The Blog

Evolve or Die?

Following Guardiola's decision to step down at the end of the 2012 campaign, Gerardo 'Tata' Martino now occupies the Blaugrana dugout - and the club find themselves level-pegging with rivals Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid at the top of the Spanish Primera División.

It will go down as one of, if not the, best club sides in the history of the game.

The Barcelona team of 2010-12, led by Pep Guardiola, was the epitome of possession, patience and poise - almost perfection.

It rose to the very top of the European game, revolutionising modern-day football philosophy as it went, and three years later, is still a force to be reckoned with on the pitch.

But off it, much has changed - and none more so than in the last six months.

Following Guardiola's decision to step down at the end of the 2012 campaign, Gerardo 'Tata' Martino now occupies the Blaugrana dugout - and the club find themselves level-pegging with rivals Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid at the top of the Spanish Primera División.

It is the most interesting La Liga title race for some time - but, despite their proximity to pole position, there are rumblings of discontent in Catalonia.

The new manager's tactics, in particular, have been under the microscope in the Spanish press of late, amid feeling that cracks are beginning to appear in Barcelona's armour.

With more examples of long passes and more direct football creeping into their play, many have argued that Martino has changed too much, too soon.

I was at the game in Sevilla last weekend, as he took his charges to the Estadio Ramón Sanchéz Pizjuán in a Primera División clash - and the visitors fell behind after just 15 minutes.

A surprise home defeat to Valencia in their previous outing had left Barcelona under pressure to secure victory with some aplomb, but that early goal left them looking vulnerable.

Fortunately for Martino, his side engineered a turnaround and won the fixture 4-1 - but their shaky start was another sign that their superiority is beginning to dim a little.

To some extent, Barcelona's system has always been very predictable.

Guardiola would be the first to admit that he has a real possession obsession - and his tiki-taka philosophy meant that his side would often pass teams into submission.

His decision to play Lionel Messi in a 'false nine position', in lieu of a traditional striker, almost single-handedly altered the tactical landscape over night.

But as other sides have studied the Camp Nou side, and evolved, that formation has meant that Barcelona are often stifled, forced to play from deep - and, as a result, lacking penetration and cutting edge.

It's all well and good steamrollering sides from the lower reaches of the Primera, but, against sides of real quality from the continent, who don't offer the same level of space and time on the ball, I think that could be their undoing.

Indeed, their weaknesses were highlighted in humiliating fashion last campaign, as they lost 7-0 on aggregate to a rampant Bayern Munich side which combines skill and subtlety with pace and power.

The result was a stark reminder that, in football, no team is invincible.

In short, Barcelona are beginning to lose their fear factor - and every time they go behind, or struggle to a win domestically, it is another sign to their European rivals that they are very beatable.

Barcelona travel to Manchester in just a matter of days, to face City at the Etihad Stadium in the first leg of their Champions League tie.

It will be interesting to see how the Blaugrana fare against a Blues side which possesses an almost embarrassing wealth of attacking power, and has been touted as the strongest squad in Europe.

Of course, Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini knows Barcelona's strengths all too well from his time at Malaga - and will be desperate for his side to pile the pressure on their Spanish guests ahead of the return fixture at Camp Nou.

Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola is currently working his magic at Bayern Munich - and the Bundesliga club look a force to be reckoned with once again this year.

Consecutive Champions League trophies for the German club would signal a real power shift in European football, and that is a development that Barcelona can ill afford.

As they line up at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday evening, just five miles down the road at Old Trafford, Manchester United are in the midst of their worst campaign in recent memory.

Their sudden fall from grace makes clear just how easy it is to slip out of the continental elite - and with the like of Xavi, Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol all likely to depart Camp Nou next summer, Martino will be keen to avoid a messy transition like United.

Having watched Barcelona at length this season, I believe that they are desperately in need of a true centre forward, if they are to maintain their position at the forefront of European football.

Of course, world class strikers are not easy to come by.

The likes of Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani are widely regarded as two of the best - and Luis Suarez, Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero have certainly thrown their names into the hat with some impressive Premier League performances of late.

But the worrying thing for the Barcelona faithful is that their club don't even appear to be looking at that kind of player.

At times last weekend, the Sevilla back four had no one to mark - and I reckon that a strong player, with the ability to get beyond Messi, would make all the difference to the club.

The capture of Brazilian wonderkid Neymar in the summer was certainly a rousing statement of intent, but I do think that the transfer was a case of wrong player, right time.

Ex-Barcelona president Sandro Rosell was instrumental in that signing - and, more than anything else, it appears to have been a scalp of big-spending rivals Real Madrid, who were also interested in the player.

It was a transfer that should've been Rosell's greatest undertaking, but instead, it was to be his undoing.

Investigations into the way that transfer was conducted urged Rosell to stand down recently - and, in many ways, an acrimonious exit was always on the cards.

Despite overseeing one of the most successful periods in Barcelona history, Rosell always lacked some of the charm of his predecessor Joan Laporta - and run-ins with club favourites such as Eric Abidal and Victor Valdes, as well as legends including Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, alienated the fans.

He even fell out with Lionel Messi.

Of course, the role of an owner in Spain is very different to that of an owner in England.

Clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid are complicated animals with deep and complex traditions and ties - both political and cultural.

Every single decision - playing staff, management, and even off the pitch matters - comes under scrutiny.

So vociferous are the Spanish press and fans, that I can't help but think that if David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson had signed a player such as Bébé, a catastrophic failure, for the likes of Barcelona or Real, they would've been hung, drawn and quartered.

To some extent, the task ahead of Martino was always going to be something of a thankless one.

After all, he has taken charge of one of the most complete sides of the modern era, just a year after the departure of one of the most forward thinking, and tactically astute managers of all time.

Guardiola's shrewdness and intelligence allowed Lionel Messi to grow into, arguably, the best player in the history of the game - and, of course, he is a majestic talent. A wizard.

But for all of their quality, Barcelona seem to be growing more and more reliant upon his moments of magic.

The motto down at Camp Nou is 'Més Que un Club', which translates to 'More Than a Club'.

But, if they are to retain their position at the top of the game, Barcelona may need to prove that they are 'More Than Messi.'