Going into battle against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou last night, Barcelona tore into their opponents with a ferocity that will have impressed even their harshest critics. Coach Tata Martino has already been criticised for seeking to alter the team’s style and tactics, for substituting Lionel Messi and even for new signing Neymar’s failure to score.
Neymar duly registered his first goal in a Barca shirt within five minutes against La Real. Martino did withdraw Messi, who also scored, when the game was won – and the Catalans hit four goals for the third match in succession. Alberto de la Bella’s strike for the visitors was the only blemish on a night when Martino and his players did their most eloquent talking on the pitch.
Barcelona’s playing style under Martino has quickly come under scrutiny and his critics have played heavily on the fact that even lowly Rayo Vallecano had a greater share of possession than the Catalans when the two sides met at El Campo de Futbol de Vallecas on Saturday. The convincing 4-0 away victory for La Blaugrana has been conveniently ignored.
Those who would question the Argentine’s methods have seized on the game against Rayo to point out that the reigning Spanish champions are no longer dominating opponents in the manner of Frank Rijkaard’s, Pep Guardiola’s or Tito Vilanova’s successful Barca teams. Martino’s Barca, they say, are not pressing the opposition, have lost the intense pressure of tiki-taka and are playing with a more direct style.
Some of Barca’s players, notably Gerard Pique, have welcomed a more direct approach, though ‘direct’ is clearly a relative term when it comes to describing the way the Catalans play. They believe the side had become too predictable and that opponents had worked out how to shut them down. Others have suggested that Barca’s failure in the latter stages of the Champions League in recent seasons has been more due to players’ fatigue than tactical predictability.
After the 7-0 mauling of Levante on the opening day of the Primera campaign, and with Neymar not yet fully fit, expectations were inevitably high. Two turgid Spanish Supercopa games against Atletico Madrid, an unconvincing 1-0 win at Malaga and a last-gasp victory against Sevilla fuelled arguments that Barca are not the team they were, but it is difficult to argue with results.
With a 100 per cent record in La Liga, a convincing 4-0 win over Ajax in the Champions League and the Supercopa – albeit on away goals – under his belt, Martino’s early record speaks for itself. Every Coach wants to make his mark and Martino is no exception, but his progress continues to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. He also knows he must protect his players early on in what will no doubt be a long and punishing campaign.
Martino may have had a point when he said that because of the heights of excellence scaled by the club over the years, people will always look to find fault, “more so when the Coach is neither from inside the club nor Dutch.” He will also know, however, that Coaches are judged on results, and his have so far been impeccable.