Barcelona too reliant on Messi, while Real Madrid was complete

Prior to La Liga’s June restart, a 34th title for Real Madrid looked unlikely. Zinedine Zidane’s side sat in second place, having lost three of their four matches before the coronavirus pandemic stopped play. Barcelona wasn’t without issues, but in a two-horse race where it is typically rare for either horse to drop points, a Barca title looked quite likely.

However, Barcelona fans now find themselves with a feeling they have become accustomed to this season: disappointment.

While Barca slumped to a 2-1 loss to Osasuna on Thursday, conceding the deciding goal in the 93rd minute on the break, Real Madrid secured the league in style with a 2-1 home win over Villarreal. Such was the confidence in the Madrid ranks that Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema even attempted to copy an audacious penalty technique once used by the Blaugrana:

The win marks Real Madrid’s 10th straight and caps a perfect record since play returned. Despite playing in a smaller venue at the club training facility while the Santiago Bernabeu undergoes renovations, Real Madrid has not trailed for a single minute since the restart.

Barcelona let their pre-lockdown advantage slip thanks to a series of disappointing draws against Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid. Those dropped points were enough to swing the fulcrum toward the Spanish capital with two match days remaining.

In March 2019, Zidane picked up the reins at Real Madrid once again, inheriting a squad which had already lost an unprecedented eight league games under Julen Lopetegui and Zidane’s former teammate Santiago Solari. To go from one of Real Madrid’s most disappointing domestic seasons in recent memory to win a first league title since 2017 is nothing short of commendable.

From front to back, Real Madrid has been a well-oiled machine, seeing out narrow wins through opportunistic goals and incredible defensive fortitude. They have kept clean sheets in six of their last 10 matches and have won several games from the penalty spot thanks to Sergio Ramos, who also joins with Raphael Varane, Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy to form the core of what may be the world’s best defense.

Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are two of the games best creators, while Casemiro is a rock in central midfield. Karim Benzema might be the star of the entire campaign, his electric form since the restart being a big catalyst in the league title.

Twenty-one different players have scored for Real Madrid this season, and no other side has boasted as many different goal-scorers this century. This stands as a testament to the uniform strength of a team who do not rely heavily on any single player for success.

That also stands in strong contrast to Barcelona, which has leaned heavily on Lionel Messi this campaign. In the aftermath of last weekend’s narrow win over Real Valladolid, manager Quique Setién was asked if the Argentine needs a rest. “Absolutely,” Setién said, along with a concession that he must be on the field at all times for Barca to stand a chance of remaining competitive.

Without Lionel Messi (pictured) and Marc-André ter Stegen, Barcelona might not have even finished top four this season in La Liga. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

Without Messi and goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, it might be argued that Barca would be an average mid-table team, such is their disarray.  

It has been a tumultuous campaign for Barca, whose preseason squad planning was so poorly executed that striker Martin Braithwaite was stolen away from Leganés in February as a highly contentious emergency transfer. Prior to that, manager Ernesto Valverde was relieved of his duties in January, in ugly and protracted circumstances. 

Valverde’s replacement brought a more attacking style, with occasional sunny intervals. Yet many of the same problems have persisted. 

Despite the emergence of La Masia academy product Riqui Puig, the team still lacks control in midfield and fails to control games in the manner it is accustomed to. Their high defensive line is frequently caught out by long balls over the top, and exposed by a lack of pace from aging stalwart Gerard Piqué. And while Antoine Griezmann has been shown to thrive in a front two alongside Luis Suarez, with Messi in a No. 10 role behind, this option has not been regularly deployed (albeit due to Suarez’s injuries).  

The Catalans struggle when they lose possession, and show limited functionality and little of the movement that formed the basis of their tiki-taka dominance this past decade. 

A reported argument between the players and Setién during the draw at Celta Vigo is indicative of problems in the dressing room, which are clearly mirrored in the front office. A precarious financial position caused Barca to furlough non-playing staff, while forcing Messi and other players to take a paycut. (Despite using a taxpayer-funded government furlough scheme to ride out the break in play, they are still reportedly interested in a nine-figure deal to bring Neymar back to Barcelona for next season.)

Let’s be straight: Barcelona absolutely did not deserve to win the Liga title this season, and few fans would disagree. It would have called the quality of La Liga into question if Real Madrid had faltered and Barca had stumbled over the line, given their season-long issues. A quarterfinal exit in the Copa Del Rey and a Round of 16 departure from the Champions League also seem like a fair outcome for this team.

Barcelona will undoubtedly bounce back next year. Setién, or his eventual replacement, may iron out the disharmony in the squad, while the board ensures that the team is fully prepared for Life After Messi™. And it is possible that Real Madrid will pave the way for Catalan success if Zidane once again decides to step away from the hot seat. 

But it is abundantly clear that there is only one team in Spain’s duopoly that currently boasts the organization, tenacity and structural foundations for success. And right now, it isn’t Barcelona.

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