Dennis Seese: What is your opinion of Ivan Rakitic's assimilation into this Barcelona side? I engaged in some friendly banter with Barca Blaugranes editor Arron Duckling on Twitter a few weeks back because he felt that Rakitic was an upgrade over Cesc Fabregas in Barca's midfield. What has he shown you so far?
Luis Mazariegos: Rakitic has been very good so far. It's not necessarily that he is better than Cesc, but his skillset is needed more. For that reason, Barcelona are better off with the Croatian. The main advantage he has is that he is more mobile and just overall better defensively, but still retains qualities such as passing and shooting. With Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, there is less need for a player to play killer passes, which is probably Cesc's best quality. Rakitic is more balanced. When Cesc is played as a forward (and let's not forget that is how he started one of the two Clasicos last year), he is adequate, but not spectacular, and Luis Suarez is a huge improvement. Rakitic can cover Dani Alves's flank when the Brazilian bombs forward, which is doubly important as Alves is starting to fade in his ability to fly back down and defend. It's not a coincidence that Cristiano Ronaldo has gotten more goals as Alves has dropped from his peak, and that Xavi has, too, dropped in his ability to cover the right flank from midfield. (It's not the only factor, but it is a factor.)
DS: If you were in position to select Barca's starting XI, who would your preferred back-four be? As a sidebar, Jeremy Mathieu has been widely praised for his impact thus far. How much impact do you think he has had on Barcelona's record-breaking defensive start?
LM: I think Mathieu is a lock to start and he's been very impressive. Some people criticized his signing, but anyone who has followed Mathieu over the past few seasons knows he is a great player. I wrote an article before the season started saying that bar the fact that the team took too long to sign him and thus ended up spending more than necessary, the acquisition was great. He's made a few mistakes but overall, he's been possibly the team's best defender. Alves has his critics but I don't see any way Martin Montoya or Douglas start ahead of him. As the other centerback, the starter will be Gerard Pique (another player with lots of critics.) Javier Mascherano could start, but his lack of height is troubling. Then there's Marc Bartra, who scored in his first Clasico last year, but I doubt he will be trusted. For what it's worth, Pique has a tendency to play well in big games. At left-back, there's no other option but Jordi Alba. Adriano is a good squad player but constantly injured, and he won't be available. My preferred back four is Alves, Pique, Mathieu, and Alba. Pique is really the only one in question (the alternatives for Alves do not inspire confidence), but I think he will get the nod.
DS: Following up on that last question, who would say is most responsible for Barca's eye-opening defensive performance?
LM: It's a combination of things, which is a bit of a cop-out answer, I know. But there's just no separating it - the team is pressing well, Rakitic is covering more than Cesc or Xavi, Mathieu is playing well, and Claudio Bravo has been impressive in goal. Messi has been a force in pressing, he has 8 tackles in La Liga according to WhoScored; he's near the top in that category as far as forwards go.
DS: What has been the biggest change/difference in Luis Enrique's approach to the squad compared to Gerardo Martino's? There seems to be a change in spirit. How much (if at all) do you think Enrique's deep-rooted Barcelona history factors into this?
LM: Part of the reason isn't to do with Tata Martino in particular. You have to remember how shocking the start of the season was last time 'round. Tito Vilanova had just won the league with a record number of points and was preparing for a second season when his cancer reappeared. He had to step down; it was very somber. Martino stepped in as an emergency replacement. He did a decent job, not great, obviously, but the cards were stacked against him. Tito's death was even more tragic. Then there was the president stepping down mid-season and Messi's biggest injury in years. It was chaos; this season logically feels like a fresh start. On the other hand, Luis Enrique has loads of charisma, and his tough, no-nonsense approach was exactly what was needed. He has the trust of the fans and I think the players as well, not to mention the media. Martino was an unknown in Europe (sadly, as he did have good accomplishments) and didn't project the same confidence. This is all of little consequence if Lucho's results don't follow, of course.
DS: How do you see Luis Suarez fitting into the lineup, particularly when there has been such a high-level of cohesion between Neymar and Lionel Messi?
LM: I think Suarez will do excellent, the problem is, will he do well enough in his first game back to help decide a Clasico? I'm not sure. Lucho has devised the system with Suarez in mind, so it's logical he'll fit in OK. Still, he may need a few games to really settle in. It took Neymar a whole year to really find the same wavelength as Messi. On the other hand Suarez is a more experienced player, and his transition from Liverpool is less of a big step. It's been obvious that Messi has played as a withdrawn forward, not quite a midfielder, but not a forward, exactly either. He's always had shades of playing midfield, but it is particularly obvious now, as two strikers position themselves further up and try to receive his passes. I think the Neymar-Messi connection will be unaffected by Suarez's introduction as they will operate in the same system. And there's no getting around the fact that Suarez is at the moment about 100 times better than Pedro, Sandro, or Munir, who have played his role in his absence. That said, it's clearly sub-optimal for this to be his first game back. The scheduling isn't particularly kind (nor that bad, of course, at least he is available.)