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Three major improvements that helped FC Barcelona get back to the elite level

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Barcelona have lost zero games out of their last 13 matches, with the Catalans evidently playing with a new lease of life since coach Xavi Hernandez announced his resignation.

While Barça still have a long way to go before they can declare the season an outright success, the strides they have made over the last few months significantly contrast their performances from earlier in the season.

This newfound confidence was best transmitted in the clash against PSG in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, as Barcelona secured a convincing 3-2 win over the Parisians.

Delving deeper into the reasons behind the Blaugranes’ upturn in form, there are three improvements that brought Barcelona back to its elite level.

1. Defensive resurgence

Ronald Araujo, Pau Cubarsi, and Jules Kounde have marshaled the back line exceptionally since playing in a faux three-at-the-back system.

Specifically, the complementary profiles of Cubarsi and Araujo have allowed Barcelona to overcome their previous shortcomings, with a mix of distribution excellence and duel-winning present.

kounde cubarsi araujo
Barcelona’s invincible defensive trio.

In Gerard Pique’s penultimate year with Barcelona, the Spaniard maximized Araujo’s strengths by handling the bulk of build-up responsibilities. Now, Cubarsi is emulating his role as the duo synergizes, complementing each other’s strengths and mitigating their weaknesses.

Moreover, Kounde’s role at right-back has been equally important, as the Frenchman excels not only in possession but also in providing defensive cover to the wide channels when Barcelona are defending.

Individually, the defenders have all stepped up, but from a collective standpoint, credit goes to Xavi for placing his men in a favorable context and profiling them to perfection.

After all, the structural overhaul has reduced the team’s tendency to get cut open in transition, liberating the defenders further.

The fact that Barcelona have kept six clean sheets in a row in La Liga is a testament to the defensive solidity and tactical discipline instilled by their coaching staff.

2. Lewandowski’s return to the top

Given Lewandowski’s woes in the first half of the season, it was hard to anticipate such a drastic turnaround.

Even so, since the turn of the year, Lewandowski has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. Recapturing the form reminiscent of his early months at Barça, it is fair to argue that he stands among Europe’s premier strikers this year.

Indeed, the veteran striker is back in contention for the Pichichi award, rediscovering his scoring touch and showcasing the predatory instincts he was renowned for at Bayern Munich.

Since the bitter defeat to Villarreal at home, he has notched five goals and three assists in nine league games, including two against Napoli in the Champions League.

lewandowski
Lewandowski’s 2024 version is something else.

Crucially, his overall game has seen a marked improvement. Lewandowski’s impact beyond goals was exemplified best in matches against Atletico Madrid and PSG.

At the Wanda Metropolitano, the 35-year-old showcased mastery in hold-up play, which completely dismantled Atletico’s pressing shape as spaces in their back-line began to enlarge. Against PSG, he was once again on top of his game.

Barely giving the ball away despite having defenders breathing down his neck, the former Bayern Munich man played neat lay-offs, dropped deep to lure PSG’s defenders, and created space for his compatriots in attack.

Lewandowski’s revival has been a major reason behind Barcelona’s evolution in form, with chances effectively being converted and the team’s tendency to attack through long balls yielding fruit.

3. The genius of Ilkay Gundogan

Signed on a free transfer, Barcelona have struck gold with Ilkay Gundogan. The German maestro has been a mainstay in the Catalan team, starting games with exceptional frequency and simultaneously churning out dependable displays.

Although Gundogan commenced the season playing deeper, his activity in the final third has increased vastly as of late, which has in turn helped Barça dominate in the final third.

ilkay gundogan
Barcelona’s genius midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

The statistics testify to his talents, as Gundogan has the most chances created in not just the Champions League but also the top five leagues in Europe.

While his total of 11 assists in all competitions may appear impressive, the 33-year-old is unfortunate to not have more to his name. He has the most expected assists and the most expected goals of any La Liga midfielder this season.

On top of his elite productivity from midfield, Gundogan’s game awareness, circulation of possession, and ability to progress centrally through blockades of pressure make him a key piece in Xavi’s side.

It is worth noting that the former Manchester City man has a knack for turning up the ante in the concluding stages of the season, which is a trend that has stayed intact at Barcelona.

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