Review: A Liga trophy, Lucho-style

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This never would have flown if Pep Guardiola were still around. The Catalan coaching legend, the man who did more than anyone to shape the current generation of FC Barcelona players, would have hated every minute of the team’s play against Granada CF in the climactic finale of a long Liga season.

Instead of weaving intricate short passing patterns, even Barça veterans like Andrés Iniesta and Javier Mascherano fired long-range missiles over the unkempt pitch. Instead of counterpressing to win the ball back high, the team did most of its defending in its own half. Each time Neymar worked the ball into the opponent’s box and pulled it back to the penalty spot, à la Pedro Rodríguez or David Villa, Lionel Messi was nowhere around to slot it home. In fact, the greatest player on earth, the spark that fired the Guardiola-era engine, barely featured in the match. Messi strolled the sideline in the shade and distributed with mixed results from midfield, looking slow, beat up, worn out from a long year. If his team had played like this, Pep would have blown a gasket. He also might have lost the game.

But this isn’t Pep’s Barça. Half the players who took the field in blaugrana today never played a minute under Guardiola. The old guard is still the core—this squad is defined by Iniesta, Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, and Dani Alves—but the principles have changed. At the end of his second season, Luis Enrique has made Barcelona fully his own, and it’s hard to argue with the results. For a second straight year, his team are champions of Spain.

What’s Lucho’s Barça all about? A manager’s nickname has rarely been more apropos: Fight. Struggle. The tone was set six minutes into the match, when Barça nearly scored from a corner—a Mascherano header at the near post to set, a Piqué header on the far side to spike, a goalline save—and right away nearly conceded at the other end. Granada’s Youssef El-Arabi broke alone into the wide open Barça half, only to be stopped by a streaking Mascherano, doing duty on both ends. Barça went sprinting back the other way, spurred by a scintillating Neymar, and Messi’s right-footed drive forced another save. There was no six-second counterpress in evidence here, nor anything like a 15-pass buildup. If Lucho’s team has a law, it’s only this: never stop fighting.

Rather than insist on the tight team structure that defined Pep’s sides, Luis Enrique believes in opening up spaces for individual brilliance. And what a bunch of individuals he’s got. Messi may have been off his game today, but Iniesta was in top form, spinning and darting past defenders, plucking passes out of midair with a toe, picking apart Granada’s last line with the little lobs and arrows he’s been honing for 14 seasons. That eight of those years have brought league titles isn’t a coincidence—but we’ll get to that in a minute. There are other players to praise.

Neymar has only been at Barcelona for three seasons, but it’s felt like a career’s worth of ups and downs. Not many players can justifiably be called the best in the world for long stretches of the season and still find themselves scapegoated when things turn sour. The young Brazilian can be peevish, inconsistent, even embarrassing—but more often he’s simply the best. Today he beat Miguel Lopes so early and often that the right back gave up on the ball entirely and focused on stomping on the winger’s feet. It didn’t matter. In the 21st minute, Neymar made a few quick feints to shake his defender, received a pass, and found the overlapping Jordi Alba (a connection that didn’t happen often enough this season). The left back played a low cross that Luis Suárez tapped into an open net. Though they didn’t know it yet, it was the goal that would make Barça champions.

If the first goal was all Guardiola-style efficiency, the second was pure Lucho. Javier Mascherano, who poked fun at his own short passing game this week (“I’ve never built anything in my life, only a dollhouse for my daughters”) went long instead with what was probably his best ball of the year. The searing diagonal over all 20 outfield players started out as a line drive but began to slow just as it cleared the left side of Granada’s back line. It bounced once in the shaggy grass and seemed to hang miraculously in the air, waiting for Dani Alves to catch up. The fullback nicked it at the touchline with a single waist-high instep that somehow produced a perfect cross. Suárez was there again to score, this time with a lunging header to the near post. Though Real Madrid was also 2-0 up in their match against Deportivo, Barça headed to the tunnel for halftime on track for the title.

But Granada wasn’t ready to roll over. José González’s team came out for the second half in a 3-5-2 with an aggressive press, rather than the passive 4-5-1 that had failed in the first. The hope was to catch Lucho’s Xavi-less Barça in the buildup, where they’ve sometimes looked vulnerable. Not today. With Iniesta and Messi lingering in midfield to start breakaways, and Neymar still rampaging practically unopposed down the left side, Barça got the better of Granada’s new scheme. Without needing much adjustment to their own gameplan, the team showed off their versatility, another Lucho hallmark.

This Barça’s play may be less unified than Guardiola’s version, but if there was any doubt about their team spirit, Isaac Cuenca—an old Guardiola project who now plays for Granada—helped bring it out. The winger showed all the characteristics of his old boss’s style, taking a ball off Piqué to create a half chance from the press and playing out of Granada’s half with some smart work against Dani Alves’s own high pressure. It was good stuff from Cuenca, but he went too far when a touchline tussle with Mascherano left the defender hurt and out of play. Granada played on, and at the next whistle Barcelona closed ranks on their old teammate in unison, furious at him for not waiting for Mascherano to get checked out.

The boiling over of tempers seemed to remind Barcelona that the league wasn’t theirs quite yet. The scrapping on both sides got more intense until, in the 85th minute, Messi decided to make his presence felt. From his new favorite haunt in the ten spot behind Suárez, Messi slid a Xaviesque throughball between four defenders that Neymar picked up on the trot. Though the Brazilian’s been a little starved for goals lately, he didn’t think twice about laying it off for Suárez, who had a better shot—and with it, yet another hat trick.

If last season’s top scorers—Messi far ahead of the field, followed by Neymar and then Suárez—represented the last gasp of the Guardiola legacy, the final goal of this year’s league campaign offered a good look at the new order: Messi controlling the attack from midfield, Neymar creating, Suárez finishing. The Uruguayan claimed the Pichichi with a startling 40 goals—more than Villa, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, or even Ronaldo ever managed for the club. That his fellow forwards deserve a lot of credit doesn’t diminish the achievement.

Barça nearly conceded in added time due to a lapse in attention, but it was too late to matter. They were thinking about the title, which Rafinha Alcântara had already started celebrating on the bench, spraying Claudio Bravo with his water bottle then ducking behind teammates for cover. Lucho waited tensely on the sideline, his white running shoes with a suit seeming like an appropriate symbolic contrast to Pep’s preference for polished leather. At the final whistle, the full Barcelona squad sprinted to a midfield huddle and started singing “Campeones, campeones,” only to be disrupted by supporters of both teams rushing the field for selfies. The players had to fight their way to the tunnel, shoving and scrapping one last time on their way to celebrate the league.

Iniesta was the man pulled aside for the postgame interview. It was the right choice: he’s not just Barça’s captain, he’s the embodiment of its transformation from a compact passing machine to a team more concerned with vertical movement and defensive grit. At 32, he’s changed his game to accommodate his coach, and the hustle has paid off.

“How does it feel to win the league?” the TV interviewer asked. Iniesta paused, his eyes misty, his mind elsewhere. For a second it looked like he hadn’t even processed the question. “It feels like hard work all year long,” he finally said. “It feels like glory.”

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