It’s just a whisper, for now. But Barcelona are moving in the right direction, tactically at least.
Off the pitch they remain as dysfunctional as ever, but as the votes of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu continue to be counted, the scene was very much set for them to stumble against Celta Vigo.
Firstly, the rain in Spain fell hard, as it has want to do in Galicia, and it made for swirly, sodden conditions against a team who have real talent in attack. Nolito and Iago Aspas have hurt the Catalans before and against Ronald Koeman’s barely-tested 4-2-3-1, this fixture screamed ‘examination’.
And when Clement Lenglet was (somewhat harshly) given a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time, a second half with backs very much to the wall awaited. And yet it wasn’t like that, at all.
In fact, Barcelona were superior in the second half to the first. Barring a Miguel Baeza moment in the closing stages Koeman’s side were comfortable and assured, managing the situation with the type of skill that has been absent under similar conditions in the past.
Lionel Messi was his inimitable best. Picking the ball up in dangerous areas and driving at the Celta backline, it was his penetration that forced Lucas Olaza into deflecting the ball past his own goalkeeper, then it was his final piece of sublime skill edging him into the area that led to Ivan Villar’s save and Sergi Roberto’s finish.
There were five Barca players in the area, trying to score, in injury time. There’s an energy and a togetherness that stands in stark contrast to the chaos taking place in the boardroom and Koeman has to be given some credit for that.
And in the nature of consecutive clean sheets. Only Barca and Getafe haven’t conceded yet and they have only offered up 0.81 Expected Goals against Celta and Villarreal. Both of these sides are a long way from Bayern Munich but, equally, the defensive structure is a long way from that 8-2 debacle.
The 4-2-3-1 of Koeman loses in some areas but clearly, with the double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong, there is a level of control that was missing previously. De Jong shared the highest FC Rating of the match of 7.7 with Sergi Roberto and his performance was coming of age, in his rightful position, in the role he was bought for in the first place. It’s taken a year but Koeman has already got a better Frenkie than either Ernesto Valverde or Quique Setien achieved.
There’s still something that needs work and that’s the dynamic of the front four. Ansu Fati’s impact was fleeting but essential, swivelling in the area and poking home the opening goal in the blink of an eye, while Philippe Coutinho is, gradually, exerting his influence in the centre.
But it can’t have escaped many watching that when Lenglet was red carded and a sacrificial lamb was needed, the spotlight fell on Antoine Griezmann. It seems inevitable that he would be removed and, what’s more, they barely missed him.
Griezmann hasn’t become a bad player simply by wearing a different kit but with the likes of Trincao and Pedri (and maybe Ousmane Dembele) trusted by Koeman to be given minutes, the Frenchman continues to feel like the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not too late, but it’s difficult to see what he brings in this formation and with all the other elements performing efficiently.
Barca’s start is far from easy. An-already huge match against Sevilla awaits on Sunday, while after the international break they face Getafe away, then Real Madrid in the Clasico. The Koeman experiment will have far more clarity after that run of games. But, for now, there is a level of contentment with the structure of the team that looked improbable even a month ago.