There was a moment in last Friday’s Catalan derby where both sides appeared to settle into a certain rhythm of play. Neither Barcelona nor Espanyol seemed eager to risk it and the evolution of both sides was apparent.
Espanyol utilised Thievy Bifouna on the break and Barcelona’s pressing game was slack and loose. Pep Guardiola once remarked that under Mauricio Pochettino, his cross-town rivals were not a side that you had to look for, they came looking for you.
But in Week 12 of this term, neither were Barcelona willing to let themselves be too open to the counter-attack. It begs a question, what is this current Barcelona about?
In the spring they were ripped apart by a Bayern Munich side that ruthlessly exploited every deficit in their tiki-taka approach. Their pace, physicality and directness exposed a Barcelona side that had become a shell of themselves.
With their Coach absent through illness for three months of the season and Lionel Messi unfit, many wondered if this Barca had lost their mojo.
Yet 11 wins from 12 in the League under Tata Martino would indicate otherwise. That they’ve achieved this while Messi has been clearly unfit – the Argentine has failed to score in his last four League games – is testament to the fact that they’ve evolved away from Messidependencia of recent time.
The accent is still upon ball retention, but the defensive line is drawn that little deeper, that space to hit them with diagonal breaks denied. Behind them, Victor Valdes, in the form of his life, has clearly been instructed that the long pass is an option. It’s an option that’s gotten them goals as well as provided an out-ball.
Neymar has begun steadily rather than spectacularly. Pedro has bagged his first hat-trick at club level, and looks to playing with a renewed sense of vigour, stretching the play in a way he generally hasn’t since his breakout season under Guardiola.
Alexis Sanchez too. Not just for his goals, although seven from nine is a solid return. The Chilean finally seems to have found himself in the Blaugrana shirt, offering evidence that the player who thrilled at Udinese before making the move to Spain is still there. It’s taken the additional confidence from Martino to coax him out.
Perhaps the most surprising and interesting aspect of Martino’s reign to date has been his squad management. The rotation has been brisk, nowhere more so than in a midfield that doesn’t have the legs it once had.
This has meant more game time for Alex Song and a use of Cesc Fabregas in his preferred position. Xavi and Andres Iniesta have been micromanaged by the Argentine.
Messi, Neymar and Alexis have all been hooked with games won. There have been questions in the past about the club’s overuse of the world footballer of the year. Messi wants to play every minute of every game, but here he hasn’t. He’s even been utilised on the right of the attack, a role which has famously displeased him in the past.
There’s a sense that the side is undergoing an evolution, not a revolution. The fundamentals are there – ball retention, pressing in certain moments, combination play. But at times movement of the ball – and this was in evidence against Espanyol – has been too slow, too ponderous. Winning offers its own justification.
But it will be intriguing to see if this leads to a Barca that is fresh in its traditional weak period of the spring, or if an element of what has made them so great has been lost, leaving them somehow more ordinary.
A performance like last season’s return leg against Milan should silence those doubts, but questions will remain, just as they did then.