Barcelona and the recovery from a post-Pep hangover

It has been described as the ‘double-treble’, but Barcelona’s latest hoard of trophies should stand alone from the triumph of 2009. This time the Blaugrana have done it without Pep Guardiola, and there has hardly been a mention of tiki-taka.

2014-15 wasn’t all plain sailing though. Due to the way Luis Enrique’s side finished the season (winning 20 of their last 23 matches in all competitions), it is almost hard to imagine there was a crisis in early January, but there certainly was, as both Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Puyol left their roles at the Camp Nou.

 

It all came about because of the loss to Real Sociedad at the Anoeta Stadium (a place where Guardiola never won may it be said), and afterwards Lionel Messi, who had been left on the bench, was said to be unhappy at the club. Naturally most people saw that as the horse’s head in the bed for Enrique, despite the fact that Barca were only one point behind Real Madrid in La Liga, and finished top of their Champions League group.

The way the 45-year-old managed to turn the season around from there is almost a bigger achievement than any of Guardiola’s (although 14 trophies in four years is hard to beat).

One of the main problems during the fall out from the Sociedad defeat was Enrique’s tendency to alter the line-up on a weekly basis (Barcelona fielded a changed 11 in each of their first 29 matches). Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, it would be fair to say that Enrique’s rotation policy allowed the squad to be fresh for the season’s run-in – an advantage they clearly had over a jaded Real Madrid.

Another issue, for the fans especially, was the style of play. The Blaugrana of 2009-2011 had taken possession football to its limits, for the time being anyway, and moving on has been a struggle. Enrique was seen to be bringing the club back from the realms of fantasy that Guardiola had famously took them to, but once he settled on his preferred system in January, success was imminent.

The chosen formula was simple, and in some ways quite direct. Headline summer arrival Luis Suarez would front the new-look attack, with Messi taking up an inside-right role, and Neymar pushing up high on the opposite flank. Trusty wing-backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba provided the necessary support in behind.

Barca became the dangerous three-headed beast that many had predicted when Suarez was lured from Liverpool, and unlike the Uruguayan’s days on Merseyside, he was not expected to provide the majority of the goals. In fact he played third fiddle, delivering nearly as many assists (21), as goals (25).

 

Neymar enjoyed a season of devastating form, scoring 39, whilst the ever-astounding Messi led the way with a total of 58. As Gerard Pique said, again showing the simplicity of the new philosophy, “Give them the ball and they create goal opportunities.”

As ever Andres Iniesta also played a vital part, and another midfielder who grew in importance was Ivan Rakitic. It was often the Croatian’s intelligence and unselfishness that allowed Messi to probe so freely, especially in the big games towards the end of the season – in which Rakitic provided some notable goals of his own.

Xavi, in his final dance, was used wisely by Enrique, and taking every possible medal home was a fitting end to his Barcelona career. Meanwhile at the back, Pique was able to rediscover the form that makes him one of Europe’s most dominant and assured defenders.

Although some of the key cogs remain from the teams of recent years, Barcelona have developed into something completely different under Luis Enrique, who has agreed a new deal until 2017.

A second treble extends the current legacy, but 2014/15 should stand alone as its own achievement, its own piece of history, and the season in which the shadow of Pep Guardiola finally disappeared.

For more on Barcelona’s excellent season, make sure to listen to this week’s Hold the Back Page podcast!

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Sam Viller

Manchester-based football and rugby league journalist.

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