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What's wrong with Barcelona this season?

It has been a crazy start to the 2015/16 Liga campaign. Barcelona, by many accounts, are enduring a tough ride yet they find themselves just a point behind unlikely league leaders Villarreal. The league table is obviously a false representation and an incorrect pointer to how it will look at the season’s end. But there have been plenty pointers to prove why Barcelona have had an underwhelming campaign thus far.

The obvious departure from last season is the number of goals the Blaugrana have conceded this season. In their treble-winning 2014/15 season, Barcelona started with eight clean sheets before conceding their first goal of the season in a Clasico loss to Real Madrid in October 2014. This season though, they have already shipped nine goals in seven games.

The hamstring injury-induced absence of goalkeeper Claudio Bravo hasn’t helped, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen hasn’t quite been the secure presence between the posts. In his four starts this season, the German has conceded seven goals, five more than what Bravo has let in in his three starts. As it stands, none of the top nine teams have conceded as many goals as Barcelona this season.

Of course, not the entire blame can be apportioned to Ter-Stegen. Injuries to defenders have had a massive say in matters, plus the uncalled-for four-game suspension of Gerard Pique at the start of the season hardly helped. Full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have suffered from injuries at various stages of the embryonic season, while the injury-prone Thomas Vermaelen has all but undone his good start to the season and is no closer to returning from his now month-long layoff.

The injuries and suspensions have forced manager Luis Enrique to reshuffle defensively. The back four hasn’t remained constant throughout; only once has the Asturian manager named an unchanged back-line this season, while the emergence of Sergi Roberto has been mostly as a defensive reinforcement in the absence of Alves at right-back. So many constant changes at the back is hardly ideal, a reason for the inconsistent performances this season.

Alves has missed games through injury this season for the first time since 2012/13, which is another instance of tough luck befalling Enrique this term. On the flip side, the Brazilian’s absence has offered plenty minutes for Roberto — who has enjoyed the seventh most minutes on the pitch thus far — but Enrique couldn’t have envisaged a midfielder to fill in as a defender before the season got underway.

With their defence in shambles and in constant need of tinkering owing to fixture congestion, injuries and suspensions, things couldn’t have been worse for Barcelona. Last season’s 33 clean sheets in 60 games seem a far cry to be repeated this term, and the lack of sharpness of their front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez has laid bare the deficiencies at the back.

In comparison to last season, Messi has gone from a goal each 87 minutes to one every 135. Likewise, Neymar’s rate has dropped, from one every 105 minutes to 186 minutes and Suarez’s too, from 141 to 176. In only two games this season have the Catalans scored more than two goals, and only once have they won by more than a single goal margin, stats which clearly show how the champions have struggled to score this season.

Their difficulties in goal, coupled with the defensive meltdowns, have painted a rather sorry picture. The absence of the talismanic Messi has been another blow in a season where Barca have had to navigate through the storm. Not all seems lost at this stage, and with more than 4/5th of the season still to play, it looks as if they have weathered the worst storms.

Like they say, at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky, there are plenty reasons to be optimistic about the current season for the Cules, given the state of the Liga at the moment where no team has broken away from the competition, and Barca’s solid start to their Champions League defence.

The vast majority of Cules expect Messi's return to fix all the problems the Camp Nou giants have been struggling with of late. However, the No.10's return and ensuring defensive unit recovers its former effectiveness is of equal importance.

By Abhijit Bharali, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter here  

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