As the goals rained down at a fevered Estadi Ciutat de Valencia and history was averted in manic fashion, the Barcelona faithful were left to make an unsettling summation.
Levante’s infliction of an opening La Liga defeat of the season, with just two games left, had been utter bedlam.
The bedraggled runaway champions – in the absence of Argentina talisman Lionel Messi – had gone 5-1 down by 56 minutes, conceded a first hat-trick against them in the league since May 2005, roared back to 5-4 by 71 minutes and then when redemptive parity seemed inexorable… the goals dried up. A strange end to a befuddling match.
Yet, could an uncharacteristic lack of control that defined this contest become the new norm?
Transfer moves, plus tactical twists, in the past and future point to an acceleration away from the doctrine of old.
This loose Levante loss was anathema for a club forged upon the principles of ‘Cruyffismo’ – an intoxicating, smothering passing doctrine brought to its zenith under disciple Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation from 2008-12.
Mechanism had never seemed so magical than in those glorious years.
Possession of 65 per cent and a pass accuracy of 88 per cent – both above the season average – against Levante led to a flood of goals conceded.
The obvious target of any ire is leaden-footed Colombia centre-back Yerry Mina.
1 - Barcelona have lost a La Liga game for the first time since April 2017 vs Malaga at La Rosaleda, 400 days ago. Surprise. pic.twitter.com/gTPzDo9b11— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 13, 2018
The winter arrival from Brazil’s Palmeiras was woefully dragged out of position for hat-trick hero Emmanuel Boateng’s opening tap-in. Within 30 seconds of the restart, an aimless punt up the pitch by him eventually led to Macedonia winger Enis Bardhi’s sublime curled finish to make it 4-1.
Glaring mistakes like these from a player who endured a torrid third La Liga start create an obvious fall guy.
But Mina is merely a patsy for systemic issues at play during this bitter taste of top-flight defeat after a 400-day absence.
Brazil playmaker Philippe Coutinho ensured a fight with Boateng for the match ball, thanks to his three-goal haul.
A club-record €160 million (Dh703.1m) prised him from Liverpool last January with the expressed intent of procuring a replacement for the irreplaceable Andres Iniesta.
Kopites long knew these are two contrasting attacking midfielders. When Iniesta would choose to recycle possession, Coutinho decides to chances his arm with a shot.
It’s no surprise to learn that Coutinho’s 4.2 games-per-goal average is far superior to Iniesta’s 11.6.
But Barca midfielders have historically defined the term ‘collective strength’. It is left to sensationally gifted attackers to get the goals – and tons of them, at that.
With Iniesta set to depart this summer after 22 years of unforgettable service, a stylistic change is afoot. Coutinho is exemplar.
Especially when Mina’s struggles coming from South America evidence why patience could be required with Gremio’s Arthur when he arrives in January 2019.
A top-heavy recruitment policy accentuates this issue.
Head coach Ernesto Valverde can already call on Coutinho, Messi, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez and France flyer Ousmane Dembele. It appears inevitable that Atletico Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann will add to this heady mix.
Anchorman Sergio Busquets turns 30 before 2018/19 starts. Barca must hope he’s evergreen.
To fit in all his superstar forwards after the rupture caused by Neymar’s summer exit, Valverde decisively dismantled the 4-3-3 formation of old – and even ignored his 4-2-3-1 utilised to great effect at Athletic Bilbao.
The 4-4-2, a blunt favourite used on the continent to parody English football, was brought out. Results cannot be argued with during a La Liga campaign that saw the title ripped out of Real Madrid’s grip with four games to play.
3 - Emmanuel Boateng is the first player to score a hat-trick against Barcelona in La Liga since Diego Forlan in May 2005. Bomb. pic.twitter.com/cs5QnzCQmS— OptaJose (@OptaJose) May 13, 2018
Yet, it didn’t look so smart when a remorseless Roma charged through with impunity in the Champions League’s quarter-finals.
Valverde is not the first tactician of the post-Guardiola era at Camp Nou to pick this alien path. Predecessor Luis Enrique was bold enough to use it in 2016/17, to mixed results and reaction.
Such a switch points towards an undeniable trend. In Guardiola’s final La Liga campaign of 2011/12, average possession was 65.4 per cent.
This figure has dropped ever since.
Late acolyte Tito Vilanova registered 64.9 per cent in 2012/13 and Messi darling Gerardo Martino’s was 63.7 per cent in 2013/14.
A trio of seasons under Enrique’s rule produced a combined average of 63.4 per cent. Valverde’s solitary term sees this figure drop further to 60 per cent.
The rampant attacking football remains. But control is no longer king at Camp Nou.
Strap in. Hectic nights like Levante should be the ‘new normal’.
Jay Asser and the rest of the Sport360 team are in place to provide you with the latest news, comment and analysis on all things Barcelona.
Our daily blog will ensure you have all the latest updates throughout the week but we want you to get involved, too.
Tell us your thoughts on what’s happening by tweeting @Sport360.
1:29pm – Busquets not deterred by unbeaten record in La Liga coming to an end
Even though Barcelona have lost their unbeaten run in La Liga, Sergio Busquets insists the Catalan club have had a successful campaign.
The Blaugrana fell in a 5-4 defeat to Levante on Sunday to suffer their first league loss of the season.
Busquets said afterward: “It’s obvious that we wanted to finish this season unbeaten but everything that we’ve done up until now was of merit.”
11:47am – Valverde gives credit to Levante rather than blaming defence
Barcelona’s unbeaten La Liga record is no more after they fell to Levante 5-4 on Sunday, ending their bid for a historic campaign.
“Yerry Mina showed personality at certain moments of the match and I haven’t seen him make a mistake, you have to take into account how good our opponent was,” Valverde said.
He also said Vermaelen had been struggling with an injury, adding: “I substituted Vermaelen because I didn’t want him to be at even further risk.”
Ernesto Valverde has guided his side to a domestic double with La Liga recaptured and a fourth straight Copa del Rey triumph.
However, the Blaugrana were two games away from the Spanish top flight’s first unbeaten campaign only to fall at the penultimate hurdle in a 5-4 defeat at Levante.
The season has also been overshadowed by the Champions League quarter-final exit to Roma but Busquets is adamant it’s been a successful year.
“It’s obvious that we wanted to finish this season unbeaten but everything that we’ve done up until now was of merit,” the Spanish midfielder said post-match.
“It’s a shame that we’ve lost. They caught us on the counter attack and were quick. We made little lapses of concentration and it’s really difficult when you have to overturn a lead like 5-1.
“We were pushing, we were working, we used lots of energy. We had chances to draw but it wasn’t our night, it wasn’t to be. When you chuck away five goals it’s hard to haul it back.
“Our performances have been absolutely unreal all season. We should be proud of it and we’re still proud of it.
“We’ve got one more game. We’ll celebrate the title at Camp Nou with our fans.”