They were formidable. They were unbeatable. For six months, Barcelona looked a team who could do no wrong. Thirty-nine games without a loss shattered their previous record of 29 set by Pep Guardiola’s team in 2010-11. That included a FIFA Club World Cup triumph, a 4-0 Clasico win at the Santiago Bernabeu, another successful qualification for a Copa del Rey final, and a two-legged Champions League knockout victory over Arsenal.
Going into the last two months of the season, La Blaugrana were clearly, once more, Europe’s most feared side and favourites to win it all again, having won the treble for the second time in their history last year. However, after a turbulent two-week period, which saw them lose three in four, they’ve seen not only their lead in La Liga cut down from nine to three points but also been dumped out of the Champions League by their closest League rivals, Atletico Madrid.
Not only have they been out of form lately, they haven’t even looked themselves. The last five games have seen Barca play slow and unimaginative football with little fluidity in their game and no real purpose to much of their passing. It just hasn’t been the Barca we know and certainly not the same one which went on such a long unbeaten run.
One interesting stat from Wednesday’s defeat to Atleti was that Barcelona ran 12km less than their opponents. They were also second best in that regard in the first leg, albeit by 9km less. Not only have Barca looked lethargic and unfamiliar in recent matches, they’ve also been outworked by their opponents. And therein lies the biggest problem.
Considering that Barca Coach Luis Enrique stresses physical and intensive preparation more than anything else, having been a real workhorse during his own playing career, the Catalans are faring well below their usual standards in that department now than ever before. It’s clear that the main reason for this is fatigue as several players have been overplayed throughout the campaign.
This was Barca’s 27th match since December 30 and they have played in every midweek date possible since then, barring one, so the games have certainly been coming thick and fast. It’s something that they’ve clearly found hard to deal with, especially due to a lack of depth, with only Jeremy Mathieu and Sergi Roberto the only reliable options who have been available for much of the campaign.
Not having Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan for six months because of the transfer ban, Rafinha due to a torn ACL and no real proven option up front since Pedro Rodriguez’s departure left Barca very thin in attack for much of the season. This has meant that the front six of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have seldom been able to get a rest during this rough period, and the toll that it took on them was all too evident in their insipid display at the Vicente Calderon. In fact, every starting outfield player barring Iniesta has accumulated well over 3,000 minutes this campaign, which is a lot more than any of their domestic and European rivals in comparison.
Similar to Real Madrid last season, Barca have fallen from heaven following a lengthy unbeaten streak and are suffering from burnout. However, unlike Los Blancos – who finished the previous term without a major trophy – Barca will be looking to avoid the same fate. A domestic double is still on the cards for La Blaugrana, and they’ll want to make sure that they don’t let it slip away or else a season that promised so much not long ago could see them, unbelievably, end it empty-handed.