Can Andres Iniesta's return solve Barcelona's tactical crisis in Clasico?
The cartoon on the back of ‘Diario Sport’ in Barcelona this week summed up many of the team’s problems in recent weeks as they have slipped six points behind Real Madrid in the league.
It showed two Barcelona players each stood on their own clifftop shouting across a precipice at the other. The one on the left looked distinctly like Barça midfielder Ivan Rakitic and was shouting: “I think we should play more together”. The other player depicted, looking a lot like Luis Suarez, shouted back: “Speak up, I can't hear you!”
There certainly was a vast expanse between the Barcelona front-three and the rest of the team during Sunday’s draw with Real Sociedad. It’s been that way for a while now and Andres Iniesta is one of the single biggest reasons why.
The 32-year-old club captain is the player who skips between the two clifftops with the ball at his feet. They have missed him in the six weeks he has been injured and his return for Saturday’s Clasico could not be better timed. Iniesta, speaking earlier this season, recognised the front three's importance:
" It's not that the three up front completely dictate the way we play now. But it is certainly true that there are games when they create and score the goals almost from nothing."
Leo Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez might well score goals from ‘almost nothing’, but even they can’t score without the ball, and it just never reached them on Sunday in their worst performance under Luis Enrique since he took over two and a half seasons ago.
Without him no-one links the attack to the rest of the team. When Messi is at his best he can come deep and play the Iniesta role as well as his own, but he does not always do it and he failed to spark in that weekend draw.
Neymar has provided 12 assists this season and that has gone some way to fill the creative void, but if he’s providing then he can’t be finishing and he has not scored for seven games.
Suarez, who is least culpable because he was brought to stretch the opposition not drop into midfield and play pretty passes, has also suffered with just one goal in his last five.
El Mundo Deportivo columnist Miguel Rico described the playing style under Luis Enrique as 'fast food football'. Gone is the gourmet dining that Barça supporters grew accustomed to under Pep Guardiola.
He was quick to add that route-one needs to be part of balanced diet of footballing alternatives. It’s fine for the counter attack to be a resource that Barcelona can go to, but it should not be their only plan and that is the way things looked on Sunday. Iniesta enables Barça to quicken their path to goal and yet still feel like they are taking the scenic route.
" The midfielders perhaps have more ground to cover now, but the strength we have is brutal. Last year I'm sure I broke my record for kilometres covered on the pitch and yet I enjoyed my football more than ever."
He has changed the way he plays to suit Luis Enrique's needs and his manager has missed him perhaps even more than he might occasionally miss Messi. 'Iniestadependencia' doesn't have the same ring as 'Messidependencia' but the reliance is just as strong.
In three seasons the Barça coach has never had fewer points at this stage of the season. In his first campaign he had 31, last season 33, and now just 27.
The good news for the team currently lying six points off the lead is that Barça physio Juan Brau has helped Iniesta strengthen the injured ligaments in his right knee and he is fit to start Saturday’s game – six weeks to the day since an ugly challenge from Valencia’s Enzo Perez sidelined him.
The beautiful game will be all the more resplendent for his return. And more importantly for Barcelona, Rakitic and Luis Suarez will not need to shout at each other on Saturday, because Iniesta is back and if he hits the right notes on his return all the voices in the choir will be heard in harmony.
Good players can play; great players make everybody else play too.