Barcelona struggle not only due to Lionel Messi absence

Barcelona struggle not only due to Lionel Messi absence
Barcelona struggle not only due to Lionel Messi absence
After a historical treble-winning season in which Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar managed to find the net a combined 122 times, Cules had reason to...

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After a historical treble-winning season in which Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar managed to find the net a combined 122 times, Cules had reason to believe that the year ahead was going to see the Blaugranas lift their game to an even higher level.
 
Unfortunately, results and, more worryingly, performances so far indicate that Barca is struggling significantly in order to reach their former standards. Although the controversial transfer ban imposed by FIFA, the many injuries suffered by key players or the departure of internationals such as Xavi or Pedro are all factors which influenced the obvious decline, wasting time trying to come up with excuses simply won't change the current reality.
 
Barcelona have lost two out of seven matches in La Liga, their worst start to a domestic campaign since the 2003/04 season under Frank Rijkaard. Disappointingly, the Blaugranas have conceded an appalling nine goals already. In what is a shocking comparison, Claudio Bravo was unbeaten until round 8 of the previous season. Out of the 112 shots on goal the Catalans have attempted on goal, only 12 have hit the back of the net and an incredible 12 have smashed against the post.
 
The list of heart-breaking stats goes on and on, but you get the idea: Luis Enrique has many improvements to make if Barcelona is to bring any further silverware to the Camp Nou museum at the end of the current season.
 
Obviously, Cules believe that the absence of Messi is affecting the team's effectiveness in front goal, their dynamism in the final third and, perhaps more importantly, diminishing the morale of those who have been left behind to carry the team through the No.10's period on the sidelines. While they do have a point, arguing that the team is falling apart simply because of the absence of one player, regardless of his quality, is both a simplistic and unhelpful analysis.
 
Everyone at the Camp Nou knows that, if the quadruple Ballon d'Or winner is unavailable, then it is up to attacking partners Neymar and Luis Suarez to step up and lead the way. Obviously, the Brazilian and Uruguayan stars need to be given time to adapt to their new role without Messi but, at least, the early signs in terms of connecting with each other and commitment to make a difference are encouraging. 
 
If their composure in front of goal had been as good is it was last season, Barca would be sitting comfortably at the top of La Liga right now -- nothing they can't perfect in training, however.
 
Although Barcelona's lack of accuracy and unusually high percentage of shots hitting the post is the most talked about point in the media, nobody can deny that the team's alarmingly weak defence is in fact the main reason for their recent struggles.
 
In Sevilla, the vast majority of Cules hoped that the return of Bravo between the posts would instantly boost the team chances of keeping that all-important clean sheet. The result? Even without under-fire goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen, Barca conceded twice and lost the game as a result.
 
At this point, the question is clear: Was the German the only reason why the Catalans failed to reach their usual defensive standards? Absolutely not. Poor individual performances by Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Javier Mascherano caused the Blaugranas' back-line to look far too shaky, vulnerable and unfocused from the initial whistle.
 
Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona became a far less speculative team where speedy transitions into attack often caught rivals unawares and, as a result, far less prepared to contain their efforts when pushing forward. Such an approach did rely on a much more direct approach from the midfielders, who were asked to pass the ball to their deadly front-three earlier than was traditional under Pep Guardiola so that, in turn, they were also fresh enough to press to recover the ball whenever dispossessed -- with Ivan Rakitic being the prime example of the Asturian's philosophy.
 
With the Croatian international currently far from his best form, Andres Iniesta and Rafinha both sidelined due to injury and Xavi enjoying a golden pre-retirement farewell tour in Qatar, Luis Enrique simply doesn't have enough talent and physicality at his disposal to dominate games in the way his team did in their historical treble-winning year.
 
There's no two ways about it: As things stand right now, the current Barcelona just doesn't have enough quality players to achieve the results their highly-demanding fanbase expect. Sure, the situation is bound to improve when Messi, Iniesta and Rafinha return to action, both Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal can be registered and, hopefully, Nolito or a similarly capable forward is signed in the winter transfer window.
 
Until that point, Luis Enrique must find a way to minimise the damage and hope La Masia graduates such as Sergi Roberto, Munir El Haddadi or Sandro Ramirez can thrive under pressure to keep title chances alive until the more senior first team players return to action.
 
The quote: "Our game is about controlling play. We don't have the best numbers in terms of converting our chances, but I'm sure that'll change in the coming games. Against Sevilla, we had a lot of chances. It's almost unbelievable that we walk out of here with just one goal." -- Luis Enrique.