The media tore into Barcelona on Monday. They wrote about their identity, their form, the tactics and their backroom with regard to injuries. Coming on the back of a 2-1 reverse to Ajax midweek, the 1-0 loss at Bilbao, ending a 26-game unbeaten run in the league since a defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu in March, plunged Barcelona into a fresh round of trouble. Gerardo Martino faces his first real task — getting them back on track.
Making things challenging is the fact that a number of big names are missing starting with FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi. Injuries to Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, too have gutted Barcelona. But perhaps the most crucial loss has been that of goalkeeper Victor Valdes with a right calf injury sustained playing a meaningless friendly for Spain. His deputy Jose Manuel Pinto is prone to the occasional gaffe.
The current season has seen Barcelona change its style of play, a change of philosophy brought about by their new coach Martino. Barcelona’s early season form, depended hugely on Valdes. The club’s failure to buy a defender has left the defence more porous than before and Martino faces a worst case scenario with Valdes and Messi being out until mid-January. Messi single-handedly scored more goals than most opposition teams, covering Barcelona’s frailties.
Valdes himself began last season shakily before progressively improving. He averaged 1.55 saves per game and 1.5 saves per goal in the league last season. This season however he averages 2.69 saves per game and 4.38 saves per goal. Last season, Valdes made 61 saves in 31 league games while he was already up to 42 in 13 games before he got injured. In short, Barcelona have let opponents through on goal to an extent that has magnified their keeper’s excellence in shot-stopping. Now he’s injured and they’re struggling.
For all their frailties though, Barcelona do have a team that includes Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Neymar, Busquets and Sanchez. For all their talent, this cannot be a team as ambitionless and rudderless in their play as has been seen in their last two matches. Barcelona have stumbled and this is the time to find some answers and some spark.
And also hope Valdes gets back on field as soon as possible.
(Hormazd is a senior sub-editor based in New Delhi.)