La Liga is decided–Real Madrid having won the title against Málaga–and all that is left for Barcelona to play for is the Copa del Rey on Saturday, May 27.
This last possible prize left for the blaugrana is something of a consolation trophy after the team has stumbled out of the Champions League, and finished second to Real Madrid in Spain. Throughout the season dullness and frailties have been exposed. The passing play that Barcelona became tirelessly known for has struggled to circulate from defense to attack, like an artery clogged with blockage choking off a heart.
There, in the lost channels of the midfield, the season has been defined. An absence that managed to say more about the workings of the team than the brilliance of the stars that play for it.
The brightest genius of football, Leo Messi, created absolutely indelible moments that will live on as iconic images in the club’s history (the raising of his shirt at the Bernabéu), and the remontada comeback against PSG in the Champions League Quarter Finals was as bordeline-magical a turnaround as football has seen–but those stellar heights have been achieved in place of titles. Titles and trophies are not quite all that count, but they are the surest measure in the game.
This leaves Luis Enrique with one last game to play for. One last prize to be decided. The coach announced his departure several months ago, following two-and-a-half seasons where his team has won eight trophies. It has been a winning formula that he’d implemented, but maybe not one that has felt as unique and idiomatic to Barça as others.
Pep Guardiola’s shadow has been long over the team. The standard of passing and positional play that he chiseled at relentlessly brought the winningest period in the club’s history. The style was developed so thoroughly within the team and staff that the year he was replaced by his number two, Tito Vilanova, saw the team set a new points total in La Liga–100.
The Tito year featured the technical dominance of Xavi and Iniesta’s midfield, plus saw the highest efficiency of Messi as a goal scorer. It was a year that confirmed the superiority of the style–even without Pep’s mania. Sadly, the cancer that struck Vilanova during the spring time stuck a dark thorn in the side of a team that would win the league, but crash out of Europe at the hands of Bayern Munich.
What followed Tito’s forced resignation in the summer was the introduction of two figures that would prove telling for the years to come. Neymar and Tata Martino.
The twinkling eyed Brazilian talent was scooped up from Santos in the kind of shady deal full of more back-channel payments and hidden exchanges than one would think is still possible under the scrutiny of the modern information age. But it seems it was. Club president Sandro Rosell, who just today was arrested on charges of money laundering in Brazil dating back to 2010, orchestrated the deal to bring Neymar at all costs. It was a polarizing move that Johan Cruyff rejected as foolish. Rosell also installed former Paraguay and Newel’s Old Boys coach Tata Martino to take the helm of the team seemingly on a whim. After all, the team was so good, they could coach themselves, right?
Rosell had established a dynamic at the club that valued talent above all costs, and seemed to take for granted the necessity for systematic tactical discipline. Neymar was perhaps the most expensive transfer acquisition of a player ever, yet he was bought for his anarchic individual play that could disrupt defenses in one-on-ones, and sell millions of shirts. Tata Martino seemed to be mostly hired because he had a connection to Leo Messi’s boyhood club where he had won one Argentine league. Martino looked overwhelmed by the scale of the club from the start. A bit naively, he wore the same suit at every game for the first month of his tenure.
Tata’s coaching team did not have much knowledge of the Spanish league, nor did they even seem to know the players they were coaching. Stories of them mixing up the names of their football superstars during training circulated in the media. The team struggled to adapt to more direct and conventional attacking that didn’t dominate in midfield to exploit openings by the opposition, and at the end of the season they were trophy-less and the Argentine coach packed his bags.
Luis Enrique had been contacted about the job the season before, but had not delivered an instant answer of ‘yes’ to Rosell, so the offer was retracted and given to Tata. Now the club came back to him In the summer of 2014, it was acting-club president Josep Maria Bartomeu that signed Luis Enrique to manage the team. Rosell had stepped down before Martino’s season was done, following his misappropriation of funds in the Neymar signing and the splashy investigation that followed.
The team that Luis Enrique built was centered around lightning transitions from the defense to the front three–now augmented by Barça-Galactico signing Luis Suarez. As Xavi was growing out of the team and Iniesta was also on the wrong side of 30, the idea of retaining the same possession of the ball and playing 900 passes in a game seemed to be forsaken. Though teams had occasionally derailed Barça by parking the bus with eight to ten men in the box (Chelsea 2012, Inter 2010), the solution to that particular dilemma of counter-attacking strikes before the defense could settle now became the norm.
And that style of jetting the ball up to the front three and waiting for the magic to happen proved to be a solution of sorts. For a while…