The La Liga trophy is heading from the Catalan capital to the Spanish capital for the first time in four years, but how?
For many, the Barcelona side that coach Pep Guardiola has crafted over the past few years will undoubtedly go down as one of the best – if not the best – club side that has ever existed. Not just for the players that comprise this team, although that alone should be reason enough. From the back, Victor Valdes offers an assuredness in-between the sticks, as well as being good with his feet and the ability to pass the ball out from the Barca rearguard. In central defence, the odd couple in Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol – Pique is currently dating Latin pop star Shakira and Puyol is often affectionately coined as ‘The Caveman’ – have married together to create a partnership that frontmen across Spain and Europe have real trouble pushing about. From right-back, Daniel Alves’ marauding runs have effectively transformed him into a right-winger, whilst at left-back, the underrated Eric Abidal has offered added assuredness and calmness to the back four, before the trauma of his liver tumour and subsequent transplant.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets, despite being a blatant cheat at times and embarrassingly going to ground all too easily, clasping his face for good measure, is still the player that does the ‘dirty work’ and thus allows the imperious and magnificent duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta to weave their intricate passing movements to a front three that has at times comprised a selection from Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Pedro and, of course, the legendary Lionel Messi, the Lionel Messi that has just broken Gerd Muller’s 39-year long goalscoring record for the most goals scored in a single season. At time of writing, he has scored 68 goals this season and in total has scored a remarkable 248 goals in 361 games for Barcelona. He is 24 years of age.
The performances this side has given us over the past few seasons – most notably the 2-6 and 5-0 victories over Real Madrid in La Liga and the comprehensive defeats of Manchester United in the Champions League finals of both 2009 in Rome and 2011 in London – and the manner of them, passing the ball around the pitch and retaining possession to almost numb the opposition into submission through their physical energy and concentration levels, have rightly earned Guardiola’s side a place in the history books as one of the all time great sides. It has truly been a privilege to watch them at times.
So, how has this team of teams managed to relinquish both the La Liga and Champions League titles, both of which they were still heavy favourites to win, with Guardiola agreeing to stand down at the end of the season and hand over the reigns at the Camp Nou to his assistant, Tito Vilanova.
Firstly, if Barca themselves are analysed, we see chinks in their armour that have become increasingly apparent over the past campaign. In terms of results, Barca have slipped up in games where their fierce rivals, Real Madrid, have not. This season, Barca have drawn at home to Sevilla and away to Real Sociedad, Valencia, Espanyol, Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao, the team that Madrid defeated 3-0 at San Memes to clinch this 32nd La Liga title for Los Blancos. Add into this losses to Getafe, Osasuna and Real Madrid themselves, one has to concede that Barca have dropped far too many points in this La Liga season to be considered champions. As the season has drawn on, they have looked increasingly tired and fatigued.
Sid Lowe, Spanish football writer for the Guardian, has frequently commented over the past few seasons that have seen both Madrid and Barca illustrate that they are so vastly superior to the other 18 teams in La Liga. In this duel, where the title has often seen to be decided by the two El Clasico fixtures and winning the games outside of these are a formality, almost a necessity, he sums the title race in Spain perfectly by claiming: “Draws are the new defeats; defeats are the new disasters”.
Guardiola decided to step down as Barca coach after an eventful and tumultuous week where the La Liga title was surrendered to Madrid after Los Blancos defeated the Catalans 2-1 at the Camp Nou, while Chelsea pulled off the shock of all shocks by beating Barca 3-2 on aggregate and reaching the Champions League final in Munich. The two semi-final legs against Chelsea illustrated one of the few problem’s with Barca’s ‘tiki-taka’ playing philosophy; is there a Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work? 98 times out of 100, this question need not to be asked, as Plan A is usually sufficient to grant Barca victory. But when it doesn’t, as it did against Chelsea, questions will inevitably be asked as to why they supposedly waste time passing the ball along the ground so much rather than attempting a shot on goal or an aerial cross with the hope of scoring. Of course, this is their philosophy that has been correctly lauded over the past few seasons, but instances like this in such key games demonstrate that even the greatest can sometimes be a victim of their own success and the way that this greatness has been achieved.
Moreover, it is also unquestionable that Barcelona have elected to have a smaller squad, with less quality in depth than Madrid’s. One principal reason why Barca adopted the Qatar Foundation as their shirt sponsor, for £25 million a season, is that in the words of President Sandro Rossell, they have to pay the bills on a gross debt of almost €500 million.
To that end, although this summer saw over £20 million spent on acquiring Alexis Sanchez from Udinese and £30 million spent on bringing Cesc Fabregas back to the Camp Nou from Arsenal, the cantera is a resource which Barca have increasingly had to use to beef up their squad. Isaac Cuenca, Thiago Alcantara and Cristian Tello were all promoted to the first team squad from the B team over the summer. At the same time, Madrid spent €30 million on Fabio Coentrao, €5 million on buying back winger Jose Maria Callejon, €10 million for promising young Frenchman Raphael Varane and €10 million on Nuri Sahin, the best player in the Bundesliga the previous season to supplement a squad that is already most expensively assembled in football history at over €460 million.
The money spent on this Madrid side since Florentino Perez took over as President at the Santiago Bernabeu for the second time illustrates just how hard it has been for Barcelona to stay ahead of a team that has all the money in the world and can buy almost whoever they want. To some extent, this also heightens the achievement of the Catalans in recent times, by achieving what they have with a largely homegrown squad based on the cantera. But, with nearly €500 million spent on a team, this Madrid side have come of age this season. They have scored 115 goals so far this season in La Liga, a goal scoring record for a Spanish Primera division season, as well as record goal difference at +85. If they win their final two games, they will top La Liga with a staggering total of 100 points.
The amount of goals scored, and who has scored them, gives an intriguing insight into explaining another reason as to perhaps why it is Madrid find themselves as champions instead of Barcelona. Yes, Lionel Messi has had the season of seasons and has currently scored an unbelievable 46 goals in Liga, just ahead of Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo on 44 goals. But, rather tellingly, there are no other Barcelona players in the top ten rankings, yet there are two more Madrid players in the form of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain with 20 and 22 goals scored in La Liga respectively. Players like Atletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao, Valencia’s Roberto Soldado, and the potentially Premier League bound Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao have all scored more than any Barca player other than Messi in this season’s Primera Division. Whilst it must be correctly acknowledged that David Villa had his season unfortunately cut short after breaking his leg in the Club World Cup last December, the next highest scorer for Barca in La Liga is Alexis Sanchez with just 11 goals, then Xavi with 10 goals, then Cesc Fabregas with 9 goals.
The point being made is the following, that Barca have become increasingly reliant on one man; Lionel Messi. Of course, when one player scores 68 goals in a single season, then it is hard for a team to not look like they depend on said player in question to dig them out of a hole when needed to. But the gap in goal scoring between Messi and his team mates illustrate one of the few – and there are few - potential drawbacks from having the best player in the world in your side, and the problems that surface when he has a quiet game. Messi is traditionally more of a big game player than Ronaldo is, but Messi has not scored in the four most recent Clasico’s, whilst Ronaldo has scored four goals in the last five meetings.
Prior to most recent El Clasico at the Camp Nou, Barca’s win ratio in the 2011-12 season when Messi did not get on the score sheet in La Liga and all competitions was at 30% and 40% respectively, whilst the same figures for Ronaldo and Real Madrid winning games without his goals were at a much higher 55% in La Liga and 61% in all competitions. In other words, Barca won less than a third of their league games this season when Messi didn’t score, compared to just over half for Madrid when Ronaldo has stayed off the score sheet – a slender statistical change that, combined with the various goal scoring contributions of both sides, has helped deliver the La Liga title to the Spanish capital for the first time in four seasons.
Overall, it must be said that the duel at the top of La Liga has, once more, been a fascinating and intriguing encounter. Whether we have seen the end of this Barcelona team is up for debate, but it will be extremely difficult to replicate the success garnered under the Guadiola era.
As Sir Alex Ferguson said after the humbling his Manchester United side experienced barely a year ago,
“Great teams do go in cycles, and the cycle that they’re in is certainly the best Europe, there is no question about that. But how long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at another point – they certainly have the philosophy – but can you say you can find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time? Probably not.”
This may not be the end of this Barca team for good, but one thing alone is for certain; we have finally witnessed the rise of Mourinho’s Madrid.