Winning the Champions League is nothing short of amazing, but it does bring one significant problem to the next season: The Club World Cup, and to a lesser extent, the European Super Cup.
In Spain, winning La Liga or the Copa Del Rey also brings two more games in the form of the Spanish Super Cup. Overall, these 5 additional games, plus additional travel, present a burden for teams seeking to repeat as European champions. No team has done so in the Champions League era.
Last season's Real Madrid provide a blueprint on exactly how NOT to manage the extra fixtures. Do Barcelona have the right plan? First, let's look backward
Real Madrid's Mistake
In 2013-14, Real Madrid won the cup and the Champions League. In 2014-15, while they secured the ESC and the CWC, they failed to win any of the big prizes and additionally dropped the SSC. Prior to the turn of the year, Real Madrid were in first place in the league, winning their Champions League group, and advancing in the Copa del Rey. Up to the CWC final, here is their run of form: 24W, 3L, 1D. That's 73 points of a possible 84, or 86.9%.
After returning from beating San Lorenzo in the CWC, their form was: 19W, 7L, 5D. A noticeable drop, 62 points of 93, or 66.67%. Of course some of that drop comes due to playing a higher caliber opponent in the Champions League and in the cup. But the drop is evident in the league as well, where you might expect a team would face the same caliber of competition from one half of the season to the next.
In the first half, Real Madrid won 86.67% of the points in league games. After the CWC trip, Madrid won just 76.81%.
Things seemed rosy from September to January, when Real Madrid reeled off an impressive 22 wins on the bounce. But after that came the injuries, and then, the losses. Carlo Ancelotti was rightly criticized for a lack of rotation. The extra stress of such a long trip to go play two games for the Club World Cup was crucial. As was the ill-fated decision to play a mid-season friendly against AC Milan in Dubai. Taking an unnecessary long flight in late December was pure folly, regardless of the huge sums of cash they got for it.
Madrid were still a good team after the turn of the year, but a shadow of the monster they were in the first half of the season. On the other hand, Luis Enrique rotated and rotated, almost to a fault. He didn't play the same lineup twice until January, and by the way, had been able to keep Luis Suarez from playing a single minute due to a (blessing in disguise?) FIFA registration ban.
Guess which team finished out in great form?
But it wasn't just Real Madrid. Elite European teams in general did not rotate as much as Luis Enrique's Barcelona. It is partly luck, perhaps, but then again can it be a total coincidence that Barca were generally the healthier team heading into important European matchups last season?
Great credit must be given to Luis Enrique, a long distance runner and all-around fitness freak, and his physio Rafa Pol for maintaining the team in tip-top shape.
2015-16: Can Barcelona Get it Right?
Luis Enrique has been forced into a lot less rotation that he's accustomed to, particularly due to injuries. The long-term absence of Rafinha, as well as Lionel Messi's two-month injury forced Lucho to rely heavily on Neymar and Suarez playing every game. Meanwhile, Xavi went into semi-retirement in Qatar while Pedro sought more opportunities at Chelsea.
Luis Enrique has used substitutions sparingly, going many games not using all 3. He even played a cup game down a man rather than using his last substitute and risking overburdening a player. The reality is that the key players, bar Messi, have logged more minutes than they had at this point last season.
We've started to see the effects of fixture congestion. The 0-0 draw with Espanyol was anything but inspiring, and Barcelona have begun to slip in the league for results just like that.
So how do you fix that? Well, again Luis Enrique has that curse with a silver lining. Two new players, Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, come into the team having not played at all in the first half of the season due to the FIFA ban.
That's exactly what the team needs, a couple other players that Lucho can fully trust to play important minutes. What's more, he may need more of it. The fact that he only used two substitutions in the last league game perhaps proves this.
A couple of signings to energize the squad, preferably younger players or players who have not logged a lot of time this past summer, for example.
Villlarreal's Denis Suarez fits the bill, and though his signing may sting a bit having sold him with a buyback that only activates in the summer, it's the kind of thing where it's better to arm yourself well than be stuck haggling over a stray million or two.
Celta's Nolito is a more expensive proposition, but his quality is undeniable. Barcelona will struggle with creative accounting to get his signature, but it's clear another forward is needed to come in as an occasional substitute for any of MSN. He is a Luis Enrique disciple and equally a fan of Rafa Pol. Yes, he's a bit expensive for a backup but isn't he also the perfect fit?
One of the two is likely to come. and Barcelona will be all the better for it. Nolito is Lucho's #1 choice, but he's more expensive.
Finally, if this team can manage it, why not a backup left-back? Adriano is third choice and honestly, if AS Roma really are offering 4 or 5 million, why not move him on? Jeremy Mathieu is the primary backup to Jordi Alba, which to me is troubling. It seems reasonable to find another option. Again, a player with a lot of stamina that has not been overused should do the trick.