BARCELONA: Barcelona won their 27th La Liga title and first for four years after a 4-2 win at city rivals Espanyol on Sunday (May 14) crowned a remarkable domestic campaign built around a rock-solid defence, a huge change from the club’s traditional style of play.
Barca have a history of success with teams playing an attractive brand of attacking football but this season they have had to adapt to a different reality and manager Xavi Hernandez has cast aside tradition to focus on relentless defence.
The change in mentality may not have sat entirely comfortably with Xavi who said Barca’s style was “non-negotiable” when he was appointed coach in November, 2021.
He often sounded frustrated yet resigned in interviews, trying to defend his team even after victories, sounding like he needed to explain that he had to prioritise his defence due to the urgency of getting the club back to winning ways.
A former Barca player himself, Xavi was a symbol of their attacking style as a flamboyant midfielder who won every major title with the club and with Spain.
“We have not betrayed any game model,” Xavi said after his side earned a gutsy 1-0 win at Real’s Santiago Bernabeu in March with an outstanding defensive performance against their bitter rivals who enjoyed 65 per cent of possession but could not break Barcelona down.
“I am not satisfied with not having the ball. Sometimes are the rivals and the circumstances that takes you there, but defending is also part of the game,” he added.
This season Barcelona have won 27 of their 34 games and although they are the second highest scorers in the division with 64 goals and boast the leading marksman in Robert Lewandowski, the foundation of their success has been at the other end of the pitch.
They have conceded 13 goals in the league, by far the best defensive record in Europe’s top five leagues. At home, their defensive numbers are even more impressive with only two goals conceded, one from a penalty and the other an own goal.
At the core of their rearguard are three players enjoying stellar seasons – goalkeeper Marc Andre ter-Stegen and defenders Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde.
The trio hold the key to stifling their rival’s attacking threats, particularly Araujo who has arguably been Europe’s top defender this season.
Barcelona were last champions of Spain in 2018-19 when they still had club greats Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez leading their attack up-front.
As Barca fell into a deep financial crisis, however, they both had to leave due to Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules and the club’s fortunes declined.
Xavi signed Lewandowski, Kounde and winger Raphinha and re-signed Ousmane Dembele to add an extra spark to a core built around the youth and talent of midfielders Pedri and Gavi.
Led by the experience of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Ter Stegen, this team gelled to form a strong unit and they beat Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in January to earn Xavi his first trophy as coach before romping to the La Liga crown.