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Lessons from the first half of the season for Barcelona

The winter break is here and the opening of the 17/18 season has been an educational one.

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Messi has gone up another level

It is hard to think that Lionel Messi had any higher he could reach. Having been Barça’s go-to-man for over a decade, many had thought we had seen his peak but 2017/18 has been one of his best seasons.

He has taken more of the responsibility, sometimes to his detriment, and won games on his own on more than one occasion. Their have been questions over whether Barça are too reliant on Messi but he is smart enough and talented enough to take this burden and excel at it.

His position has become more and more free as he’s aged and now he operates where he likes. Nominally listed as a right forward, Messi will play deeper, operating as the link between the midfield and the attack but he also scores goals too. He is the top scorer in the league by four clear goals and has four more assists than the second placed Iago Aspas.

At a time when many where questioning how good this Barça is there can be no question over how brilliant Messi is.

It may not be the conventional 4-3-3 but it’s working

Ernesto Valverde’s 4-4-2 was seen by some as the work of the anti-christ. Taking Barça away from Cruyff and Guardiola’s 4-3-3 is something that has cost managers their jobs in the past but this switch is more of necessity than a choice. The new manager had the impossible task of replacing Neymar and when he did, his replacement picked up a long term injury.

It required smart thinking. How can I make this team work when I am missing a crucial cog? It turned out that the answer was pack the midfield and use Messi as the glue. The 4-4-2 doesn’t bring out the best of a lot of players, perhaps even Messi included, but it has worked and has set Barcelona up for a very strong second half of the season. One where they have their crucial cog back.

Ernesto Valverde entered the club at a difficult time but has negotiated in wonderfully

Picture this, you’ve just landed your dream job and are now faced with being on the selling end of the biggest transfer in football history. The fans are at war with the board, the squad is ageing and your eternal rivals have just had one of their most successful seasons ever. Valverde’s task could hardly have been more difficult when he set foot in the Camp Not dressing room but he approached it with a calmness that has served him well.

He did not throw strops, he did not demand signings from the board and he did not throw any of his players under the bus. He worked with what he had, set up a Barça team that could win and is now top of of the league.

Paulinho took some stick but now fans are warming to him

Seen as the living embodiment of everything wrong with the current board, Paulinho’s arrival was ridiculed. During his rather scarcely attended unveiling, videos did the rounds of him failing to do a few kick-ups (which everyone knows is an integral part of football) and the question was asked of who is this Spurs reject and why is he now at Barça?

It is December now and Paulinho’s qualities are there for all to see. He offers something different. A directness and a willingness to run into the box that is not available from the other, more technical midfielders. He is powerful too and has become a threat from set pieces, a responsibility that used to solely fall to Gerard Piqué.

He may not be a pass master like the midfielders of Blaugrana past but that is not what Barça signed him for. He offers an urgency and precision that will help his team against the compact sides.

The €40 million transfer fee is looking more and more reasonable with every game.

Marc-André ter Stegen is a top three keeper

When non-Barça fans talk of the best keepers in the world, ter Stegen is rarely mentioned. The notion that because Barça play with a possession based style ter Stegen rarely has shots to face is one that is true in many outsiders’ opinions but for people who watch the games, they know this isn’t the case.

Time and time again this season, ter Stegen has been the get-out-of-jail-free card. A man to bail Barça out when they have pushed too many men forward and are looking likely to be hurt on the counterattack. For as much as Messi has won points at one end, ter Stegen has saved them at the other.

This Barça team is far from perfect but they are still a major force

Predicted as the end of the Barça era, this season was supposed to be a disaster. A chance for Real Madrid to regain superiority, PSG to become the European big boys and Barcelona to sink into the abyss. Here they are at Christmas, top of the league, qualified in the Champions League and their star player in some of the best form of his career. Barça fans will tell you the team still needs work but the future is not as bleak as once foresaw.

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