Barcelona's La Liga title the result of more than just Lionel Messi
BARCELONA -- It's part of the human condition to baptize, brand or "file" something. We like order, we like easy identification. So, I guess, this La Liga title that Barcelona have just won will get a name, whether it really needs one or not.
And I think it'll get the wrong name. It'll be called "Messi's league." Thus, I'd ask you to refrain from promoting that, using that, arguing in favour of that. Because that's not a good enough tag -- not even after the little Argentinian genius put his signature, with a flourish, at the bottom of the "We've Won The Title" document drawn up at the Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid on Sunday night.
Messi crashed a free kick off the bar, went chin-to-chin with Diego Godin in order to protect his teammate and pal Neymar. And he played that delicious one-two pass with Pedro to score the only goal of the game, the title-winning goal. His 41st of the league season, 54th in all competitions.
Lionel Messi -- just five months after Cristiano Ronaldo lifted the Ballon d'Or -- has categorically re-established himself as the greatest player on the planet. To do that, in such short order, is astonishing. For those of us who marvel without wearing the colours of Madrid or Barcelona, it's a blessing that the ebb-and-flow between the two grandmasters is continuing.
Without arguing against my own original proposition, I'll reveal that several months ago, when the season was completely in its infancy, a senior Barcelona player remarked to a friend of mine: "We will definitely win trophies this season because Messi is 'enchufado.'"
It's an interesting Spanish word, enchufado. Literally, it means "plugged in." But we might give it several different hues in English -- "switched on," "in the zone" or, if you wanted to cheat by using a full plethora of words to explain just one then, "fit, furious, ambitious, hungry, ready." For this player, who has known Messi since he was a kid, to make such a statement of certainty, helps explain something that is insufficiently commented on. When the rest of them see this sporting phenomenon in full form, disciplined and intense, they simply believe. They re-double their efforts, they take risks, they feel Kevlar-vested in enemy territory.
I don't count that as "Messi-dependency," simply that beyond his own contribution -- movement, space creation, assists, goals -- Messi makes all his own teammates better. So if your argument that this is Messi's best form, his biggest contribution to a title since Pep Guardiola was in charge, his most mature year, a solid response to vice-captaincy responsibility -- then fine. But just take a look around.
There's goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who is in his first year at a new club and allowed to play in only one of the three competitions. In his life, before, he'd never beaten Real Madrid, shipping in a ludicrous number of goals during defeat after defeat. Not only will he win the "Zamora" award for the stingiest goalkeeper in Spain, he produced another jaw-dropping save from Jose Maria Gimenez's flicked-on header to keep Atletico off the scoreboard in the match at the Calderon.
Like Messi, Bravo's was a signature flourish to ensure that the title was won both with dark-browed intensity and light-hearted champagne fizz. Bravo hasn't won an elite-level title since 2006 -- even when Real Sociedad won the second division five years ago his goals against total was 37. This year it's the big one, and he's allowed only 19. Remarkable.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the young, inexperienced German who was robbed of the director of football who signed him -- Andoni Zubizarreta -- and not allowed to gain form or understanding of the system via La Liga games, has marched Barcelona to the finals of the Copa and the Champions League. "Chapeau" or "hats off!" to Jose Ramon de la Fuente, Barcelona's goalkeeping coach. What an unbelievable achievement. His league? Bravo's? No, of course not.
Let's take Rakitic. Ivan the Croat. Last season he captained Sevilla to the Europa League. He was wooed by Real Madrid but wanted to play at the Camp Nou. He thought he could add the effort, the ingenuity, the metronome effort, tackling, passing and support play that would make the "three monsters" [as Andres Iniesta calls them] up front more productive and more ferocious.
When I interviewed Rakitic, he told me that he had something specific in mind when he signed for Barcelona: to win the title, to add the Champions League to its little brother, the Europa League. Unlike so many I've seen arrive at Barcelona during my time in Spain, he had the John F. Kennedy mentality branded in his soul: Ask not what your new club can do for you, ask what you can do for your new club. Rakitic hadn't "made it" simply by signing for Barcelona; in his mind he signed for them to "make it" to this day. Now he's a champion and there are two more shots at the same feeling before the season ends.
Gerard Pique? I saw him storm out of the World Cup in Curitiba, utterly furious with what was happening. He was defeated, blamed and part of a losing La Roja era for the first time in his life.
There was a moment last October, best identified by his sprawling penalty action at the Bernabeu, when Barcelona had led and hinted that they might just be a match for Real Madrid, when Pique's critics wanted to carve up this elegant, adventurous buccaneer. Taking into account some of his off-the-field choices and also what looked like a faulty decision at the Bernabeu, the snipers took aim. Meanwhile, all that was needed was for him to play -- regularly -- and to have a regular central defence partner. He needed responsibility loaded on him; his competitive spirit needed a jag.
Chelsea, in the figure of Jose Mourinho, want him. I'd wager that given that his best friend, Cesc Fabregas, is in that dressing room, Pique knows this very well. But it wasn't that, nor even proving his doubters wrong that Pique required to play so well. It was simply the process of knowing that work was a demanding, disciplined, ordered and ambitious place to be again -- somewhere that demanded millimeter precise calibration of daily attitude.
This is a ferociously competitive animal and, lo and behold, Pique has put together several months of not only his best football for years but, I swear, the single best centre-half football I've seen anywhere in world football this season. Bar none, he's the best in the world right now.
Cast your mind back to Munich in midweek, when Barcelona made it to the Champions League final. Pique's choice to throw himself, full body, in the way of a Thiago shot brought him full circle from the Bernabeu. Just under par -- penalty. On top of his game -- same choice, Champions League final as a result. Wafer thin margins.
But the "big" full circle for Barcelona came at the Calderon. I'm not afraid of repeating a theme. Football possesses some sort of internal iambic pentameter, some sort of natural rhythm that floats above the computers, the fixture makers, the calendar. Tick-tock, tick-tock it goes when we aren't listening or looking. Think of it, precisely 365 days before this title-winning match at the Calderon, it was Atletico winning La Liga at the Camp Nou. The tide washes in, the tide washes out.
One year to the day later it's Barcelona wrestling back the crown from the deposed monarch. So to come back to my original proposition of who is the author of that surge to the throne: Is it Messi alone? Messi above all? Where does manager Luis Enrique fit?
It's worth your time thinking about it. I'll tell you now that I know there are some of his players who'll say: "Yeah, well, we need someone there to open the training-ground gates in the morning and to lock up at night." There are many in the media who hold things against him because, admittedly, he's prickly, stubborn and can be cuttingly sarcastic.
It's not just that he doesn't suffer fools gladly; it's that many think that Luis Enrique thinks the media are fools. Given time, I'm growing in opposition to both those views. When I was younger I could never understand seeing racehorses in blinkers. Obviously, at first, I thought they simply couldn't see. Then when you learn it's to focus their vision, to eliminate distractions, perhaps you accept a little more. But it still seems counter-intuitive. But I'd say Luis Enrique has been the blinkers for Barcelona's players this season. They find him a bit "pesado" -- on their backs all the time. He's intense, demanding. He began his time in charge full of rigidity and, consciously or subconsciously, an "I'll show them!" mentality.
However, he has done at least two major things. Firstly, he has listened. He has listened to Xavi, to Andres Iniesta, to his own technical staff and he has just loosened the leash ever so slightly. He has allowed Messi a little bit of leeway after their nose-to-nose training ground row (over something as small as a foul not given in a mini-match) in January.
He has listened to his captaincy team in terms of warning some of the squad, when possible, that they'll have the weekend off because they are dropped from the squad -- now they don't have to turn up, ready for an away trip, only to be sent with their tails between their legs.
He has listened to his senior players about time off -- its has value and, properly granted, the fact that it'll repay him. He has learned and adapted about finding a settled (but not "set") starting lineup and making it a driving force, with occasional rotations, rather than vice-versa.
It was Luis Enrique who persuaded Xavi to stay. Xavi, who has shown leadership, diplomacy and set a terrific example both on the training ground and in the dressing room while also brokering peace between Messi and "Lucho" in January.
Luis Enrique needs to receive huge credit for early rotations, which have left his squad fitter and fresher at this stage of a season than at any time since 2011. And we all know how that finished. It is Luis Enrique who can take responsibility for how the dynamic between Luis Suarez at centre-forward and Messi, alternating from right wing to midfield, has worked.
Again to make a comparison, I can't have been the only kid to ask: "What is it exactly the conductor does when the orchestra is only playing the music which is right in front of them?" Yet we all learn that if the orchestra is left to play without a Herbert von Karajan, there'll be the odd discordant note, the bassoon and the timpani won't necessarily hit the same tempo and the cymbals -- God, the cymbals -- they won't crash; they'll clash!
Which is where Luis Enrique has earned his corn. Earned comparison with Messi's brilliance, Suarez's goals, Neymar's newly found consistency, Bravo's bravura, Pique's new peak. Amid it all, quietly, "Lucho" and his assistant Juan Carlos Unzue have added order, tempo, preparation and rehearsal to everything from attacking corners to defensive set plays; from Messi's position to goalkeeper rotation; from player fitness to morale among substitutes and calm when there were sackings [Zubizarreta] or crisis moments [losses at Anoeta and the Bernabeu].
So don't, please, simply brand this "Messi's title." If this were a movie it wouldn't be a Scorcese, Truffaut, Kubrick, Coen "auteur" movie -- one dominant, instantly identifiable creative signature. No, even if this show has produced the Oscar-winning Best Actor [on-stage Mr Messi please, on stage Mr Messi], it also needs Academy Awards for direction, soundtrack, supporting actor, lighting, screenplay. Plus, there is the huge applause from the audiences. And the best thing? That's not all folks! This is a franchise -- stand by for parts two and three against Athletic Club and Juventus.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.