Xavi Hernandez’s return to Barcelona as coach indicated a return to the club’s flowing possession game he thrived in as a player, but his team has instead relied on a watertight defence as they close in on the Spanish title.
Barcelona visit Athletic Bilbao on Sunday as they bid to preserve or even extend their nine point lead on Real Madrid, who host Espanyol Saturday — in their last league matches before the Clasico at Camp Nou on March 19.
The Catalans last lifted La Liga in 2019 and after heavy investment last summer, a need to produce instant results has influenced their approach.
Barcelona have conceded just eight goals in 24 matches so far this season, keeping 18 clean sheets in La Liga in that time.
The latter is a better record than any other club in one of Europe’s big five leagues has managed at the same point in the season in the 21st century.
Bayern Munich managed 17 clean sheets in the first 24 matches in the 2012-13 season, also conceding eight goals.
By contrast they have scored 46 goals, a lower figure than any La Liga leader after 24 games since Valencia in the 2001-2002 season.
However the Catalans will have to travel to San Mames without centre-back Ronald Araujo, key to their superb defensive records this season.
The Uruguayan centre-back was sent off last weekend against Valencia, for dragging down Hugo Duro as he ran through on goal.
Araujo’s decision helped Barcelona snatch a 1-0 win — their eighth victory by the same scoreline in La Liga this season.
The defender may be replaced by Jules Kounde or Marcos Alonso at the heart of the defence, alongside Andreas Christensen.
During a period the team have been without playmaker Pedri, winger Ousmane Dembele and top scorer Robert Lewandowski, their defensive solidity has helped sustain their title charge.
The Polish striker is set to return against Athletic and credited the defence for their key role this season.
“It’s good to have a defence like ours for the strikers, we have more security, we can take more risks because we have our backs covered,” Lewandowski told Barca Magazine on Thursday.
“Security makes it easier to score goals and the first step in every team has to be to have a great defence.”
The Polish forward said the team’s style was also dependent on the type of players available to Xavi, and the way the game has changed since his playing days.
“Barca’s DNA is to play good football, but you have to understand that football is changing,” added Lewandowski.
“For example, the way Barça played ten years ago might not work now. You have to find the perfect solution for where you are and the players you have.”
Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde might have his own thoughts on the issue of Barcelona’s style.
Despite winning two league titles, Valverde was sacked in January 2020 with the team top of La Liga, in part because of concerns over the team’s unconvincing football.
Valverde’s Athletic started the season well but have lost momentum in recent weeks and sit ninth, although like Barcelona they have also reached the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
Player to watch: Enes Unal
Getafe’s Turkish striker Enes Unal is their key weapon in their bid to escape relegation. The forward has scored five goals in his last five games in La Liga and could be crucial at Cadiz in a relegation six-pointer on Friday night.
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