By Archie Corbett.
It’s May 27 2009. Barcelona have just beaten a Sir Alex Ferguson-led Manchester United in the Champions League final. 2-0.
The historic city of Rome has been flooded with a wave of Catalan dominance, capping off arguably Barca’s most successful season in their history. A season that saw them become the first-ever Spanish side to win the treble of La Liga, the Copa del Rey and Champions League.
Now let’s fast forward 4097 days.
FC Barcelona have just been humiliated 8-2 in a Champions League quarter-final to the eventual winners Bayern Munich.
As the Catalan side trudge off the Estádio da Luz turf, there’s a sense of change on the horizon. The end of a transcendent era seems to be upon us.
With the German winning-machine Bayern Munich remaining on the field – not a maroon and blue shirt in sight – the announcement of Quique Setien’s sacking follows the shockwave of Barcelona humiliation through Twitter.
But how did we get here? What has become of the side that’s been on top of the football world for generations?
Barcelona’s demise can’t necessarily be pinned on one person. A manager, director, or singular head of department can’t be solely blamed for the gradual (then somewhat accelerated thanks to recent events) downfall of such a giant club.
But questions must be asked of the directors. The carousel of decision-makers at the club has meant there’s been little long-term vision over the past half-decade.
Currently, those with the power at Barca are president Josep Maria Bartomeu, vice-president Jordi Cardoner, board member Javier Bordas and newly appointed sporting director Ramon Planes.
No real “football people” that stand out from this list.
The only recent ‘footballing brain’ in a position of influence was the recently sacked Eric Abidal – from the role that Ramon Planes has now assumed. Even when Abidal was director of football, he never seemed like he had a major say in the transfer decisions of the club.
This lack of footballing nous from within the Barcelona ranks has finally bared rotten fruit. A series of shambolic signings based off a system with little scouting intelligence and reckless dealings has led to a complete divide between manager and board.
Here’s a list of some incomings to the Camp Nou since their transfer ban in 2015:
- Arda Turan (£26m)
- Aleix Vidal (£13m)
- Andre Gomes (£31m)
- Jasper Cillessen (£11m)
- Paco Alcacer (£25m)
- Lucas Digne (£165m)
- Gerard Deulofeu (£10.5m)
- Paulinho (£36.3m)
- Ousmane Dembele (£96.8)
- Phillipe Coutinho (£142m)
- Malcom (£365m)
- Neto (£23.3m)
- Junior Firpo (£27.5m)
- Martin Braithwaite (£18m)
(sources: soccerbase.com and transfermarkt.co.uk)
This list is worth around £513 million.
Between them, they’ve made 35 appearances in La Liga this season.
Junior Firpo with 17, January addition Martin Braithwaite has racked up 11 appearances, while injury-ridden Ousmane Dembele has mustered just five. Backup goalkeeper Neto has made two appearances in La Liga.
Big spending at Barcelona in recent years has only added to their issues. Major deals for Dembele and Phillipe Coutinho haven’t materialised and have left Barca lacking any identity.
The tiki-taka days under Guardiola where a joy to watch. They would turn teams over and barely lose the ball, with Iniesta, Xavi and Messi simply running the show.
But a failure to replace the former two in the middle of the park and surround Messi with enough talent and players that fit the system, has ultimately left Barcelona in the dust of heavily backed clubs like PSG and Manchester City.
Out With The Old – In With The New?
The idea Barcelona had was fairly simple in principle: when the bulk of the all-triumphant sides of the early 2010s are retired or have moved on, replace them with players of a similar ilk and still facilitate the big-name signings.
This system was even the case when Barca were in their pomp. Sure, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol and Dain Alves were the cornerstones of the team. But big-name incomings were always aplenty.
Huge names like Thierry Henry and later Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas all allowed the club to refresh the players that surrounded those cornerstones at Camp Nou and maintain their dominance in Europe.
Bringing in players that would compliment the style of play employed in this period meant Barcelona rarely let their grip on European dominance slip.
However, as displayed with the huge money Bartomeu has thrown at signings since being elected in 2016, this philosophy isn’t working.
This is largely down to the natural ageing of players. Their mainstay players are now well into their 30s and very much past the peak of their powers
Luis Suarez (33), Gerard Pique (33), Arturo Vidal (33), Messi (33), Ivan Rakitic (32), Sergio Busquets (32), Jordi Alba (31) and Miralem Pjanic (30).
While the spending power shows Barca have attempted to rejuvenate the squad with some younger talent, it’s still the same players who have been carrying the load for Barca. With such a hectic schedule, the wear and tear on their fading stars is only going to increase and put further strain on their bodies.
The attempts to rebuild the squad have come predominantly in the form of Antoine Griezmann, Dembele and Frenkie De Jong. Coutinho’s Barca days are numbered, so let’s look at these three in isolation.
Griezmann has struggled massively since he arrived from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019 for a cool £120m. His first season at Camp Nou has seen him tot up just nine goals in 35 appearances and his overall play has looked a shadow of his former self.
The initial signs seemed promising, with Griezmann grabbing a brace and an assist in his home debut. But his style of play never really made him a natural fit with Barcelona, under both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien.
Dembele has been unfortunately plagued with injuries in his time at Barca. The £138m Barcelona paid for the French winger meant that Dembele arrived with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
His 12 goals and 12 assists in 51 La Liga games since 2017 doesn’t paint the entire picture, as injuries haven’t allowed Dembele to put together any sort of run in the first team.
De Jong is the most recent and arguably the most promising of the three additions. Arriving last summer from Ajax for £75m De Jong was instantly thrust into the first team.
However, under both Valverde and Setien, De Jong was never really playing in his natural position. Jostling with Sergio Busquets for a role as the deep-lying midfielder and never really finding his feet further up the pitch, De Jong became a scapegoat and struggled in his first season.
But with Ronald Koeman coming in, the Dutchman may well find his true form at Barca. It still remains to be seen in what position Koeman will actually plan to play the 23-year-old, but he’s got bags of potential and could kick on this coming season.
While each of these players, amongst any others, have shown glimpses of being great for Barcelona, none of them have lived up to their price tag nor the expectations thrust upon them when they arrived at Barcelona.
It’s All Getting A Bit Messi…
Throughout this piece, Messi has barely got a mention. But don’t worry, Messi is the main character of this Barcelona romantic tragedy.
When news broke yesterday that the six-time Ballon d’Or winner has requested to leave the club, the football world went into meltdown. With exact details on the story still being confirmed, one thing is clear; Messi wants out (and the football world is very much still in a state of meltdown).
Messi reportedly sent a fax to the club yesterday, outlining his desire to leave Barcelona. It also outlined that he’d like to do so for free.
The factors in him wanting to leave the club will never truly be known unless the player himself confirms them. But everything outlined in this piece would’ve certainly played its part.
What could play out from this point forth is a legal battle between the player and the club. In short, Messi’s contract with the club expires in June 2021 with a release clause of £700m attached to it.
Messi had a new clause put into his contract that would let him to terminate his deal at the end of the 2020 season, allowing him to leave for absolutely nothing if he decided that’s what he wanted to do.
This clause, reportedly, specified that Messi must inform Barcelona if he wants to leave before June 10 to terminate his contract with the club. But with the extension to the season due to Covid-19, this date was slap bang in the middle of the restart to the season.
Those around Messi are of the view that this extension to the season allowed the player until the end of August to terminate his deal if he so wished, meaning that his fax sent to Barcelona yesterday should allow him to walk away for free.
All in all, Barcelona’s lack of success in Europe will have frustrated Messi. This is the culmination of years of said frustration, all coming to a head at this very moment.
We may well be about to witness one of the most tense and monumental standoffs between one of Europe’s elite clubs and its all-time legend.
But this is where FC Barcelona are different.
There has always been an heir of superiority to a club that has, ultimately, failed its greatest ever player in the past five years and driven him to the point of leaving the club he’s become a superstar.
What happens from this point on is anyone’s guess?
But it’s looking increasingly likely that Barcelona are on the brink of what could be a catastrophic collapse.