Pep Guardiola announced this week that Barcelona are willing to "fight to the end" to bring Cesc Fabregas back to the club. Even having made time to mention other priorities first, it was hardly the tone of a manager looking into decorating his bench. Barcelona have allowed us to believe that they want, rather than need Fabregas, but for those watching closely, there is evidence of other teams catching up and it is not unreasonable that Fabregas be thought of as the burst of energy needed to pull away again.
Barca keep winning - of course they do. A European cup and a La Liga crown decorated by far the best team in the world last season. They score more goals than anyone else and have more good players than anyone else. But it would be a mistake to think of their code as unbreakable. The stats, so often on their side, should give confidence to the code-breakers, not put them off. In the first 30 games of last season Barcelona scored 88 goals; in the second, they managed just 59 – one goal less per game. Results also took in a small decline: Athletic Bilbao and Levante, amongst others, reduced them to draws in the second half of the season where wins had come in equivalent fixtures earlier on.
It was perhaps inevitable that all-out possession football would suffer under the weight of its own predictability at some point and slowly consensus is being reached on how to manage Guardiola’s side – if not beat it consistently.
The hardened schemers have been watching and learning. Alex Ferguson failed to get the better of Guardiola in this year’s Champions League final, but be in no doubt that he got closer than in Rome, two years ago. Scores of 3-1 and 2-0 tell the wrong story. Where last time Manchester United were forced to chase a team of shadows, this time around Barca relied on goals from outside the area to pull clear. Moments of individual brilliance from Lionel Messi and David Villa were the difference between the two sides, not the same incisive passing moves as before.
Though winning a European cup whilst notionally in decline will not see Barcelona lose any sleep, another schemer had the audacity to steal away a trophy. Jose Mourinho ensured that the Spanish cup never reached the Guardiola collection with a convincing mix of anti-football and crash-bang countering in its final. Madrid might have had more too, had momentum not shifted on the wave of a red card in their first European meet-up. They were getting close.
And who would guess against Mourinho, with continuity on his side, this time around? Capturing Hamit Altintop, an experienced midfielder on a free from Bayern Munich, is evidence of plotting directly against the Catalans. Altintop has been brought in to take on the deep midfield role that Pepe filled in matches between the two sides last season, adding a more subtlety to it, but contributing the physicality which at times came close to breaking the Tiki Taka machine.
That is, if it does not break itself. The rise of rest has coincided with the decline of the best. Manchester United operated using around 20 players regularly last season, Real Madrid, a similar amount; Barcelona used a core of 15, and by May, the fatigue was on their faces. Xavi, the man on whose shoulders Tiki Taka rests, was out on his feet. It didn’t prove decisive, but it might if tried again.
What do they need? More of the same to fill the squad and something different to beat off Mourinho. Cesc Fabregas is both. Leading assist maker in the Premier League over the past three seasons, and Arsenal’s top goalscorer in that time, qualifies Fabregas as an alternative to what Barcelona have now; something more incisive. In a team of featherweights, Arsenal’s number four has become a dominant force, capable of breaking through teams where others cannot - even Stoke City, on occasion - and a touch of that is the kind of evolution that might keep Mourinho at bay.
There are other options too. Alexis Sanchez is another notable for his pace and like Fabregas, his dynamism, who looks likely to move. Barcelona seem well aware that their position as front runners does not permit them to stand still.
Ethan co-edits Surreal football