It's amazing to think it was only August when Barcelona were being smashed 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup by arch-rivals Real Madrid and were in the process of losing Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain for a world record £220million fee.

All the doom and gloom merchants were out in force and the general consensus was that this was the end of Barcelona as we know them. This was to be the season when Father Time was going to catch up with their incomparable talisman Lionel Messi who had cut a sad, almost apologetic figure in those games against Madrid.

It looked for all the world like Real were going to dominate the football world yet again while Barca would step back and take their place among the also-rans.

There was also the fact that Luis Enrique had left the head coaching position in May and Spaniard Ernesto Valverde had taken over the reins.

Fast forward to now and here we are with Barcelona four points ahead of Valencia and an incredible ten points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga standings in Spain. They are also top of their UEFA Champions League group and Messi is still the same as ever.

Meanwhile Real have been shocking by their standards currently sitting in third place in the league and recently lost their first Champions League group game in five years losing 3-1 to English club Tottenham Hotspur. Their megastar forward Cristiano Ronaldo has been a shadow of himself only scoring twice in the league and the legend that is Zinedine Zidane is under intense pressure with regards to his position as head coach.

So how have Barca made this happen and why have the tables been turned?

Well the Catalan giants have adopted a more pragmatic approach under Valverde this season. Yes they have the individuals to win games on their own but they have not been so expansive and are playing with an element of caution. Under the previous regime of Luis Enrique they may have had the dream team of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar but the actual style of play was a subject of much conjecture among the Nou Camp faithful.

To many it went against the proud traditions of Barcelona football in that the reliance on the front three meant that the midfielders were made almost redundant.The likes of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano at the back would look to get the ball to the front three as soon as was possible and let them work their magic which they invariably would.

Remember these Barca fans have been brought up on the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta where the whole philosophy of their play centred around their midfield and they would dictate the play and completely dominate the possession stats.

The so-called tiki-taka style that was perfected when Pep Guardiola was in charge would basically pass teams into submission before Messi and Ronaldinho alongside players such as Thierry Henry would apply the finishing touches. It was beautiful to watch and had the Catalan faithful in raptures as they dominated Europe and La Liga.

Now under Valverde, the first thing they had to do was to try and overcome the loss of Neymar. Just how do you compensate for the departure of such a player? The simple answer is you can’t. He’s just too good and so Valverde had to look at the tools he had and create a system where they would look to control games and at the same time get the best out of Messi.

Under Enrique, Messi played in a deeper role where he would look to pick up possession and create havoc but one of the secrets to Valverde’s success has been the fact that he pushed Messi further forward. In doing this it gets the mercurial Argentinian much closer to the opposition penalty area and therefore more shooting chances. Messi has responded scoring 16 goals already in all competitions with 12 of those in La Liga.

His great form has somewhat masked the struggles of star marksman Suarez so far this season. The brilliant Uruguayan who scored 37 goals last term has only managed 5 in 16 starts and his form has been a major concern. The general consensus is that his struggles stem from the fact that Barca have played without widemen this season which has left little space down the middle and as a result, Suarez has found it difficult to operate. Having said that, you have to think that a player that has scored an incredible 90 goals in 106 appearances for Barcelona will work it out eventually.

The good thing is where Suarez has been lacking, there have been others, aside from Messi, that have picked up the slack in front of goal. Paulinho, the defensive midfielder signed from Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao for €40million in the summer has pitched in with three goals. Denis Suarez, who was a bit-part player they signed from Villarreal at the beginning of last season has scored a couple of goals and an assist and there have also been goals from fellow midfielders Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu.

Valverde has moulded the group into a tight unit where all the players seem to have bought into his methods and style of play. They are controlling games, working extremely hard, pressing their opponents all over the pitch. However, as was mentioned earlier, there are still those not totally convinced with their overall play and recently one of the senior players, midfielder Sergio Busquets, broke rank and went public on how he felt.

“We’re on a really good run,” he told Radio Marca.

“We’re not playing brilliantly, but we’re solid and compact. It’s difficult to score against us and we’re really happy.

“We do realise we have not played brilliantly, though. An important player left (Neymar), we’ve changed the system...That gives you some things and takes away other things. But the important thing is to be compact, that’s how you build a winning team.” Busquets added.

It appears that as long as the team is winning then the players and fans alike are prepared to accept a less expansive style. The problem will come when results are not so good but I suppose that discussion can be put aside for another day.

Valverde very shrewd in the transfer market

Another factor in Barcelona’s good start has been the success of their pre-season signings. Ironically the summer ended with the Catalans being ridiculed for their high-profile transfer failures. One of the bigger sagas of the close-season was their much-publicised pursuit of Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho. There were reportedly four bids made by Barca for the gifted Brazilian playmaker with the final one being in the region of £135million but the Reds would not budge.

There was also the monster £105million signing of Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund. The 20-year-old French striker was a target for all of the major clubs in Europe but picked the Nou Camp. Unfortunately he tore his hamstring in just his second appearance for the club and was told he would not be back for around four months.

This was a major blow for Barca but some of the less heralded signings have really stepped up. Paulinho was a surprise signing coming in from the Chinese League but he has fitted in superbly. Valverde needed a defensive minded midfielder who would just sit and protect the backline and the Brazilian has been superb even weighing in with three goals as was mentioned earlier.

Then there’s the signing of Gerard Deulofeu who they bought back from Everton after activating the buyback clause inserted in his contract after selling him to the English Premier League club two years ago. The 23-year-old finally seems to have matured into the player they always thought he would become when he first joined them as a youngster. He has been so dangerous when in full flow and his ability to beat defenders and to cross a ball have given Valverde an excellent option down either flank.

They also signed Portuguese right-back Nelson Semedo from Benfica for $30.5million and the 24-year-old has fitted in seamlessly to the side. He has been a terrific attacking threat rampaging down that right-hand side but has also impressed with his assured defensive qualities. It certainly bodes well for the future that the newbies have got playing time and are settled. It can only help at such a big club like Barcelona.

El Clasico

Now while they have negotiated the initial part of the season with flying colours, the next big test for this side is how they will deal with adversity. They are on a 16-match unbeaten streak but the biggest game of their season is just around the corner and could be a major turning point for them and their opponents in that game.

It will be, of course, ‘El Clasico’, the so-called biggest club game in the world between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Their first clash in La Liga is on December 23rd and while every tussle between these two is huge, this one takes on even greater significance due to the seasons each team has had up to now.

For Barcelona, a win against their hated rivals would be the ultimate validation of the new regime and style of play. Defeat would render all the previous good work as almost useless in the eyes of the Nou Camp faithful and cast an almost tangible wave of doubt throughout the club.

As for Real Madrid, they will be desperate for the win to kickstart their season and to regain a belief that they can catch the Catalans in the race for La Liga. Nobody saw this dip in form coming from Zidane’s men and the theory that many have to explain the slump is that the squad at the Bernabeu is getting too old.

There’s the main man Ronaldo who is now 32 and his lack of goals (by his ridiculous standards) so far this term are seen as a sign that Father Time may have at last set started to catch up with the Portuguese legend. Then there is defensive lynchpin Sergio Ramos who is 31 and Ronaldo’s partner-in-crime up top, Karim Benzema who is 30 in December. You add to this their midfield playmaker Luka Modric who is 32 and there may well be some substance to the age theory.

The thing is all of those mentioned are top quality players and when the going gets tough, these are the ones that will get going. When he season starts to reach its crescendo they will invariably raise their levels and perform. They are too good to just let age catch up with them. It will one day but they will see their current plight as just another challenge that they need to overcome. They know the game on December 23rd could ultimately shape their season and they will be ready.

It is unusual for this game to be so close to Christmas but it has been recently moved to that date from its original December 20th slot due to Madrid’s participation in the FIFA World Club Championship which takes place the week before. The worldwide interest when the two teams clash is phenomenal. When they last played each other in La Liga in April, the game was beamed to an astonishing 185 countries reaching an incredible 650 million TV viewers across the globe and these figures have been growing with every passing season.

So if one was to make a quick summary of Barcelona’s season to date its been one that has been full of promise and the future looks bright. Valverde has got the side together where they have regrouped and responded superbly after the stunning departure of Neymar. He has changed the system to one where ball retention is key as is the will to win it back when lost.

He has very astute in the transfer market and the players have really been sold on his methods and what he is trying to achieve.The biggest key, though, has been his ability to keep Messi happy and that has seen the great man thriving in his new, more advanced role. It will be interesting to see where the ‘Blaugrana’ are in three months time, but for now it has definitely been a case of so far so good this campaign.