It’s a world renowned fact that the only way from the top is down. After so much success for FC Barcelona in the past few seasons it has always been predicted by many that at some point the opponent will figure them out. Some call it a cycle, and they’ll tell you that the Blaugrana’s period of domination is almost complete if not already. But is that really the case? Is there enough evidence to reach the verdict? Well it’s not really a black or white kind of a thing and one needs to carefully study the trends and variables currently at play.
1. What really is a successful season?
In Spain’s 20-team first division league, there are three possible trophies, of course that’s if you include the Supercopa. All things being equal, a team starting the season has a 5% chance of winning the Liga. A team in the round of 32 has a chance of just above 3% of walking away with the Copa del Rey trophy. Assuming that these two competitions are completely independent, there’s only a 0.2% probability of claiming them both. The Catalan giants achieved this four years ago and it was the last time any team did so. If you only care about walking away with at least one trophy, you have an 8% chance of doing so when playing in Spain. If you take the Champions League into account, an even more challenging competition, it becomes really difficult to pull off what Barca did in Guardiola’s first season in charge.
There too many factors involved of course and only a naïve man will claim that the numbers above (or odds in this case) are accurate. They do give some perspective nonetheless. If you look at the UCL again for example, a team a starting in one of Europe’s top-flight leagues (with 20 clubs each plus Germany’s 16) has only just above a (1/46) 2% chance of winning the trophy the following season. All this is after considering finishing in the top four and qualifying for the group stages. Again there’s just about a 3% probability of winning the trophy assuming a club made it to the group stages. This is football of course and using a phrase like "other things being equal" might be over-simplifying the problem considering the fact that other teams are literally bigger than others, and that there are just too many factors (injuries, management, referees, spending power and etc) in the game that generally skew the odds.
Too many teams generally go for long periods of time without winning a single trophy, which is why it’s really shocking when you sometimes hear that Barcelona’s 2011/2012 season was a disaster. The team finished with four trophies to their name, two shy of their record six. It’s true that the two trophies missed are the biggest but even in my book, none of Barcelona’s efforts in the two competitions was a disaster. They were the second in the league and just one opponent away from the final of the Champions league. Out of all the 46 teams in Europe’s top five leagues, it’s difficult to name at least 5 teams who arguably had a better season than FC Barcelona.
The only person who’ll tell you that the Club World Cup is a meaningless trophy is one whose team was not in it, at least that’s the case from the few people I heard making that claim. Even Real Madrid looked like global champions when they won ‘only’ the Copa del Rey in the 2010/2011 when their efforts denied us the treble, Barca got that plus three more trophies last season. The Blaugrana were still the team to beat in Guardiola’s last season in charge and they were not by any means very far from emulating his first.
So what exactly is a successful season? It’s a matter of perspective for me. Last season was no doubt our least successful in the past four years. Compared to what we have achieved in that period, last season we failed, but compared to what successful teams generally achieve in Europe, the team’s efforts were rewarded. The team failed in its attempt for back-to-back Champions league trophies, but who has done that in the new UCL era? They failed to claim a fourth straight Liga title, but nobody has done so in twenty years. All the above shortcomings are not enough evidence for an end of an era, at least from my perspective.
2. The 2012/2013 season
Currently, the Catalan club is top of the league. It’s not enough to draw any conclusions considering the fact that there are still 35 more games to play, but it is one of their best starts in recent years. After either winning the UCL or exiting in the semifinals in the last couple of years who really can bet against them being a serious challenger and the team to beat in this season’s competition?
Having started this season with a shot at four possible trophies, including the already-lost Supercopa, and considering the fact that this is also a year of transition with the change in managers, the team just needs to pickup at least one of the big two trophies to end the season on a high note. I’m sure very few, if any at all, will be disappointed if that happens. Is a treble impossible? I don’t think so, it will be really difficult to go for it but it’s not by any means an impossible task. The trick is to win all the most important games and hope that injuries will be manageable. The squad is still very narrow at the back and it might get worse if our injury crisis is even half as bad as last season.
The Guardiola era might have come to an end, but Tito only needs to get a couple of trophies to maintain the winning era. The team is still a lot more vulnerable at the back and their finishing still lets them down at times, but they still dominate all their opponents. Think about the last time we lost by more than one goal to put it into perspective.
Another thing Tito must do to make sure we finish this season on a high note is to make sure we don’t lose games like we did against Chelsea last season. If there is anything that bugs me it’s that. It’s not cool to lose against a team whose players are deployed around their 18-yard box for the better part of 90 min and failing to finish your chances. The team knows that almost all their opponents resort to that bus-parking strategy to try and get the best of them, in fact in the long run, it has been arguably the most successful strategy against Barcelona, first executed by Mourinho in that famous semifinal defeat to Inter. I’m not sure if it is creativity or finishing we need the most to take down these buses and in fact it doesn’t matter much to me, I just want to our manager, who definitely knows a lot more than I do about the game, to look into this and make sure this teams who always resort to these tactics in crucial games no longer get the better of us.
There was something I noticed in the first league game this season against Real Sociedad and I haven’t seen it since. Apart from the fact that there was more directness and improved pace from the team, the boys kept a lot of width than they normally do. Whenever the winger drifted inside towards goal, the fullback (Alba/Alves) would take his place on the touchline. This did open a lot of space in the middle and a trick like that can really help us against the Chelseas of the world in my opinion.
3. The Positives
We are winning games we normally wouldn’t last season
It’s precisely why we lost the league last season; all the draws, squandering leads in the second half, a very poor away form and all that you can remember. Last season, we could easily have dropped points in that Osasuna game last week. In the Valencia game, who would have bet against them equalizing if it were last season? We are taught not to draw any rushed conclusions especially after just two observable events but so far so good, at least that’s what I think.
He hasn’t really seen much game time yet but David Villa is back and he seems sharper than ever judging by the few minutes he’s got so far. A fit and sharp Villa will definitely do the team a lot of good and one can’t help but hope he gets back to full fitness as fast as possible so he can hopefully claim back his spot in the lineup. With him fit, it means we’ll always have a strong attacking sub in the second half. And by the way, Tito should really stop making subs with only ten min remaining, what’s the point in that?
4. The biggest challenge
It is still a serious challenge to get through the first 10-20 minutes of our games. Most of our players have won almost everything there is to win and they have a lot of experience in crucial games, with that in mind I’m disinclined to claim that they give away easy chances early in games because they are "nervous". They are excellent and concede very few goals beyond that period but they just can’t stop scaring everyone around that time. Although better in the second half, we still do see some of it even then.
It’s difficult to really pin-point the problem but I do have a theory: I think the team’s excellent style of play is its own enemy when starting games. Barcelona’s attacking strength is based on building play from the back and carefully, from one pass to the next, pushing the opposition into its own half, moving the ball side ways and back. The problem with this plan might be that when the game had just started, the opposition still has a lot of energy to chase the ball. The team is pressed into committing a lot of mistakes and they more often than not lose possession in their own half through poor passes, interceptions by the energetic opposition and other ball control errors. When the game has just started, wouldn’t it be better for them to play the ball a little further than their goal? In the midfield and attacking areas of the pitch that is. It is more difficult than it sounds of course but at least they wouldn’t lose the ball in areas where the opposition will only need two passes to get to goal.
Avoid conceding early goals and Barca would really increase their chances of staying at the top.
So in conclusion…
The season is still very long and in fact no trophy will be won until May. It will be best to maintain their excellent start and be within touching distance of the top spot in the league until about February; from there on every game will definitely be vital. We’ve seen Manchester United crash out in the group stage of the UCL last season, so the boys need not relax there as well and avoid surprises. If they can do what we’ve seen them do in the past few seasons and win their group, they can secure an (arguably easier) route to the final. In fact they have the best record than anyone in the knockout stages if the past few seasons are anything to go by.
It’s very difficult to win titles; it’s even more difficult to win multiple titles four years in a row. Here is hoping the team can maintain their winning ability in the current season and beyond.