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Barcelona only won the league and cup double this year. Only. Over the course of the season, story lines popped up everywhere. Sergi Roberto played in every position imaginable, the team battled through some Messi-less months, and Suarez arguably became the world’s best striker. Here to sum it all up for us is culé-in-chief, Diana Uzum – @DianaKristinne. If you like Barcelona and don’t already follow her on Twitter, we’re not sure why. Get on with it! Here’s Diana:
If you want to understand the club that FC Barcelona is you should probably start by knowing that there was, and still is, a sense of disappointment all around (players, club, fans) about not achieving the seemingly impossible and never-before-seen task of winning two trebles in a row. And while this might sound insane for people on the outside looking in, the thing is that this feeling is based on the belief that this Barça team is the best team in Europe.
Yes, it’s kind of arrogant to say that when they didn’t win the Champions League, and, yes, the winner of the trophy will technically be named “the best team in Europe”, but in a cup competition it’s not always the best team that wins. It depends on draws and on the form the teams are in at the time and other factors.
Given the fact that over the course of the season Barça were better than both of the Champions League finalists (as proven by their league title), the belief that were it not for that poorly-timed drop in form the Holy Grail of two consecutive Champions League trophies would have been reached will probably live indefinitely. Of course, so will the blaming of Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption in 2010 for losing to Inter in that semifinal. Disclaimer: I do not state that we were sane and rational.
The 2015-2016 season came and passed so quickly that it’s still hard to accept that it has ended. We’re still kind of recovering from last season’s treble and this one has already ended? What sorcery is this? Alas, it is true. And to understand the journey that Barça went on during these nine months let us review the story chronologically.
Barça’s preseason was a typical one for big European clubs: a tour of the US instead of a training camp, because the off-season is a time when clubs need to focus on the truly important part of the sport: raking in piles of cash. What’s that you say: preparation for the next season? You can do that in between connecting flights, relax.
Of course, the technical staff did the best they could under the situations to get the players ready for a new grueling season, but it’s safe to assume that the preparation of the summer of 2014 (training stage at St. George’s Park in England) was better. The players that had featured in the Copa América missed this US tour and returned to training a few days before the first game of the season.
Success in 2014/1/5 meant that Barça’s August already contained two chances to win trophies: the European and Spanish Supercups. The first was played against Sevilla in Tbilisi (Thanks, UEFA!). After a superb first hour Barça were leading comfortably 4-1 including two wonderful free kick goals from Messi to turn the score around after Banega had scored for Sevilla, and it seemed like they would even be able to get some in-game rest to prepare for the games against Athletic Club. However, due to their consecutive Europa League wins and proven European pedigree Sevilla have a superb belief, and are not a team that gives up, regardless of what they’re faced with. They managed to tie the game by the end of 90 minutes and on to overtime we went.
Playing one of his last games for the club, it was Pedro that saved the day for Barça, just like he had seven years before in another European Supercup. In the 114th minute, after another beautifully taken free kick from Messi was parried by Beto, the diminutive Spaniard pounced on the rebound and won the Catalan club their fourth title of 2015 and their first of the 2015-2016 season.
That game was played on August 11th, ended way after midnight and the squad made it back to Barcelona in the early hours of August 12th after a long flight. The first round of the Spanish Supercup against Athletic Club was two days later. So Luis Enrique decided to try and avoid injuries this early in the season and feature an experimental team featuring Bartra and Vermaelen as a starting center back pair, Adriano at left back, and a midfield of Mascherano, Sergi Roberto and Rafinha. In attack Pedro replaced a mumps-ridden Neymar. The final score was 4-0 for the Basques.. A 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou three days later meant Barça lost the first trophy they had played for since the Asturian had been named coach.
The league season started with three difficult games for the Catalans, with away trips to Athletic Club and Atlético Madrid and a home game against Málaga. The first stage of the season was showing us a different version of Barça than the treble winning side. The team had more control over the game, with both Messi and Neymar sticking less to the wings and coming more inside to combine with the midfielders. With Busquets and Iniesta being more involved this allowed for fewer transitions, both for and against them. The first meant that the team had fewer clear chances born out of counterattacks; the second meant that the defense wasn’t getting tested as much.
If you add this loss of some of the “punch” Barça’s attack had showed in ‘14-‘15 with the fact that the players seemed to be in some sort of a competition to miss the most chances, the goals weren’t quite as easy to get as they had been. A Suárez goal won the away trip at the San Mamés and a miraculous Vermaelen goal won the game against Málaga.
The away trip to Atléti came right after the international break and Messi had missed training the day before due to the birth of his second son, so he started the game on the bench being replaced by Rafinha. Barça were also missing the injured Bravo and Alves and the suspended Piqué from the backline. Then, Vermaelen, who had impressed with his early season games, got injured in the 25th minute being replaced by Mathieu. Barça dominated the first half, but didn’t score and soon after half time Fernando Torres was the first to get his name on the score sheet. Right before the best player in the world was subbed in for the last 30 minutes, Neymar equalized with a beautiful free kick. Barça steadily got back to dominating the game and managed to win thanks to a Messi goal.
The first Champions League game, away to Roma, brought with it very bad news: Rafinha’s ACL injury. After a summer in which both Xavi and Pedro left Barça and the club wasn’t allowed to register any new signings, the young Brazilian had gone from being the third substitution Luis Enrique made to being the first one, his qualities allowing him to play both in midfield and on the wing. He had shined in the first month of competition and it looked like he was going to have his breakout season. Unfortunately his injury meant that these early promising signs were all that we were left with and the hope that next season will allow us to see his potential become reality. The game ended 1-1, but it felt secondary to the loss of Rafinha.
After a big win against Levante at home, Barça lost their first league game away at Balaídos. Facing an energetic Celta Vigo, the Catalans never managed to control the game and their lack of effectiveness in front of goal meant that they ended up on the losing side of an end to end game. The 4-1 score was maybe too harsh, considering the number of chances that Barça created, but it showed the problems they had with converting these chances in the early stage of the season.
The next game provided another blow for the blaugranas as Leo Messi got injured in the opening 10 minutes of the home game against Las Palmas. Barça won the game 2-1 thanks to two goals from Luis Suárez, but everyone waited with baited breath for the diagnosis and the expected duration of the absence… When it came it was bad: 7-8 weeks out. Two months without the talisman player of the team. More than a quarter of the season would have to be played without the best player in the world.
There’s a curious phenomenon that happens when a team is missing its best player: everyone else takes a step up, raises their level, because they know that he isn’t there to bail them out anymore. They assume more responsibility because he can’t fix things anymore. This is what happened to Barça. Everyone stepped up, but no one did this more than Neymar. Continuously hailed as the heir apparent to the throne of best player in the world, the Brazilian showed in those two months why everyone has so much faith in his future. He became the main creator of the team. Giving him the ball anywhere near the final third of the pitch was almost a guarantee that something would happen. It was absolutely enchanting and exhilarating to watch.
Of course, right next to him in terms of importance to the team during that Messi-less period there was Luis Suárez and also a midfield that was becoming increasingly influential with Iniesta and Busquets playing some of the best football of their careers. This was also the time in which Sergi Roberto proved that he was a valuable member of the squad, being basically the first substitute for a number of positions and playing well in all of them. This all started with him replacing Dani Alves at right back, a position which he had only played during summer tour friendly games. He played well and earned the coach’s trust and he was then used in basically every outfield position on the pitch, except for striker and center back.
Despite a hard win against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League and an early stumble in the league with an away loss against Sevilla, this period was probably when the team played its best football of the season. They controlled games and very rarely suffered, winning comfortably against Rayo Vallecano, Bate Borisov twice, Eibar, Getafe and Villarreal.
Then came the masterpiece. The 4-0 win at the Bernabéu. In a proof of just how much he had grown this season, Sergi Roberto started the game as a right winger and provided a gorgeous assist for Luis Suárez’s first goal of the evening. By the time Messi came on the score was already 3-0 (Neymar and Iniesta had assisted each other’s goals). The team was in complete control and even went down a speed in order to play to the rhythm of the returned Argentinean. Then in the 75th minute, a tireless Jordi Alba provided another great assist for Suárez to score his second. The game was an exhibition of everything the team had grown to be even without its best player and it will remain in the club’s history as one of our great evenings at the Bernabéu.
The team’s great moment of form and the enthusiasm about Messi’s return provided for another two great wins in the following two games against Roma and Real Sociedad at the Camp Nou. Then the team hit its first rough patch of the season, with three consecutive draws against Valencia away, Bayer Leverkusen away and Deportivo La Coruña at home. The problem was that the team was almost suffering a counter-reaction to the one it had gone through when Messi was out: after he returned, he was naturally not 100% from the start, but it felt as if the team’s desire to integrate him and to make everything flow through him again was actually making them play a bit slower than they had in his absence.
What followed was a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. Both Messi and Neymar were plagued with physical problems so the team’s star in the semi-final was Luis Suárez who scored a hattrick to dispatch the Asian champions, Guangzhou Evergrande. Having the attacking trident reunited in the final, Barça beat River Plate – the Copa Libertadores winners – with another 3-0 to win their second trophy of the season and be crowned world champions.
The start of 2016 brought with it good news for Luis Enrique: his two summer signings (Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal) could finally play after six months of training.. The team kept winning and winning, sometimes with outrageous score lines (6-0 against Athletic Club, 6-1 against Celta Vigo, 7-0 against Valencia, 6-0 against Getafe), but it was starting to become apparent that something wasn’t quite as it had been in the previous season. The team’s play wasn’t as fluid; the system wasn’t as stable as it had been.
By that time, however, Messi was back to 100% and his great performances helped the team get wins that they might have otherwise not obtained. Examples like the away games against Malaga, Levante, Sporting Gijón or Las Palmas come to mind. The problem was that Barça had never really managed to evolve the system of play because of Messi’s injury. It was no longer the Barça of wingers that took Europe by storm in the previous season. It was a team who wanted more control, in which both Messi and Neymar wanted to come inside, but which hadn’t perfected all its mechanisms for this new environment. Maybe because they kept winning games while their rivals in the league faltered, the need for this evolution to be complete and the mechanisms to be perfected never really became dire.
During these three months we also found out that for whatever reason, Arda and Aleix hadn’t quite lived up to the expectations formed by their signings. In the case of the Turk it seems that he can’t quite play the role of the Barça interior in order to adequately replace Iniesta or Rakitic, and given that when Neymar, Suárez and Messi are all fit they always play, we’ve barely seen Arda as a winger. Vidal showed promise at first, but then got injured while doing something silly in training, which angered Luis Enrique and resulted in the player not being named in the squad for a few games even after he was fit.
Of course, there were brief exceptions in which the team proved what it can do in full flow, like the last 20 minutes of the first half in the game against Atlético Madrid at the Camp Nou. It was wonderful to watch, a spectacle, football turned art at the highest level of competition.
In this period, Barça extended their league lead to 11 points from Atléti and 12 from Real Madrid, they qualified to the final of the Copa del Rey with flying colours and eased past Arsenal in the round of 16 in the Champions League. They were unbeaten in 39 consecutive games, improving the previous club record and setting a new Spanish record. The team seemed unstoppable if you only looked at results and achievements. But the reality would soon be revealed that the football behind the results wasn’t quite up to standard.
First it was the draw against a Villarreal that dominated the game for large parts in the second half and managed to come back from two goals down. Then, the first loss after 39 games.
The build-up to the Camp Nou Clásico was dominated by the sad news of Johan Cruyff’s death. The father of Barça’s style, the guardian of Barça’s philosophy, one of the most important people in the club’s history had passed away. It is impossible to overstate just how much of a key figure the Dutchman was. He changed everything about the club. All the achievements that Barça have amassed in the last quarter of a century are thanks to him. His influence was enormous and his death leaves a giant hole that no one can presume to fill.
In the game, Barça dominated the first 55-60 minutes until Piqué scored a goal from a corner. But this wasn’t a domination that pushed Madrid to the limit of their powers to resist. It was more of a placid domination, in which the tempo was slow and both teams seemed to be playing it safe rather than take any chances. After the goal it was as if Barça thought that their job was done. They took their foot off the pedal even more and Madrid realized that they could actually turn this around.
Football so often depends on the state of mind. Madrid equalized and Barça started to have doubts. You would think that a team who was unbeaten in 39 consecutive games wouldn’t have doubts, but as we’ve said before, the level of football shown by the team was not always as good as the results had shown. Even with a man down, Zidane’s Real Madrid still scored again and won the Clásico, while at the same time implanting fears in Barça minds.
The next game after this loss was the first round of the Champions League quarter final against Atlético Madrid. Barça were bad in the first half, but managed to turn the score around in the second with two goals from Luis Suárez. The performance wasn’t great, but it was a win and a good result to take into the second leg at the Calderón a week later.
This was followed by the darkest week in Barça’s last few years, with the team losing three games in a row. In a cruel twist of fate, they had enough chances to win the games against Real Sociedad and Valencia, and to score at least once away at Atléti in the Champions League, but they just couldn’t score the goals that just a couple of weeks before had come so easily.
My personal explanation for this was the doubt that I mentioned earlier. The team had lost faith in itself so every action was rushed and not properly executed. They were trying to score out of desperation and a fear of losing. They lacked serenity. Elimination from the Champions League is always a major downer for every elite team, as it takes away one of the major goals of the season and especially for a team like Barça, who had dreamed of doing the impossible and repeating the treble. Losing their advantage in the league and without any European sparkle left, the crisis was real.
And then, a group of champions did what they do best. They got off the floor and started fighting back. This squad is made out of players who are native competitors and are addicted to winning, and so they proved. The signs were there even during the loss against Valencia, but it was against Deportivo that the blood loss was stemmed. Again, it was Messi who saved Barça. He dropped even deeper than his usual position and carried the team over the line. He received help, of course, because even he can’t fix everything on his own. From a coach who made defensive adjustments so that the team didn’t concede a single goal in its last six games of the season, from a Piqué and Mascherano center back duo who sustained the team and from Luis Suárez who scored a ridiculous amount of goals. Slowly the team found its feet and its self esteem again and actually played well in the last two league games to secure the title.
The season ended as it began, with a final against Sevilla. Crowned Europa League winners for the third time in a row the Andalusians created a lot of problems for Barça which were only exacerbated once Mascherano got sent off for a foul on Kevin Gameiro. Barça resisted without conceding until half time and then were able to adjust their structure for the remainder of the game.
The second half had barely started, however, when Luis Suárez got injured and had to be subbed off and replaced by Rafinha. A resolute and defensive Barça managed to prevent Sevilla from scoring and the game was pushed into extra time. Right before the regular 90 minutes were over Banega got a straight red card and the teams were equal again. It was in extra time that two gorgeous Messi passes were converted into goals by Jordi Alba and Neymar to secure Barça’s 28th Copa del Rey and second consecutive league-cup double, something which no team had done in Spain in 60 years.
Maybe the tribulations of the last two months and the way in which the team was pushed to breaking point and managed to get up again and win these two trophies make them more valuable to the fans. Perhaps if the league had been won with rounds to spare and the cup final was a comfortable 2-0 and not a painful one like it was, the focus would have been more on what Barça didn’t win than on what they did. But the struggle it took to achieve these trophies this season makes us appreciate them more and makes us realize how hard winning is.
So thank you for the great season and for these new four trophies, Barça. See you in July!