Barcelona somewhat predictably swept Granada aside on Saturday to clinch their 6th title in the space of 8 years. Despite enduring a month that nightmares are made of in April, few can argue that the Catalans didn’t deserve their triumph and even Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane was humble enough to admit as much.
On the face of it, Barca’s winning formula hasn’t changed radically from the 2008-09 campaign when Pep Guardiola won the first of his three league titles in charge at Camp Nou. They still pass almost every team they come up against into utter submission and again boasted the highest possession and passing accuracy stats in La Liga this term, something that should have been no surprise to anyone.
However scratch beneath the surface and it becomes pretty clear that this title win was different from the rest. For starters the biggest architect in Barcelona’s season was not Lionel Messi. The Argentine was voted the league’s best player in all of Barca’s previous 5 Primera Division triumphs and was invariably the man to dig them out of a hole, on the rare occasions they found themselves in one.
This time around unquestionably their star performer was Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan netted 40 goals in just 35 league appearances, more than any other player in Europe’s big five leagues and for the first time in seven years, the Pichichi was won by someone other than Cristiano Ronaldo or Messi. Not only that, Suarez finished joint top of the assists table with 16 and therefore either created or scored over 50% of Barca’s goals in La Liga this term, the sort of ratio that only Messi could previously have dreamt of aspiring to.
However stats alone do not do justice to Suarez’s immense contribution this season. At almost all the key moments in the season he is the man who has stood up and made the difference. That goes back to the very opening day when Suarez netted the only goal in a win at Athletic Bilbao to get Barcelona back on track after their Super Cup humiliation at the same venue only 10 days earlier. An injury to Messi in the Autumn left everyone wondering how Barcelona would cope without their talisman but once again Suarez had the answer, with a blistering run of form, culminating in his star performance and 2 goals as Barca won 4-0 in el clasico at the Bernabeu.
From that moment on, their season was more or less plain sailing and a record-breaking unbeaten run suggested nothing could knock them off course. That was until April when almost out of nowhere everything seemed to implode all at once. Messi went on a five match goal drought, likewise Neymar who looked a shadow of the player who had flourished in the early part of the campaign, while the defence was again leaking goals and the whole team appeared jaded.
The only man who had an an answer was again Suarez. His brace against Atletico in the Champions League Quarter Final at least dragged his side back into a tie they would still ultimately lose and fears Barca could end up missing out on the league title as well were very real by the time they headed to the Riazor trying to avoid a 4th consecutive league defeat with no more margin for error.
Barca needed a big performance and most importantly 3 points to settle the nerves and get back on track. An astonishing haul of 4 goals and 3 assists from Suarez and an 8-0 win set the Catalans firmly back on their relentless charge for a domestic double and the 29 year old scored a remarkable 14 goals in the final 5 games of the league season, winning man of the match in four of those fixtures as Barca edged out Real Madrid on the final day.
It’s almost comical to think that only 18 months ago, he was being widely criticised as someone who had disrupted Barcelona’s fluidity and wasn’t worthy of his place in the side. Not only would Luis Enrique’s team not have won La Liga without Suarez this season, they would have come at best a distant 3rd and that surely indicates that all is not completely well in other areas of the team.
Suggestions that Suarez has replaced Messi as the linchpin of this side would be premature to put it mildly though. Messi has still netted 41 goals in all competitions despite missing nearly two months of the campaign and like anyone he is not immune to a dip in form, which unfortunately for Barcelona happened during the most crucial part of the season.
The so-called ‘MSN’ remains arguably the most devastating strike-force the sport has ever seen but looking back on Barcelona’s previous title wins and there is clear evidence of regression elsewhere in the side.
Along with the brilliance of Messi, Barcelona’s titles particularly during the Guardiola era sprang from the utter control that Xavi and Andres Iniesta exerted on games. However the departure of Xavi last summer after 17 years at the club and decline in the influence of Iniesta this season has left Barca with what you might even go as far to class as a midfield problem for the first time in over a decade.
Luis Enrique’s preferred midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Iniesta assisted just 8 of Barca’s 112 league goals this season. All three are unquestionably fine players but when you stop to think about it, that is an incredibly low percentage of goals being created by a midfield that doesn’t score many either and this season there is the unique feeling that the Catalans have won the title in spite of their midfield rather than because of it.
Such sentiments will only be whispered quietly at Camp Nou however and around Spain for that matter such is the enormous respect which Iniesta in particular rightly commands. However a clear shift has gradually taken place from the start of the Pep era to their latest title win.
Slowly but surely the team has veered away from the fine art of tiki-taka and towards a more top heavy approach, that this season has reverted to an almost total dependence on the front three to provide both the creative spark and finishing touch.
Of course tactically, Luis Enrique is not an exact replica of Pep Guardiola and he is only adapting his style to the tools he has available as Pep may well have done too had he stuck around longer in Catalonia. Iniestas and Xavis don’t grow on trees and right now there is no midfielder in world football of a similar ilk that really gets close to the level the duo were at during their pomp.
Therefore to some extent, this gradual shift was almost inevitable. To call this year’s title win the start of a new era at the club would perhaps be a step too far as the transition has been so slow, it hardly feels like a revolution has taken place. However certainly in the way they won it, Barcelona’s 2015-16 Primera Division triumph was unique from the previous five and may just be a sign of things to come.
stats courtesy of whoscored.com