Barcelona strong as ever
Despite all the clamour about the board's incompetency spinning the club into a doomsday spiral, Ernesto Valverde is having a swell time managing Barcelona.
Four games, three clean sheets, 12 points, 11 goals, only one conceded. The players on the pitch have drowned out the background noise and set the record straight. Barcelona is not a team in crisis but setting the pace for the La Liga title.
Neymar's move away from the Nou Camp and the club's failure to secure Philippe Coutinho's signature left fans in turmoil. Barcelona's smooth start to the season has calmed the waters. Add in Real Madrid's wavering start and, other than being granted independence, Catalonian fans couldn't be more pleased.
Here's how Barcelona is already proving its critics wrong:
Paulinho was a shrewd signing
Confusion regarding Barcelona's intent in signing Paulinho washed over the football world when the deal was announced. Yet, upon deeper analysis, the move seems a smart one for new boss Ernesto Valverde.
Paulinho had rediscovered his form in China. At least one teammate at Guangzhou Evergrande had better numbers, albeit in a more advanced role, and Valverde was gambling the Brazilian's form would translate against the more intense competition. In the short term, the gamble has paid off, even if some prefer to wait until Paulinho's El Clasico debut before rendering a final verdict.
Paulinho is now more than a defensive midfielder. He has become adept at playing box-to-box. For Valverde, the 29-year-old is a perfect late substitute. He can energize the central park in a manner Sergio Busquets cannot. The Tottenham disappointment is suddenly a versatile player who can break up attacks and shatter opposing defences. He not only looks imposing, these days, his work rate is overwhelming.
In Paulinho's brief appearance against Espanyol, he read the lay of the land, then eschewed the midfield anchor role to operate as the most advanced among Barca's central trio. Espanyol players were left confused as to who should mark the marauding destroyer. Such instincts are invaluable in a player.
For the better part of 2016-17, Lionel Messi's "waning abilities" were pointed out. Many felt the Argentine's best years were over, that the torch should be passed to Neymar.
The young Brazilian was hailed as the new 'best player in the world' following his exemplary Camp Nou performance against PSG in Barca's historical European comeback. Neymar was now the real deal. Without him, it would be Messi lost in the crowd.
Only, time is relative. In four La Liga games, the living legend has found the net five times, hitting the mark with nearly half his attempted shots. On top of that, he's maintained an exquisite 84% pass accuracy, creating 10 chances in the process.
For an old man, Lionel Messi is making great strides. Neymar's absence has been insignificant. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner has again shown the world why the club revolves solely around him.
The other guys
Ousmane Dembele's signing made the world-record deal more bearable for Barca fans. He debuted as a substitute for Gerard Deulofeu against Espanyol. With one of his first touches, the 20-year-old provided the assist on Luis Suarez's final goal. His hamstring injury against Getafe was unfortunate. Still, his future looks bright.
Deulofeu is also a force to be reckoned with. The Catalan has put in tremendous effort. He has created seven chances for the side while boasting a 75% shooting accuracy, 79 passing.
All in all, Barcelona is thriving despite preconceived notions their strength has withered. Valverde and co may well block Real Madrid from continuing its reign as La Liga champion.