Lionel Messi is key but Barcelona's terrific La Liga start down to collective effort

Andy West 16/09/2017
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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.

Ivan Rakitic

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.

Ernesto Valverde

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.

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More Lionel Messi magic on the way and other talking points as Barcelona face Getafe

Andy West 16/09/2017
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La Liga leaders Barcelona will play away against Getafe on Saturday.

Ahead of their La Liga clash, we take a look at the key talking points.

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MORE MESSI MAGIC ON THE WAY?

With seven goals in his last three games for Barcelona, Lionel Messi’s outrageous form has created expectations that he will simply turn up and score a hat-trick whenever he plays.

Despite the occasional talk of Messi supposedly being “in decline”, which presumably comes from people who don’t actually watch him play, the Argentine is looking as good as ever, partly because he is playing in a more defined position as new manager Ernesto Valverde gradually puts his imprint on the team.

As the point of a midfield diamond from his false nine forward role, Messi is able to be both the team’s main playmaker and main finisher at the same time, and he is revelling in the new formation’s ability to extract a lot more from midfield trio Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic.

The one negative about the system is that both Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele have looked rather lost, with Suarez awkwardly adopting an inside left role that prevents him from playing to his strengths.

Sooner or later, Messi will be stopped and those two will need to step up…but the way Messi’s playing right now, that might not be on Saturday.

Lionel Messi

HOW MUCH ROTATION FROM VALVERDE?

With the exception of Dembele and Gerard Deulofeu alternating on the right wing, Valverde repeated exactly the same line-up for his team’s last two games – home wins against Espanyol and Juventus.

It’s clear the new Barca boss regards those players as his strongest eleven, but he’ll be keenly conscious of the physical risks in selecting the same line-up game after game, and will be highly tempted to rotate his squad for Saturday’s trip to Getafe.

Veteran skipper Andres Iniesta, in particular, is definitely due a break after also starting consecutive games for Spain in the prior international break. Starting five games in a row would be demanding an awful lot from a 34 year-old, so Iniesta’s place could well be taken by Andre Gomes this afternoon.

But the problem will be whether Valverde can give a rest to key individuals such as Iniesta without detracting from his team’s overall quality – an issue his predecessor Luis Enrique continually wrestled with but never properly solved.

Ernesto Valverde

ANOTHER CLEAN SHEET FOR CENTURION TER STEGEN?

German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is set to make his 100th appearance of a highly eventful Barca career this afternoon, and he comes into the game in fine shape after keeping a clean sheet in his last four consecutive matches.

With a current record of 411 minutes without conceding, ter Stegen is closing in on his personal best of 564 minutes, but focussing solely on ‘goals against’ statistics is a poor measure of a goalkeeper who also acts as a deep-lying playmaker thanks to his exceptional passing ability.

That has sometimes counted against him, with ter Stegen’s unflappable confidence on the ball occasionally resulting in him putting himself into dangerous situations unnecessarily, but playing out from the back remains an absolute fundamental to Barca’s approach and his style will not change anytime soon.

Ter Stegen is certainly firmly installed as Barca’s first choice keeper, and at the age of just 25 Saturday’s century of appearances probably won’t be his last for the Blaugrana.

Marc-Andre Ter Stegen

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Neymar's exit means Barcelona can pay their squad more than Real Madrid

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Money at Barca.

Barcelona are set to spend a whopping €470m on salaries this season – that’s €20m more than Real Madrid have forecast for the 2017-18 campaign.

Following the high-profile sale of Neymar to PSG – Barca’s wage purse has increased by nearly €50m compared to last season.

Barca’s overall budget amounts to €897m, a rise from €695m, but that’s down to a €147m profit over the €222m departure fee of Neymar and a saving of €30m on his salary.

Despite the signings of Ousmane Dembele, Nelson Semedo, Gerard Deulofeu and Paulinho – Barca are still saving on annual salaries – and that in itself represents significant financial success.

This is hammered home by the fact that their overall budget last season was €695m.

In essence, Barca have more funds in the kitty to tempt players with if they wish to make movements in the transfer market in January – or indeed, looks to extend deals for the likes of Andres Iniesta.

While Blaugrana hold the edge over the Whites in the salary department this season, Real Madrid are in a healthy position and have €20m extra to splash on salaries this coming year – which could have been behind their contract extensions for Marcelo and Isco.

Official financial data from both La Liga giants is set to be presented on September 19.

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