Valeriy Lobanovskyi won 33 trophies in 32 years of coaching in the former Soviet Union and then Ukraine. Whilst he was still a player just 22 years old, he made a remark after they had won the league with Dynamo, “Yes, we have won the league, but so what? Sometimes we played badly. We just got more points than other teams who played worse than us. I can’t accept your praise as there are no grounds for it.” Can these sentiments be echoed in the current 2019-20 La Liga season which has been a roller coaster ride between Barcelona and Madrid. The Catalans are in a transition having sacked Valverde mid-season and appointed Setien who is still adapting to a new environment. Madrid who had slipped behind are now in pole position leading by 4 points with 33 games played. If madrid are to win the league as most expect, the question echoing in people’s minds is, ‘Barca’s decline or Madrid’s fortitude?’
According to the Cambridge dictionary the word decline can be defined as, “when something becomes less in amount, importance, quality, or strength”. The word fortitude has been defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage”. The above definitions will act as guides to the analysis of how the 2019/20 La Liga season is panning out. The question remains is it Barca’s decline or Madrid’s fortitude?
Causes of decline of Barca
This viewpoint asserts that if Real Madrid are to be crowned champions its not because of them doing something special but it is part of the evidence of the decline of Barcelona. In the view the decline is caused by managerial changes mid-season, having an aging squad , lack of stability in the club from the board to the field and their overreliance on Messi.
Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde in the last two seasons won the League and Copa Del Rey double but challenges in the Champions league has been a pain to the Cules. His failure to reach the final of the Spanish Super cup meant Valverde had to be sacked despite him being on top of the league standings. Quique Setién was appointed and in his first games lost to Madrid which gave them the pole position. However, when the league was stopped due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Barcelona had recovered and went 2 points ahead of Madrid. As the season resumed after the break, lack of rhythm and tough matches saw Barcelona drop points in 3 draws and are now 4 points behind Real Madrid with 5 games to go.
Some have attributed decline of Barcelona to their aging squad. The core of the players are in their 30s, namely Messi (33), Alba (31), Pique (33), Busquets (31), Rakitic (32), Vidal (33) and Suarez (33). This argument is based on the premise that the league is fast and technical and would suit younger players. An aging squad is a disadvantage in the long run and can be the reason for the decline of Barcelona. In house politics
In house politics is also attributed to the decline of the Catalans. The President Bartomeu and his board are blamed based on the player and coaching staff recruitment policy which has seen the coming in of surprise packages such as Boateng, Paulinho and recently Braithwaite. Some of the players expected to make an impact such as Dembele, Coutinho and Griezmann have not met expectations for one reason or the other. The coming in of Setien who has vast experience by not at the Barca level has also raised questions with the situation also getting worse as there are rumours of senior players undermining the coach.
Overreliance on Messi
Barcelona’s overreliance on Messi has been a blessing and also an Achilles heel over the years. Over the past decade Messi has been the top scorer, top assister and top chance creator not only in Barcelona squad but in the world. When Messi ticks the team tick as well but when he is shackled in a game the team tend to struggle. This problem was solved when Messi, Suarez and Neymar formed formidable trio that conquered the world. In his current 2019/20 season Messi is toping La Liga in terms of scoring and assist as well but when is not in the game the team is lacking someone who can rise to the challenge.
This viewpoint discredits the Barca decline hypothesis and assert that is Real Madrid is in pole position because of their fighting spirit and fortitude. A big factor is also the presence of Zidane who knows the club well. This viewpoint also points out that even Madrid also has their key players in their 30s.
The never say die attitude of Real Madrid is epitomized by Sergio Ramos. A captain known for giving his all and a scorer of big late goals. This season he has already scored 9 goals and 3 of his goals were in games that were won by a 1 goal margin. This fighting spirit has been transferred to other team members and they have responded by taking the pole position from their eternal rivals. In a league that is decided by head to head if teams finish on level terms, the fact that Madrid has collected 4 points from Barcelona shows that they have character.
Zidane is more of an enigma in the coaching world. Despite having won all in a short space of time he seems to be one coach who still has his doubters. The most prolific times of his coaching career of coincided with the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo, which ended up overshadowing his role. This is his first full season post Ronaldo and it appears like he might lead Madrid to another La Liga title.
The approach of Zidane to football seems to be a pragmatic one, taking each game as it comes and playing to the opposition’s weaknesses. He seems to have taken Lobanovskyi’s advice who commented in the 1960s that, “If you want to be a good coach, you must forget the player you were”. There is a stark difference in style between Zidane the player and Zidane the coach. As a player he was exciting and filled with flair, but when you look at how his team is set up one will be tempted to wonder if he would find space for a player like himself.
Another reason for Madrid being on top is that Zidane knows the club in and out. He has played for the team, has been a coach for its juniors, assistant coach to Ancelotti and then as the manager of the club. He is a guy who has gone through all the process and has also managed to incorporate junior players in his team. This vast experience in an institution is invaluable and can draw similarities with Pep’s time at Barcelona.
Moreover, as a legend of the club Zidane has respect of the fans, board and players. His decisions can be backed so that they can lead to fruition. He was able to manage Ronaldo in his aging years and managed to rest him in some games so that he would be fit in the business end and this Ronaldo accepted because of the respect. The same can be said of the Casemiro and James Rodriguez issue which saw Benitez getting sacked after he was pressured by the media and fans to field Rodriguez in a classic which ended up in a 4-0 hiding. Zidane when he took over, he continued leaving out Rodriguez and there were no complains.
Managing an aging squad
This viewpoint contends with the notion that Barca is declining because of an aging core as it also points out that Madrid have their fair share of aging players. Ramos (34), Bale (30), Marcelo (32), Benzima (32) and Modric (34). The difference can be attributed to man management by rotating the squad and giving other players chances in matches against lesser opposition. This has been a trait of Zidane to keep his squad happy and sharp for the business end of the season.
In conclusion, the article has been an attempt to ascertain the reason behind the twist and turns in the plot of the current 2019/20 La liga season that has seen Barcelona and Madrid exchanging the pole position. Barcelona’s troubles include issues of changing the manager mid-season, having an aging squad, in-house politics and their overreliance on Messi. On the other hand, Madrid also have their positive attributes of having a fighting spirit and a manger who knows the club in and out. So, the question remains is it Barca’s decline or Madrid’s fortitude or rather it is like asking which blade of the scissors cuts paper?