contend for a starting position.
Last season, every time a first team player got injured, there was panic. With the massive amount of matches in Barça's schedule, fatigue always be an added difficulty in busy periods, particularly in the crucial stages of the season.
There was also the issue of complacency setting in. Jordi Alba had been atrocious the whole season. With Grimaldo sold, Adriano having waned off to a perennial substitute role, and no one else to compete, he had stagnated, costing the team both offensively and defensively.
Fortunately, the Catalan's board worked tirelessly over the summer to fill in the obvious gaps in Luis Enrique's squad. A stopgap wouldn’t have worked. Five new signings just might. Irrespective of what silverware is won at the end of the season, Barça definitely have the strongest squad on paper since the early 2000’s.
In Samuel Umtiti, there is a young, promising (and of exquisite quality) centre back to shuffle with Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano. Lucas Digne has been performing brillliantly in the starting matches, finally providing quality competition for Jordi Alba. Denis Suárez, who has developed enormously not only at La Masia but also Celta Vigo, Manchester City and Villarreal, has deputised brilliantly for both Ivan Rakitic and Andrés Iniesta. The recent additions of Jasper Cillessen and Paco Alcácer, boosting other key positions, make the squad even stronger.
Not so long ago, if someone as vital as Iniesta got injured for a few weeks, fans would panic. Fortunately, that is no longer the case given the unprecedented squad depth. If Piqué is rested for a match, there is not much worry about the defence. If Alba has stomach issues and can’t play, then Digne is more than capable to perform to a more than acceptable level.
In what is an ideal situation, there are at least two players in every position. Luis Enrique doesn’t have to scratch his stubble too often, looking at the bench once someone is fatigued or injured. His head scratching would have more to do with squad selection, because there are so many options. Something tells me (27 different lineups in his first 27 games for the club) that he wouldn’t particularly mind that, and rather be happy about it.
After the disastrous season under Gerardo Martino, Messi asked of one thing from the board: To have a good team around the backbone. Two seasons after that, the board seems to have delivered on that request, on all counts.
Obviously, losing to Alaves at the Camp Nou was utterly unexpected. Having said that, adversity early in the season can be used as a stepping stone to build on and move forward. Although some of the substitutes Luis Enrique trusted to start the game underperformed, at least they got valuable playing time which should help them identify mistakes to fix in the future.
If the ailing squad of last season can win a double, the sky is the only limit for the current Barca.