Lionel Messi, of course, has been the key man in Barcelona’s promising start to the season, which sees them head into Saturday’s game at Getafe with a 100% record in La Liga and added confidence from a 3-0 Champions League triumph over Juventus.
With seven goals in his last three games, Messi has been a one-man attacking whirlwind and Barca could beat any opponent with their star performer in this kind of form.
But dig a little deeper, and a more interesting trend emerges. As well as Messi, Ivan Rakitic is also playing particularly well, looking again like one of the world’s most rounded midfielders after badly losing his way last season.
Another rejuvenated force is Jordi Alba, who dipped so much earlier in the year he was routinely dropped by former boss Luis Enrique but has now recovered his best form and provided many early season highlights with his scampering runs down the left wing.
New signing Nelson Semedo has done a pretty good job of mirroring Alba on the other side of the pitch, while Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti have been further developing their strong understanding at the back, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen has looked solid and stable in goal.
Ahead of them, Sergio Busquets has been delivering midfield masterclass after midfield masterclass, and finally Andres Iniesta has been transformed from fading force into force to be reckoned with.
So it’s not just Messi playing well. With the exception of Luis Suarez, whose season hasn’t taken off yet, Barca are playing well throughout the team and their vastly improved performances are amply reflected in their statistics of played four, won four.
And there’s another key stat which also deserves a mention: goals conceded, zero.
The last player to score past Barcelona was Karim Benzema for Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, when the Blaugrana looked like they were heading into the new season on the brink of total crisis.
Since then, however, the turnaround has been impressive, and ter Stegen has often been left with little to do other than receive careful back passes and using them to launch another phase of possession with his precise passing.
He’s now gone 411 minutes without conceding a goal, but the reason Barca have been doing so well at the back is exactly the same reason they have been able to get the best out of Messi: they are now, once again, playing as a team.
They finished last season effectively operating as two teams: eight players who were almost solely concerned with trying to defend, and three players whose job was to attack.
There was little fluidity or coherence between those two separate units, and consequently Barca were lost in the centre of the field and extremely vulnerable against opposition with a more solid structure.
Now that has changed, and new coach Valverde must take a lot of credit for quickly steering his team down a more collective path.
And the word ‘collective’ is key. As Alba noted earlier in the week, Barca’s recent successes – both in defence and attack – have come because they are playing together, exemplified by Messi and Suarez both sprinting back deep into their own half to win possession late into the game against Juventus.
They haven’t kept four consecutive clean sheets simply because the defenders are in good form. Similarly, Messi isn’t scoring at a rapid rate just because he is a brilliant player who is in particularly good touch – those things are happening precisely because the whole team unit is effectively functioning, which in turn encourages every player within the group to prosper.
An obvious example to follow is Atletico Madrid, who have made the very most of what they’ve got defensively over the last few years thanks to their outstanding organisation and discipline.
Atletico have shown that defending well isn’t just, or even mainly, about individual ability. More than that, it is about playing together across the whole team – not just the back four – and committing to a game plan.
For the last couple of years, Barca’s overall game plan was lacking. Now, Valverde has unearthed a new one, and it is suiting them very well so far – at both ends of the pitch.
— #10 (@FutbolOfMessi) September 15, 2017