It wasn't all that long ago that Barcelona were basically unplayable, winning six trophies in 2009 and developing under Pep Guardiola into one of the best teams of all time. But after watching the current incarnation come up short over the weekend against Atletico Madrid—when everything was there to play for—it was amazing to see how such little details can change a team like Barca so drastically.
Barcelona, as we all know, ended the campaign without a trophy and parted ways with manager Tata Martino after just one season. For me, the issue with Barca was not a lack of talent or simply that the players lost a step or two—although in this case, the latter did make a bit of a difference. For me, it had to do with a lack of hunger and leadership.
And when you talk about winning trophies in Spain or Europe, those are two qualities you must have.
Just think: Up until the second-to-last week of the season, Barcelona's title challenge had been written off. But thanks to circumstance and some help from others, they got a second chance at life. And then things really started going their way.
The final match of the season, the title decider, was to be played in front of nearly 100,000 supporters in their home stadium. Lionel Messi had reportedly agreed to sign a new contract worth €20 million per year. And even after Atletico started so well, Diego Costa and Arda Turan were forced to leave the match early with injuries.
It was enough to make you think that the script was written for Barcelona. How much more incentive would they need?
But they drew and the title went to Atletico, and for me, it seemed clear that the hunger to win was never really there. It was apparent even in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game, when Atletico looked the better and hungrier of the two teams. But for Barca, some of the same players who were so impressive a few years back, some of the same players who had made the Blaugrana into one of the best teams of all time, looked either disinterested or simply not good enough to claim the trophy.
Messi was either disinterested or at the very least off his very best, as he has been for a while now. Pedro, a player who set a club record by scoring in six competitions during that magical 2009 run, was subpar. Even Andres Iniesta looked off.
On the other hand, one of the hungriest best players on the pitch was David Villa, who showed Barcelona what they were missing. In helping his new employer win the title, Villa served as an excellent example of a hungry player with a point to prove. At times, he was the best player on the pitch.
With that in mind, maybe we shouldn't be surprised at all. Atleti did not lose to Barcelona all season in six matches, and much of that record had to do with their incredible leader, manager Diego Simeone. The Argentine's presence alone has personified how Atletico have played throughout the season.
And remember, this is an Atletico team that had not won the title since 1995-96, a team that struggled through the disastrous Jesus Gil years and even endured relegation in 2000. It became so bad under Gil, in fact, that Atletico were the laughingstock of La Liga, with The Guardian's Sid Lowe writing the following in 2009:
Jesús Gil was a big-bellied, foul-mouthed multi-millionaire who worked in a brothel, was convicted of swindling the Marbella council, punched a fellow president, abused a judge, threatened to feed his players to his pet crocodile, ditched the youth system, leaving Raúl to seek solace across the city, and admitted to consulting his horse Imperious on transfers. Which may explain the donkeys. He bought 141 players and went through 44 coaches in 17 years.
Things are different now, of course. In terms of talent, Atletico are nowhere near Barcelona, or Real Madrid for that matter. But what they do have is a fearless leader who has made them consistently hard to beat; who made them defensively impenetrable; who basically plays with a solid core of 14 or 15 players every game; who made them so hungry for success that they are playing way beyond their means, and still have the chance to win the Champions League as well.
There's no doubt in my mind that Atletico were the best and most consistent team in La Liga this season. And if they do win the Champions League as well, it would be one of the most incredible stories to come out of Spain and Europe for a long time.
I don't want to get into Atletico's financial means, but suffice it to say that I am happy that money doesn't always buy success. We should be glad that there are exceptions, because in today's game, we have become all too accustomed to seeing teams like Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona and Real Madrid win everything.
As Atletico have shown this season, success can be had when a group of players and a manager set goals for themselves and are willing to do absolutely everything to achieve them. Barca did just that a while back, of course, but this season, they never looked hungry for success. On Sunday, against Atletico, it was as if they thought that, because of the amount of talent they still possess, success would simply follow.
As for the departed Martino, he is a good manager, but he obviously wasn't the right leader to get the best out of the talent he had. That hunger that every club needs only lasts for so long, and it only comes from the leadership of the right manager. Guardiola had the right stuff, but at the end, he recognized that he had to go, that perhaps it was no longer there. I don't know Pep, and perhaps he truly did need the sabbatical, but I also wonder whether he knew that it was the right time to go.
Plenty of factors contributed to what was a so-so season by Barcelona's standards. There was the injury to Messi, along with the Neymar transfer saga and Sandro Rosell's resignation. Now it looks like Barca will turn to one of their own in Luis Enrique, who will understand their philosophy and, even though he's still untested as a manager, can hopefully follow in the footsteps of Guardiola in terms of leadership.
His biggest test, if he does indeed get the job, will be to ensure that Messi and Neymar can coexist in the squad, and to ensure that Messi embraces Neymar and his talent. Meanwhile, allowing younger players from within the system to emerge might be the best way to rebuild rather than looking elsewhere for expensive buys.
The transfer ban handed down by UEFA—even though it was overturned—shouldn't matter. The beauty of Barcelona should continue to be youngsters coming through the system, players who understand the way Barcelona play.
As Guardiola and his great teams showed in years past, having a Plan B is not always necessary if your Plan A is good enough. But as Barcelona showed this season, none of it works without the right leadership.