Despite Neymar's brilliant start and Tata Martino's first-place record, it hasn't been all positives for Lionel Messi and Barcelona.
By Jason Pettigrove (@jasonpettigrove)
The general consensus in Catalonia is that Tata Martino has taken to the managerial post at Camp Nou like a duck to water.
Barca’s start to the season—11 wins and one draw from the first 12 games—replicates the beginning of the Tito Vilanova era, and it is only the third time in La Liga history that a club has started the season so convincingly.
Real Madrid were the only other side to achieve the feat at the beginning of the 1991/92 season.
On that basis, you would deign to suggest that there is little for anyone to be concerned about in Barcelona. There are certainly some major positives, but scratch the surface and things are a little more revealing.
One of the major changes in Martino’s setup to that of his predecessor’s is the cross-field diagonal ball. Tata has correctly identified the need for the same and a change in tactics as and when necessary. It gives Barca a little more edge and a little less predictability when utilized properly.
However, on 46 percent of the occasions that this has been employed, the ball has either gone straight to the opponent or the receiving player has been tackled before gaining any ground.
It’s as if the panic button gets pressed and the out-ball has become some kind of fail-safe—yet almost half of the time it’s giving the opposition the advantage. With ball retention key to everything that underpins Barca’s philosophy, the long ball is therefore patently not working as well as it should be.
It’s not just this element of play where Barca have struggled this season.
Andres Iniesta, for example, has been well below par in a number of matches. His passing and general concentration levels have been poor, and whether you attribute this to Martino’s rotation policy or otherwise is a matter for some conjecture.
And the perennial problems in defence are far from being sorted. Only Marc Bartra can be given any sort of credit for a continued high level of performance thus far. Carles Puyol’s leadership skills and calming influence have been sorely missed, and his full-time return to the heart of the Barca backline cannot come soon enough.
Perhaps most worrying of all, however, is the form and fitness of Lionel Messi.
During the game against Espanyol, where, frankly, Messi seemed way off beat for the most part, it was noticeable that the Argentine’s acceleration had deserted him.
This was never better illustrated than during second-half injury time when a delightful through-ball from Cesc Fabregas left Messi with the simple task of chasing down the ball and converting in a one-on-one against goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.
That he never even got close to outpacing the covering defender begs the question as to exactly what physical state Lionel Messi is in right now.
His shoulder shrugging and unwillingness to track back on occasion is certainly not in keeping with the usual hard-working ethic we see from him.
His form is definitely suffering too.
For the first time in over two years, Messi hasn’t found the back of the net in four consecutive La Liga games. “So what?!” you might say, but when you factor in that he’s also not been quite as incisive or decisive as usual, it’s ample evidence to many that something is not right with the little man.
Despite a crescendo of public and media pressure—and Messi’s own desire to play every minute of every game—Martino has been sensible when assuaging the player’s ego while assessing the larger needs of the team.
His steadfast refusal to treat Messi any differently than other members of the squad, considering his obvious merits, deserves plaudits.
And it’s not all doom and gloom, of course.
Alexis Sanchez is playing his way into a regular starting berth with goals in his last three games, including the winners in both El Clásico and El Derbi. It took almost the entirety of last season for the Chilean to register six league goals, and that he has surpassed that total already owes much to Martino’s studious tutelage and tactical nous.
There have been other positives, too, but the biggest success story of all has to be Neymar’s integration into the side. In truth, the youngster couldn’t have done any more to impress both an adoring public and a demanding technical staff. He’s already posted goals, assists (he already has seven, the most of anyone in Europe's top-five leagues), a permanent attacking threat and a man-of-the-match performance in his first El Clasico. If anyone is deserving of some lavish praise, it’s the Brazilian.
In hindsight, some of the comments prior to his arrival at the club are quite laughable.
“Messi and Neymar can’t play together!” “He’s too selfish, not a team player.” “He won’t produce against the top European sides.”
Yes, there is much to admire about Tata’s Barca, but there is still much work to do.
How Martino goes about addressing problems and finding solutions now will dictate much of what happens at the business end of the season. Only then can we truly judge how much of a success story his appointment has been.