What Barcelona have achieved this season has been remarkable, which we discuss endlessly on our latest podcast, especially after it looked as though the club was in turmoil toward the end of 2014. Who better to help us re-live this unbelievable chapter of Blaugrana history than passionate culé, Diana Uzum – @DianaKristinne. If you like Barcelona (or Liverpool) and don’t already follow her on Twitter, we’re not sure what you’ve been doing with your life. Here’s Diana:
Next to my TV I have a plant. When my friends offered it to me it had a few flowers. I watered it and took care of it but in time those flowers died and I was worried that the plant had died too. But in a few days I saw some flower buds emerge and then more and more and the plant is now filled with beautiful purple flowers, more beautiful than the ones it had at the start.
Barça’s season kind of went through the same stages: started off well, gradually declined to a point from which we thought it would never recover and then rose up to the top of the world.
But let’s tell the story as it happened.
On May 17th 2014 FC Barcelona drew at home with Atlético Madrid losing the league title to their opponents, finishing the season without a title for the first time since 2007-2008. It was a dreadful day, as was the entire season 2013-2014. The team looked beaten, so much so that after Atléti had equalized it seemed impossible that we’d manage to get the win (turns out that we did, as Messi scored, but the goal was wrongly disallowed, something that no one argued much about, which goes to show just how mentally exhausted that team was). After the game, Tata Martino resigned.
Four days later Luis Enrique Martínez was presented as the new coach. He said all the right things in his first press conference and – as a former club captain – most of the fans loved him already. Then the transfers started happening. 13 players left the first team, nine came in. There was a feeling of change in the air that was quite similar to the summer in which Pep Guardiola took over in 2008.
The season started and the team got off to a romping start, keeping eight consecutive clean sheets in the league (seven wins, one draw against Malaga). The system was different than the one the team had been using in recent years. Messi was playing behind two forwards who were positioned centrally and the team had no wingers. This required the full backs to act as virtual wingers, which in turn required the midfielders to play closer to the touchline to protect the space the full backs had left behind them. This system left the middle of the pitch very open and the defensive midfielder (mostly Busquets) had to try and somehow stop everything that went through that area all alone. It worked for a while, until a group game in the Champions League, away to PSG. The Parisians won 3-2 and exposed the system’s failures.
The next big test was the game against Real Madrid. The Clásico. The biggest game in world football. It was also the game in which Luis Suárez would make his debut for the Catalans after serving his ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup. And, Luis Enrique surprised everyone by starting Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta together in midfield, with Mathieu playing as a left back and Suárez playing on the right side of the attack. It seemed as if the Asturian coach had realized that Madrid could expose his new system in the same way that PSG had before and that he tried to revert to the old, classic Barcelona system. The experiment failed and Madrid deservedly won 3-1.
The following weekend, Barça lost at home to Luis Enrique’s former team, Celta Vigo and the panic alarms rang. The months of November and December 2014 seemed to be devoid of a consistent game plan and system. It was like a walk through a desert in which you encounter the rare oasis (beating Sevilla 5-1 and PSG 3-1 at the Camp Nou, both great performances). The midfield looked nonexistent and most of the time the forwards had to sort things out by themselves. The team looked like a complete mess and all the hope that had built up in the summer and the first two months of competition was fading away. Criticism of Luis Enrique was increasing by the day.
Then, in the first week of January came the trip away to Real Sociedad, where Barça hadn’t won since 2007. After returning to training only two days earlier (with the coach’s permission), Messi and Neymar both started on the bench, along with Piqué, Rakitic and Dani Alves. Barcelona lost 1-0 due to an own-goal from Jordi Alba. Messi came on at half time but couldn’t save the game for the Catalans.
The loss was even more upsetting because earlier that day, Real Madrid – already leading the league – had lost to Valencia and Barça’s game looked like a chance to get back on top. The next day, the first team had its traditional open training for the fans. Lionel Messi was absent from it, citing a stomach bug (which was an unfortunate choice since just a couple of days earlier Xavi had said that a “stomach bug” is the usual excuse used when someone doesn’t want to show up to training). It was not the first time in his Barcelona career that Messi had gotten upset over not starting a game and failed to show up at training the next day. This time, though, it seemed to be a sign that the star player and coach hated each other and that the situation was unresolvable.
Leo Messi is a fierce competitor. The 2013-2014 season and the following World Cup were disappointing experiences for him. Yes, a season in which he scored 41 goals and a World Cup in which he dragged his team to the final are considered disappointments. I guess that comes with the territory when you’re the best player in the world. The 2014-2015 season looked like his chance to get back to winning ways, and he was in great form – probably his best in at least 18 months. So, seeing his team in disarray was obviously upsetting for a man with a huge desire to win. Could this new coach who changed the lineup in every game (29 lineups in 29 games) lead Barça to trophies? Reviewing the first half of the season, on January 5th 2015 that answer was most likely “no”.
In the days that followed, the sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta was fired, former club captain Carles Puyol who was assisting Zubizarreta resigned, and President Josep Bartomeu announced that the elections would be moved up a year to summer 2015. For outside observers, this crisis was hard to understand. How can one loss trigger this? How can a team who is only trailing the league leaders by one point and who won its Champions League group be in such trouble? The short answer is that FC Barcelona is a complicated institution, with a history of infighting and crisis. Explaining all of the reasons for this particular week of madness would take me too long and would stray away from the sporting side too much. For anyone who is interested, this article summarizes the situation perfectly.
At the end of Barça’s worst week in years stood a date with the nemesis of the last season: Atlético Madrid. In 18 months, Barcelona had failed to beat them even once in six meetings. But on Sunday, January 11th 2015, something extraordinary happened. It was as if the tremors of the earthquake had made every piece fall into place. Barça played their best game of the season, completely destroying Atléti on course to a 3-1 win. The passing was fast, the players performed amazingly and Lionel Messi was the star of the show. It was the first game in which the three forwards all scored.
This game was the premiere of Luis Enrique’s second system of the season: Messi playing as a right “winger”, Suárez playing as #9 and the left side of the team returning to a more orthodox functionality with Neymar close to the touchline and Iniesta centrally. This mainly relied on the fact that both Messi and Neymar are outstanding dribblers and that usually flanks are less protected than the center. It wasn’t a very complex plan, but it worked because Messi and Neymar were unstoppable. This version of the team played some amazing games, beating Atlético three times and giving one of the best performances of the season away to Athletic Bilbao in a 5-2 win. Barca won 11 games in a row, until a loss to Malaga at the Camp Nou ended the streak.
This time, though, there would be no crisis. The team’s confidence in their coach and his system had grown. The rotations weren’t so radical anymore, with more players starting regularly. The Champions League round of 16 games against Manchester City were a window into the team’s final stage of evolution. The first halves of each game showed a dominant Barcelona, a Barcelona resembling the team that had conquered the world back in 2011.
After the City games came the second Clásico of the season. Real Madrid, who were trailing in the league table by one point, visited the Camp Nou. Barcelona suffered for a part of the game but ended up winning 2-1, with goals from Jérémy Mathieu and Luis Suárez. This meant that at the start of April Barça had a four point lead in the league and were also in the Champions League quarter finals.
April brought one of the hardest sequences of games in the team’s recent history: Sevilla away, PSG away, Valencia at home, PSG at home and then Espanyol away. At the end of two grueling weeks Barcelona had won all but one of these games, only getting a 2-2 draw at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán (the first 30-35 minutes of the game against Sevilla were some of Barcelona’s best of the season, but rare mistakes from Piqué and Bravo allowed the Andalusian team to equalize).
Barcelona’s third system of play was stable: Messi’s starting position was on the right, but slightly more withdrawn, not exactly a winger. When he received the ball he would often move into the center of the pitch and try to create something from there. Alves and Rakitic, the supporting cast for Leo’s genius on the right side of the pitch, understood their assignments perfectly. Alves acted like an additional midfielder most of the time, thus providing better defensive cover and facilitating his interplay with Messi, and Rakitic was the piece that balanced Messi’s movements: when Messi moved into the center, Rakitic went wide, when Messi stayed wide, Rakitic was in the center, when Messi played in midfield, Rakitic would make runs into the box.
Neymar was liberated from his position on the left wing and allowed to come inside more often and in most cases he shared the entire attacking front with Suárez. This final version of the team was balanced, controlled possession, knew when to play direct and when to wait and continued to win game after game until the end of the season.
Then, the Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich, facing the most successful coach in Barcelona’s history and the team that had smashed them two years ago with an aggregate score of 7-0. This was it. The biggest test.
For 74 minutes in the first leg at the Camp Nou, the result was balanced. Guardiola had managed to contain Messi and Neuer had made some great saves to keep the score 0-0. And then it all changed. Alves dispossessed Bernat on the wing about 25 meters out, made a forward run and then passed the ball to Messi on the edge of the box who hit it hard and low into the net at the near post. Three minutes later Rakitic, recovered a ball and passed it to Messi who ran at Boateng. The Argentine unbalanced the German who fell down as if timber, then gently chipped the ball over Manuel Neuer and into the net. In the final minute Suárez fought for a ball in his own half and passed it to Messi who sent Neymar clear on goal. The Brazilian scored and the game ended 3-0 for the Catalans. Bayern won the return leg 3-2, but the damage done at the Camp Nou couldn’t be repaired. Barcelona were in the Champions League final, where they would meet Juventus who had eliminated Real Madrid to the joy of Barça fans around the world.
With four weeks left in the season, three trophies were still in play.
On May 17th 2015, exactly one year after they had lost the league in their own house, Barcelona went to the Vicente Calderón and beat Atlético 1-0 to secure the title. The blaugrana dominated the game, but the only goal was scored by Messi in the 65th minute.
The following week, Barcelona drew their last game of the league against Deportivo, but that wasn’t the main event of the day. The main event was Xavi, the team’s captain, the embodiment of Barça’s style of play, saying goodbye to his fans. He had wanted to leave in the summer of 2014, but was talked out of it by Luis Enrique. It proved to be a great decision, both for the midfielder who ended his Barcelona career in the best way possible, but also for the team. Xavi helped Luis Enrique both on and off the pitch throughout the season. The league trophy was awarded, there were speeches and videos and lots of tears. It was the send-off the legend deserved.
But it wasn’t over yet. Next up was the Spanish Cup final against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou. The game was pretty balanced until Messi did this. I cannot explain that goal, nor will I even try to describe it. After that, Barcelona dominated. Neymar and Messi scored the second and third before Williams notched a consolation for Athletic. Barça had won their second trophy of the season.
The team they were facing in the Champions League final, Juventus, had also won a domestic double. Barça’s players started the game nervously, losing possession in their own half a few times, but in the fourth minute one of Messi’s trademark diagonals which have been so devastatingly efficient this season, found Jordi Alba on the left side. The left back passed it to Neymar, who guided the ball between two defenders to Iniesta. After a quick lay off from the Spaniard, Rakitic finished the move.
After the goal, the Catalans dominated the game, but didn’t manage to add more to their tally, mostly because of Gianluigi Buffon’s saves. As the time went on the Italians were growing into the contest, and in the 55th minute they equalized through Alvaro Morata. This opened a period of domination from Juventus, which only lasted for 12 minutes until Messi decided to take it upon himself to win the game. He carried the ball all the way from midfield and unleashed a hard shot on goal that was stopped by Buffon. The rebound trickled away and Suárez finished to put Barça back in front. In the dying seconds, following a Juventus free kick, the ball ended up at Messi’s feet who launched Neymar on the counter-attack. After a one-two with Pedro, the Brazilian slotted it into the net past Buffon. The game was over, the final was over, the season was over and Barcelona had won the treble for the second time in their glittering history.
It has been a roller coaster of a season and the second part of it would make one awesome (and scarcely believable) movie script. Luis Enrique deserves all the praise in the world for making this team into what it is today, for learning from his early mistakes and correcting them. Him and his staff also deserve lots of praise for the team’s incredible fitness and lack of long term injuries (Thomas Vermaelen was transferred injured, so it’s not their fault – although who conducted his medical?), for the enormous improvement on set pieces both in defense and attack, for getting new signings embedded into the system and for the improvement of many players throughout the course of the season. Every player deserves praise for his contribution, hard work and sacrifice, but for me the best two players of the season have been Lionel Messi, who is at the heart of almost every attacking move that the team has and who makes everyone around him play better, and Gerard Piqué, who has kept the promise he made last summer and got back to being one of the best center backs in the world, sustaining the team’s defense when it needed him.
FC Barcelona have returned to the summit of European football by having one of the greatest forward lines in history (who also get along well off the pitch), a great defense, a united team, a coherent plan and a beautiful style of play.