Another successful season under Pep Guardiola that ended with FC Barcelona crowned champions of Spain and Europe. Since Pep took over, this team had won all that was on offer – FC Barcelona were no more just a strong team; they’re more than that! The Catalan club have been fighting for the right to be called – ‘One of the Greats of All times‘. Some reputation to stand up to. They were the favorites in all the competitions they entered. The pressure was intense. A challenge to their philosophy and resolve awaited the whole season.

FC Barcelona - Champions of Europe

The new arrivals

Guardiola signed Villa, Mascherano and Adriano at the start of the season and brought in Afelley during the winter transfer window. Zlatan Ibrahimovich, who started well last season, was relegated to the bench towards the end of it. Pep wanted Villa to sharpen his attack and move Messi to the center. Finally he got his man, which saw Zlatan being loaned out to AC Milan. Mascherano was drafted in to replace the gigantic Yaya Toure. It was a different challenge for Masche, who as the season progressed adapted well in midfield and consecutively at the centre back. Adriano was a versatile signing, capable of playing on either side of defense. And later in the season he turned in some impressive performance until he got injured in the Clasicos. His pace is an asset at the back, as Barca plays high up the pitch and is susceptible for counter attacks. Afellay has certainly shown his potential in the few chances he was given. He is yet to make a position of his own, but is on the right track.

World Cup Hangover

Spain was having a magical run in the world football scenario. After their triumph at the 2008 Euros, they managed to win the coveted World Cup, in  2010 in South Africa. FC Barcelona’s players formed the core of the Spanish national team that won the cup.

How did that affect Guardiola’s preparation for the season?

Guardiola decided to start the season with the smallest possible squad. His starting eleven were the best in the world, but his bench lacked the same strength. He had faith in Barca B to fill in when needed. But it was a heavy gamble that he took, coming into the season. His big names literally had played non-stop for almost two years. Most players didn’t have a proper a pre-season – a vital period for fine-tuning the squad.

Slow starters

As expected, Barcelona began the season slower with tired players from the World Cup and less preparation time. A big shock awaited at their very first game at Camp Nou. Hercules, a newly promoted side, made a Herculean effort and brought down the mighty. The new arrivals had their first taste of Barcelona’s brand of football and the signs were that it would take time for them to settle down. Mascherano, Adriano and Villa all looked a little out of sync with the rest. It was no surprise though.

Barcelona’s training schedule is carefully designed to provide two peaking points in a season. First from October to December and the second one, coming late, from March to May. Looking at the whole season, this preparation seems to have worked. Though the team didn’t reach the heights of November, they managed to find the necessary scoring touches against big teams when needed.

 

FC Barcelona - goals distribution

Top of the league

November 29, 2010 will be an unforgettable day in the club’s history. Real Madrid, who hadn’t lost a single game the whole season till then and were at the top of the table, were visiting the Camp Nou. The hype around the match was even bigger this time with Jose Mourinho leading them.

A night of beautiful football was unleashed for all to see. A confident Madrid took on Barca head on but failed miserably. Jose admitted that he couldn’t have done anything and a lesson that it is impossible to take on this Barcelona team head on. He would be waiting for the return leg to try different tactics. With that famous win, FC Barcelona grabbed the top spot from Real Madrid and kept that till the end of the season.

The performances continued with a series of Manitas and Barca continued to break records. Messi was unstoppable, Xavi and Iniesta continued to control the game in a way that the world had not seen till date. Madrid were finding it difficult to keep up, as they slipped twice, unexpectedly at home, thereby giving Barca a lot of beathing space. Villarreal, Espanyol, Valencia and Bilbao gave Guardiola’s men a run for their money. All of these games produced a thrilling contest.

The league was virtually won during the return fixture in the against Real Madrid. With very little slip ups and another season of record number of points, the league title was secured third time in as many years.

Style alone matters

Ever since Pep Guardiola took charge of this team, ‘Staying true to the style’ has been the mantra. With new challenges thrown at them from all corners, it was a test they passed with flying colors. They churned out some magnificent performances this season and scored incredible number of goals.

Pep Guardiola fine tuned his team tactically. He put Messi in the center giving him a total freedom. Last season with Zlatan in the squad, it was not working out well, as the tall Swede was less mobile to play on the wings. With Villa arriving in the summer, Messi was permanently moved inside and Villa and Pedro patrolled the flanks.

The biggest improvement over last season was the availability of Iniesta, who finished the season with the most number of minutes. With Iniesta in the squad, teams simply cannot man-mark Xavi and expect to get away. The midfield now had two creative heads to wreck havoc. Yaya Toure was offloaded to accommodate Sergio Busquets permanently. He didn’t disappoint either. The lanky midfielder had his best season and with Xavi and Iniesta, forcing the opponents to concede to the midfield superiority even before the game kicked off.

Such was Barca’s control of possession this season that oppositions were looking for a way to stop them first, let alone try and attack them. With Barca increasing their possession statistics season after season, the idea is clear. Dominate possession to control the match. This season saw the average possession statistics at 73%. That is almost a 10% increase from last season. No wonder they allow very little chance for the opponents to score against them. That is some defending. A new art, to say the least!

Though there is not much secret to Barca’s game plan, Messi was increasingly becoming involved in everything. With him moving to the middle and dropping in the midfield often, defenses have had a nightmare marking him. The number of assist by Messi also suggest the influence he has had on games.

This Barcelona is re-defining how football is traditionally viewed or played. They are certainly not unbeatable or invincible, but who is?

Mud fight

With unprecedented wave of success from the Catalans, the determination to dethrone them has reached a crescendo. Real Madrid had thrown everything at them for the last two seasons, but still found wanting. As a final resort, Jose Mourinho was given the task to dethrone them. A great manager, who has proven himself across different leagues. With more money thrown to bolster the squad, the signs were there. It was going to be closer than ever. In fact, most predicted that this could be the end of Barcelona’s dominance in Spain and Europe.

With the gap between the top two perceived to be closed considerably, the world was expecting a classic in the El Clasicos. But it took an ugly turn. Barcelona had to endure constant off the field accusations and antics throughout the season. Jose was constantly whining about how favorable were the schedule for Barcelona, how the referees were favoring them, how teams were playing under strength teams against Barca and so on. They were even accused of using drugs! Pep Guardiola didn‘t want to get involved in any of these off the field antics, until at the first leg of UCL semi-finals.

Pep, in an unprecedented outburst, took Jose head-on in mind games. He was given a standing ovation by his players after the press conference. But the game was one to be forgotten. It was ugly and a disgrace for both the sides. Players indulged in play-acting and the game was violent. And with the expulsion of Pepe, Barcelona won the game thanks to Messi’s magic. The bad blood between the players were out in public. Jose went to the extent of questioning the achievements of this Barcelona team. The beautiful game was reduced to just anger and determination to bring them down, at any cost. Both teams found themselves in the mud with their reputation tarnished. A low point in this season.

Team’s Appraisal

Victor Valdes, a sweeper keeper won the ‘Zamora’ award, as the best ‘keeper in the Spanish Football League for the 3rd time in as many years. Dani Alves Adriano, Maxwell and Abidal had an incredible season in the full back positions on the either side of the pitch. Pique and Puyol had been the rock at the centre for most part of the season until Puyol’s injury forced a reshuffle at the back. Abidal and Mascherano played there and provided ample cover during Puyol’s absence. Mascherano in particular had been a surprise at the centre back position and did well when he was asked to cover the position after Abidal‘s injury.

Defensive index – 8.5

Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Mascherano, Keita and Thiago have been used in the middle of the park this season. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets had been Pep’s number one midfield combination and was a devastating one. A smooth and free flowing midfield is vital for Barca’s football style. Keita gave a more defensive approach in the middle of the park with his physicality. Pep used Mascherano as Busquet’s backup, who took his time adapting to the system and eventually made it through. Thiago got his first team chances and the 19-year old is all set to make a permanent move to the first team next season. Barca’s increase in the control of each matches they played shows how dominant their midfield had been.

Midfield index – 9.5

A strike force containing Messi, Villa and Pedro. One of the best in the word is sure to produce goals galore. And they didn’t disappoint. Messi had his best goal scoring season and made the most number of assists. Villa and Pedro had equally good contributions providing width and work rate to close down opponents. With Bojan, Jeffren and Afellay as back up, the strike force sure didn’t have the same effect from the bench. It was evident during the later stages, as fatigue and injury exposed the depth, or the lack of it, in the striking department. Barca never looked the same attacking force when Pedro got injured and Villa lost his scoring form.

Attacking index – 9

The man who is responsible for this team to tick. Many may claim that anyone can win trophies with this talented group of players. But that would be to argue to deliberately play down this man’s greatness. With his constant talk of doom after and before every match, he always keeps his players on their toes. His outburst before the UCL semi-final against Rea Madrid was seen as a deliberate ploy to motivate his players. All credit for the way this team plays is because of him. Every year winning titles gets difficult, as teams throw everything to defeat Barca. Pep has continued evolving his tactics with time to deal with different strategies to shut his team down. He now has 10 major titles in just 3 years, an achievement at the age of 40 stands tall among anyone in the game.

Joseph Guardiola – 9.5

Messi is the player of the season and there is no word left to describe what he does on the field.

 

Lionel Messi

Playmaker, Winger, Centre Forward or Simply Genius?

With a third league title and the second Champions League in three years, this team has gone from strength to strength. This team has found its place among the greats of all times.

The Team – 9.5

Champions League glory

Pep Guardiola, the man who was dictating play for Barcelona at the 1992 UCL Final at Wembley and leading them to victory managed to do it again. This time though dictating from the sideline in a manager’s role. After a forgettable semi-final, the world witnessed a game that brought smiles on everyones faces. The word ‘beautiful game’ finally recovered it’s beauty. A mesmerizing performance from Xavi and co helped Barcelona overcome a determined Manchester United team led by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. A perfect ending to a tough and successful season for FC Barcelona. If you missed it, you missed something – well, beautiful.

Victory beyond the pitch

A shocking news was revealed on March 16th. Eric Abidal, the French left back to undergo a major operation to remove a tumor in his liver. This came out of nowhere and was a huge blow to Barca. It was even doubted that the player’s career could be over. Officially he was ruled out for the rest of the season.

On May 3rd the world witnessed the triumph of human spirit, as Eric Abidal returned back to play at the highest level. Within 1.5 months, he started the Champions League final and performed like he was never away from the game. Abidal lifting the trophy at the Wembley represented more than just a victory on the football pitch.

 

Abidal - Symbol of Human Spirit

 

Pep Guardiola is currently leading a team that is at the Top of the world. A place in the history as “One of The Best Teams of all times” is now assured. How long can they keep this going? Your guess is as good as ours.