Barcelona's double success built on dressing room harmony and Lionel Messi's brilliance

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All together: The Barcelona dressing room.

Barcelona wrapped up their 25th La Liga title on Sunday night following a thrilling victory at Deportivo La Coruna, in which genius Lionel Messi plundered yet another hat-trick.

It means boss Ernesto Valverde has led Blaugrana to the league and cup double in his first season in charge, following on from the Catalan club’s Copa del Rey success over Sevilla earlier this month.

However, Real Madrid could take some of the gloss off of Barca’s season if Zinedine Zidane guides the Whites to an unprecedented third successive Champions League.

But here, we take a look at the main protanagists behind Barcelona’s season. Starting with the manager…

Valverde provides the midas touch with little fuss

When the former Athletic Bilbao manager arrived at Camp Nou on May 29 last year, he didn’t necessarily inherit the best set of circumstances. Eternal rivals Real Madrid were top dogs domestically and in Europe (again), the drawn-out affair of the Neymar transfer saga was draining and largely out of the blue; and Blaugrana’s transfer business, up to that point, did little to inspire with the arrivals of Gerard Deulofeu, Nelson Semedo and Paulinho, among other fringe stars, hardly setting the world alight at first.

But, after overcoming the disappointment of losing to Los Blancos in the Spanish Super Cup pre-season, Valverde began to get his feet settled under the table and importantly won over key men like Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – helping him immediately to earn the respect of a dressing room that had apparently fallen out with previous coach Luis Enrique. From the outset, Barcelona hierarchy knew that spellbinding football in the mould of the club’s attacking history would not instantly be produced, but Valverde’s pursuit of reclaiming the La Liga title showed no let up. So it has proved, though, going unbeaten was surely not at the forefront of his mind but is now a distinct possibility.

‘Txingurri’, as Valverde is otherwise known, might be quiet in his overall nature and that remarkable calmness has worn off on his players. While the reliability of his midfield engine room has proved to be crucial, tactically, he hasn’t been scared of asking for more defensive work from playmaking talent like Philippe Coutinho.

His substitutions – often an under-rated part of management – have been on the money also. A classic example being September’s away clash against Getafe. Barcelona looked to be going down 1-0 against the Madrid-based minnows as the big guns failed to fire. Denis Suarez was brought on for Iniesta, he then scored the leveller and went on to set-up the winning goal for Paulinho, another man who was brought on for Ivan Rakitic.

Stellar first season at the helm for Valverde.

Magician Messi never ceases to amaze, helps galvanise Suarez

What hasn’t been said about the legendary Argentine? Everything. Nevertheless, a vintage campaign such as this one yielded 32 La Liga goals (43 in all competitions) and has been a dominating factor in Barcelona’s comfortable stranglehold on Spanish football. Messi’s level of play has, at times, been as high as ever and on a par to his historic 2011-12 season.

The 30-year-old is not a player you instruct to do things to, and as such, Valverde has just stepped aside – like any good manager would do – to give him centre stage. 12 league assists though underline Messi’s worth as the ultimate team player and without him this Barcelona side have looked a bit average at times.

Failure to be able to inspire Barca in Rome during their Champions League quarter-final exit will have hurt Messi more than anyone – but such is the affection he receives in Catalonia – his club and those involved with it would be happy enough to see him lift a World Cup this summer instead.

The little maestro’s impact has boosted everyone at the club, inclusive of Luis Suarez – who at the beginning of the season had many questioning whether he was a spent force. 23 goals and nine assists in 29 league outings put pay to that speculation despite a lingering knee problem, with the two combining brilliantly at times as we saw at the Riazor just two days ago.

The King: Lionel Messi.

The King: Lionel Messi.

There were plenty of other standouts, too…

Samuel Umtiti, this term, has grown into one of the world’s best defenders and is a man Barcelona need to tie down long-term with speculation Manchester United could activate his £53m (Dh 268m) release clause. Aside from a wobble here and there, particularly during the second leg against Roma, the French ace has been a towering presence at central defence. Gerard Pique has been steady but the 24-year-old has been one of the main reasons Barca have conceded the second-fewest goals in La Liga (21), three more than Diego Simeone’s defensive specialists Atletico Madrid.

That solidarity in the backline has ultimately helped boost the confidence of Germany star Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who like Umtiti, has silenced doubters to become one of the very best in his position. He is trying to wrestle the Zamora goalkeeping trophy away from Atleti’s Jan Oblak and has come up trumps with crucial saves when it has mattered this season (think back to Bilbao away and December’s El Clasico win at the Bernabeu where he made important saves to deny Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale).

Ter Stegen’s emergence as Mr Reliable between the sticks, coupled with a granite-like defence domestically, has given Barcelona the best platform for the powers that be to go on and do the business at the top of the pitch.

Samuel Umtiti displaying just how much the Barca jersey means to him

Samuel Umtiti displaying just how much the Barca jersey means to him.

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Relive: Andres Iniesta's Barcelona career in trophies

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Outgoing club legend Andres Iniesta added another La Liga trophy to his comprehensive collection on Sunday, taking his total to 34 for club and country.

The 33-year old now has the most titles by any Spanish player in history.

And as Iniesta bids a final goodbye, we take a look at his career and the trophies he’s won for Barcelona.

Footballing genius!

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Dembele and Coutinho still need to adapt to Ernesto Valverde's tactical demands

Andy West 30/04/2018
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Dembele and Coutinho need to show greater defensive awareness.

Midway through the second-half of Barcelona’s title-clinching victory on Sunday night, everything was getting out of control.

Deportivo La Coruna had come back from two goals down to level and were pushing hard to score again, threatening to delay Barca’s title celebrations by at least a week and throw the league leaders into a mini crisis ahead of next weekend’s Clasico.

What happened next was very instructive, carrying significance which will extend into next season.

Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde did not hesitate to act, taking off Ousmane Dembele and bringing on Denis Suarez. A few minutes later, Philippe Coutinho was also sacrificed for the introduction of Paulinho.

The consequence – although whether it was as a direct result of the substitutions is uncertain – was that Barca re-established control of the game, and ended up running away with a 4-2 victory as Lionel Messi took over.

And it just went to show that Valverde has some big decisions to make as he formulates his plans for the next season.

In an attacking sense, Dembele and Coutinho had both enjoyed decent games. They combined neatly for the opening goal, netted by the latter after an adroit pass from the former, and proceeded to regularly threaten the Deportivo defence with Dembele’s pace and direct running and Coutinho’s trickery on the ball and long-range shooting.

But they were both weak defensively, leaving full-backs Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba dangerously exposed. And when Deportivo took advantage by grabbing two goals to level, it was clear from Valverde’s reaction whom he blamed for the unwanted turnaround.

VIGO, SPAIN - APRIL 17: Ousmane Dembele (R) celebrates with Philippe Coutinho of Barcelona after scores the first goal during the La Liga match between Celta de Vigo and Barcelona at Municipal Balaidos on April 17, 2018 in Vigo, Spain. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho have enjoyed decent first seasons in Catalonia.

Dembele, in particular, clearly does not have the full trust of his coach – evident most starkly in the fact that he was left on the bench for all but the final few minutes of the Champions League quarter-final against Roma. Don’t expect to see him start against Real Madrid next weekend.

The 20 year-old, clearly, has time on his side. He is still extremely inexperienced and hasn’t had anywhere near enough time to learn the intricacies of a structured team system. He is hugely talented, that much is clear, but the majority of his work is instinctive, off the cuff.

There’s a time and place for that, of course, and Dembele should become a major asset to Barca for his ability to deliver something different – a piece of skill or a flash of pace to destabilise the opposition defence and create openings for Messi and Luis Suarez.

But he also has to learn how to defend, how to avoid conceding possession cheaply, when to attempt a piece of flamboyant skill and when to settle for just keeping simple possession. If he doesn’t, his time will continue to be limited.

Coutinho is a different matter. He is a much more tactically aware player, shown by his ability to deliver good performances in a wide variety of roles since he joined the club.

However, he does not have many defensive instincts and plays primarily for the final third, where he has great ability to either create a chance with intricate passing or taking on a long-range shot.

At Barcelona, he’ll have to do a lot more than that going in the other direction, especially if he is ultimately to take the chance of becoming the heir to Andres Iniesta – whose quality of defensive work is largely under-appreciated – in the centre of the pitch.

Other than the occasional exception like Sunday night, Barcelona have not won this title by winning games 4-2. They boast the second-best defensive record in the league and established their unassailable gap at the top of the table with a series of clean-sheet victories during the autumn and winter.

Valverde is that kind of coach. He is cautious, conservative, and balanced. He will not go out gung-ho for victory in the bullish belief that however many goals his team happens to concede, they will always be able to score one more.

With Messi the undisputed leader, he already has one player who is effectively a passenger in defence. He cannot afford any more, and Coutinho and Dembele – however much money they cost – will have to massively improve their levels of defensive commitment before they can be guaranteed a place in the team next season.

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