After Barcelona were once again bailed out by a last-minute Lionel Messi goal to rescue a point against Villarreal at the newly renamed Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday, many fans began to question how much longer manager Luis Enrique’s Camp Nou reign would last.
It might seem harsh to have such doubts over a man who has won eight major trophies in just over two years in charge of the club, but the former Roma and Celta Vigo coach has cut an increasingly frustrated figure recently, as he watches his team drop points while Real Madrid, still unbeaten, march towards a first title in five years.
The draw with Villarreal leaves Barca five points behind Los Blancos who have a game in hand — not an insurmountable gap, but the two teams appear to be moving in different directions.
Zinedine Zidane’s men equalled the record 39-game winning streak achieved by the Blaugrana under Pep Guardiola, and, while the 11-time European champions lack the free-flowing style and aesthetic beauty of that great Barcelona side, they are impressively efficient.
Barca, on the other hand, who have already been beaten by promoted Alaves and Celta Vigo, have dropped points against Real Sociedad and Malaga, and face the prospect of having to overturn a 2-1 deficit in the second leg of their Copa del Rey tie against Athletic Bilbao this week.
And this all comes off the back of having spent well over £100 million in the summer to bring in the likes of Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez, Samuel Umtiti and Paco Alcacer. These additions were supposed to ease the burden of the established stars, maybe even allowing the likes of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar to be afforded a rest every once in a while.
But Barca remain overly dependent on Messi to drag them out of trouble, were it not for his other-worldly heroics, which are in danger of becoming taken for granted, Luis Enrique’s men could be in an even worse position. The Argentinian has scored result-rescuing goals in games against Valencia, Sociedad and Sevilla to name but a few.
And the manager has to be held accountable for his side’s inability to break down resilient backlines without the help of the little Argentinian magician. Of course, any side containing a player of Messi’s ability would lean heavily on his immense gifts, but the one-man cheat code cannot be expected to work his magic every single time.
Some of Luis Enrique’s team selections have been baffling this term, as he tinkers with his midfield and defence at almost any given opportunity; like a kid with a new toy, having been handed a deeper squad this summer, he has over-rotated at times and it has been to the detriment of the team’s cohesion.
The 46-year-old coach has been found wanting tactically too often, which seems to be the biggest gripe among Barca fans.
After failing to properly mitigate against the loss of Dani Alves in the summer, Luis Enrique has converted midfielder Sergi Roberto into a right-back. While the 24-year-old Spain international has performed admirably in the role, he is not able to offer the same level of attacking expertise as Alves.
This has meant that Ivan Rakitic has been forced to play closer to the touchline on the right side of Barca’s midfield, away from his preferred central position. In turn, Neymar has been dragged into a deeper role on the left, and with Messi operating more centrally, Barca have effectively been playing with a kind of lopsided 4-4-2 shape, despite their starting positions appearing more like their traditional 4-3-3.
The knock-on effect of this positional shifting has resulted in a loss of form for Rakitic, who was left out from the weekend’s game amid rumours of a move to Manchester City, while Neymar, playing further away from the opposition's goal, has now gone 11 games without finding the net.
The season is still eminently rescuable for Barcelona, and they remain in a strong position in the Champions League, so this isn't necessarily the end of the line for Luis Enrique just yet.
But the manager needs to demonstrate an ability to solve the tactical puzzles that are keeping the Catalan giants from reaching their full potential right now. If he doesn't do it, there will be a line of tacticians queueing from the Camp Nou to La Sagrada Familia willing to take his place.
Heading that number should be Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli. The 56-year-old Argentinian guided Chile to their first Copa America title and is now taking La Liga by storm with a brand of fluid, positionally-amorphous football that would be well received at Barca.
However, the Spanish champions often like to promote from within, having elevated Pep Guardiola from B team to first-team coach as a rookie in 2008, and Tito Villanova from assistant manager to top dog in 2012.
So with Barca B currently top of their Segunda B division, second-string head coach and former Barcelona midfielder Gerard Lopez could be in with an outside chance of following in Guardiola’s footsteps.