This isn’t the same Barcelona that won La Liga a few months ago.
That team was led by the heroics of Marc-Andre ter Stegen who tied Francisco Liano for the most clean sheets in Spanish history at 26.
The German keeper played in front of a four-man backline that for the majority of the season used a center-back, Ronald Araujo or Jules Kounde, to neutralize dangerous counter attacks that plagued the team the year before.
Playing this way wasn’t the plan. Understandably, Xavi wasn’t convinced by Sergino Dest or Sergi Roberto, and was quickly turned off by new signing Hector Bellerin.
That left the manager with no choice but to improvise, which led him to realizing that Barcelona was actually quite well off with the defensive approach to the full-back position. No longer was Barcelona shaking their head, and lamenting unforced errors that were costing the team points in the past. It actually felt good to have a sense of calm and security in the back, which turned to excitement when Araujo started putting Vinicius Junior, and other world class wingers, in his pocket.
If it weren’t for the injuries to these defenders during the Champions League group stage, it’s worth imagining what could have been.
In the end, however, Barcelona did claim the league title as a result of their consistent defending, conceding only 20 goals, which is astonishing when you consider that the next best defensive team was Atletico Madrid who allowed 33.
But all along, there was a sense that this approach couldn’t continue.
As effective as it was, a Barcelona team needed to play like a Barcelona team, and that meant playing total football, which necessarily required attacking ability and skill from the full-backs.
On the left side, Alejandro Balde revealed himself as a full-back of the future, but identifying a proven playmaker for the right side remained priority number one.
And so began mission Joao Cancelo, which was completed right before the close of the summer transfer window.
Since his arrival, the Portuguese international has appeared in every game, and in every game, he has made his presence felt.
Cancelo is not shy. He wants the ball, and when he has it, he has the confidence to make something happen.
Xavi has given him the green light to read the game and express himself. The result has been dangerous balls that have led to assists and goals during clutch moments.
With injuries to critical talent in the attack, Barcelona has relied on the creativity of Cancelo, and they are privileged to know if other injuries should occur, they have a versatile player on their hands who can step in and contribute at a high level.
But the question remains whether Barcelona is a better team this year.
In answering that question, Cancelo is front and center, because for better or worse, he is a focal point of this team from a tactical point of view.
Ter Stegen has had early struggles, missing saves he would normally make, and looking shaky while playing out of the back.
Against Granada, Jules Kounde was caught in a challenging, but manageable, one versus one situation. A battle he ultimately lost, with Barcelona giving up a second early goal.
How much blame should be given to the keeper and center-backs? Have they let down the team? After all, this Barcelona squad has already surrendered 10 goals, which means they’re on track to allow in more than 40.
In my opinion, Kounde has been excellent, and with Araujo, Andreas Christensen, and Inigo Martinez, Barcelona have enough talent on the backline to stabilize the defense going forward. I one hundred percent believe in Ter Stegen as well.
The problem is tactical in that Cancelo and Balde are playing high up the field. That means the team must be better on the ball.
First order of business, limit the silly turnovers in the midfield. It’s not fair to point the finger at center backs when you’re asking them to constantly put out fires that shouldn’t be created in the first place.
Second, Barcelona needs to be more dangerous in the way they attack if this is the approach they want to take. It doesn’t make sense to use extra playmakers if the team doesn’t attack better as a result of it.
When you look at the evidence, this is a difficult assessment to make when considering Cancelo.
He is definitely one of the most effective attacking players on the team, and Barcelona honestly seems to rely on him for their best moments high up the field.
But his presence, with the way he likes to play, also makes the defense more vulnerable. You never know where he’s going to be at any point in time, which leaves a player like Kounde out on an island, especially when you aren’t playing with a true defensive midfielder to help out.
So what’s the solution?
Drop Cancelo all together, and replace him with Kounde or Araujo?
Play him in a new position? Maybe as part of a double pivot with Oriol Romeu in a 3-2-4-1 a la Manchester City?
Or continue as is with Cancelo playing full-back in the traditional 4-3-3?
In the short term, the injury situation will limit Xavi’s choices.
Surely, he’ll want Cancelo on the field, especially with El Clasico on the horizon.
Real Madrid, however, are no longer playing 4-3-3 with traditional wingers. Does that change the calculation at all?
These are big questions, and maybe the answer is to go back to what was working last season, especially if Kounde and Araujo willingly allow it.
But that will also require players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, and Raphinha to get back from injury.
In the meantime, regardless of who’s on the field, Barcelona need to be smart, and do the basic things right, regardless of their tactical approach.
Take care of the ball. When in doubt, show you can keep it. Especially against teams that play in a low block.
And when Cancelo is on the field, maybe their best defense is to press aggressively high up the field, and not rely so much on building from the back. Frankly, they need Frenkie and Pedri in order for that to be effective.
Whatever approach they take, Xavi needs his men to be well drilled and focused on the mission.
So far, it’s been inconsistent.
Let’s hope they get healthy, and have a run of games to figure out who they are, and how they want to play.
When in doubt, don’t forget what got you so far last season.
As the saying goes, it’s the defense that wins championships.