Football teams are not often likened to corks, but that is the word that Barcelona manager Luis Enrique used to describe his side earlier this month when he praised their ability to always stay afloat. The problem for the Catalans’ former midfielder, though, is that merely treading water is never seen as good enough at a club as rich and successful as Barcelona.

Enrique deserves great credit for his team’s success last season, the 45-year-old overseeing an historic treble-winning campaign. The individual genius of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar clearly made the difference, but Enrique played a key role in setting up the team to get the best out of his front three both domestically and on the European stage.

So far this term, however, Barcelona have struggled to replicate some of the displays they produced in the second half of 2014/15. The 2-1 defeat to Sevilla just before the international break was their second in seven La Liga encounters; despite losing, Barcelona did create a number of good chances and generally played well, something that could not be said after their deserved 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Celta Vigo 10 days previously. In the Champions League, meanwhile, performances against Roma and Bayer Leverkusen were rather underwhelming, even if Barca sit top of their group with four points from two matches.

The biggest concern for Enrique at present must be Barcelona’s surprising lack of squad depth. It is impossible to ever adequately replace Messi – not just the best player in the world but arguably the greatest of all-time – but the Argentine’s recent injury has substantially harmed the Blaugrana: while Neymar stepped up to plate and assumed the mantle as the leader of the attack against Sevilla, Barcelona desperately missed Messi’s magnificent ability to both control a game and decide it with moments of brilliance.

While that is understandable, it is worrying that further injuries to Rafinha, Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta forced Enrique to alter the configuration of his side. Sergio Busquets, usually the deepest of Barcelona’s midfield three, was pushed forward into Iniesta’s position alongside Ivan Rakitic for the clash with Sevilla, with Javier Mascherano deployed as the anchor in the engine room, something that simply did not work.

Mascherano is excellent at breaking up the play, making important tackles and interceptions and protecting the back four behind him. His vision and passing range is just not as accomplished as Busquets, though; with Barcelona naturally dominating possession – 63 percent against a side who finished fifth in La Liga and won the Europa League last year – Mascherano struggled to start his team’s attacking moves, play penetrative forward passes and set the tempo of a match in the manner that the Spain international seems to do with such effortless ease.

The main reason for the lack of squad depth is the transfer ban Barcelona were handed as punishment for breaking Fifa rules regarding the transfer of players under the age of 18. Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal were signed in the summer but will be unable to make their competitive debuts for their new club until January – though the Catalans are hoping to bring that date forward – while the departures of Xavi and Pedro further decreased the options available to Enrique.

This was telling against Sevilla, when the hosts at the Sanchez Pizjuan had a bench that included Jose Antonio Reyes, Ciro Immobile, Fernando Llorente and Yevhen Konoplyanka and Barcelona’s list of substitutes read: Dani Alves, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Marc Bartra, Douglas, Juan Camara, Gerard Gambau and Sandro, a septet made up of a right-back returning from injury, a goalkeeper, a centre-half, a 25-year-old full-back who has played five times for the club and three youngsters aged 21 or under with 284 La Liga minutes between them.

Barcelona lead their Champions League group and are just one point off the top of La Liga having already undertaken tough trips to Celta, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. Messi’s absence is a blow but, in Neymar, Suarez and Iniesta – who is set to return in the next couple of weeks – they still possess plenty of players who can change games and make the difference in even the most difficult of circumstances.

The cork is still afloat and will almost certainly not sink, but Barcelona’s unusual lack of squad depth could cause them a few more difficulties over the coming months and prevent them from repeating last season’s fantastic treble.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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