The happenings on the field of play is a reflection of the internal dynamics and working of a club. Barcelona’s present decline started with the 3 nil loss to Roma in Rome in the 2017/2018 UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg. They led the first leg 4-1 but lost the second leg cumulating in an aggregate score of 4 all but lost the tie on the away goals rule. Could lightning strike again? It sure did! Fast forward to the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals. They beat Liverpool 3 nil at the Camp Nou but then the capitulation to Liverpool in the second leg. They lost 4 nil at Anfield. This was the second strike for Valverde and clamours started for his sack. Now this 8-2 whitewash in this season’s Champions League quarter-finals is a confirmation of things certainly not right at Barcelona.
Messi cut a dejected figure and the Barcelona Manager, Quique Setién’s facial expression and body shape displayed someone who had resigned himself to be crucified.
Empires in the distant past came and go. Their decline was over a period of time and seen by all but the actual actors in the saga. So it is at the Camp Nou. It’s evident to all what is happening. We see wrong board room decisions year in year out. The La Liga titles papered the cracks on the wall. The Pandemic break finally stopped the momentum that was slowing grinding to a halt. It ensured the stoppage was sooner than later.
Yesterday’s 8-2 loss to the Bavarians should be seen as no surprise. If you were surprised, then perhaps the score line. Over the years, its normally the other way round albeit the seven nil aggregate loss to Bayern in 2012/2013 Champions League semi finals.
Barcelona after the Pandemic break lost the La Liga title to Real Madrid after winning only five out of their last nine matches. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich have won 19 games in succession, taken the Bundesliga title and German Cup. A tale of two contrasts. Bayern Munich are unbeaten in their last 24 games, conceding just 0.54 goals per game while scoring 65 goals in those games. In this season’s Champions League, they have defeated English clubs Tottenham Hotspur with a 10-3 aggregate score line over 2 matches in the group stages and 7- 1 defeat of Chelsea in the Round of 16.
Bayern played such a high line that would have left them exposed to a team full of legs and running. The average age of the Barcelona squad was 29 years. In football terms, that’s the onset of decline after a football peak as most players won’t play beyond 5 more years. Advancement in sports health and development has shown this decline and why it is difficult for players to secure long terms deals with new clubs and even with present clubs when their present contract expires.
A rundown of the ages of the major players at Barcelona reads; Messi at 33 years, Luis Suárez at 33 years, Gerard Piqué at 33 years, Sergio Busquets at 32 years, Arturo Vidal at 33 years and Ivan Rakitić at 32 years This is a squad in dire need of young players who can run with the ball, cover the pitch and supplement their lack of running. Bottom line is players need to be promoted from the academy or investment should be made in younger players from other clubs. A shining light is 17 year old Ansu Fati. More faith should be placed in the academy players as was done in the past.
The management sold Neymar for a record €222 million to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. This was equal to the release clause of Neymar’s contract and is still the most expensive transfer to date. The Barcelona board headed by Josep Maria Bartomeu Floreta then proceeded to spend the proceeds on Ousmane Dembélé in August 2017 and 5 months later on Philippe Coutinho in January 2018. Dembélé was bought for €105 million plus a reported €40 million as add-ons. This deal meant that Dembélé became the joint-second most expensive player (in euros), along with Paul Pogba. Coutinho was bought for £105 million, which could rise to £142 million if various clauses were met. Antoine Griezmann finally joined in July 2019 after a dispute with Atlético Madrid on his buyout clause. He was purchased for €120 million.
Dembele is a curious one. Is it his numerous injuries? Is it his psyche? Whatever it is, he has not justified the investment on him. His one year stay at Dortmund should not have warranted the board match his buy price of €105 million. That was a rash decision by the Barcelona board.
Dembélé has been hampered by hamstring injuries since joining and has spent more time on the treatment table than on the football pitch. In February 2020, he suffered a serious hamstring tear and had surgery which ruled in out for six months. This meant in spite of the extension of the season due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, he would miss the rest of the 2019/2020 season.
Why Coutinho couldn’t make it in the Barca squad is up for debate as we saw his exploits with Jürgen Klopp Liverpool side. Although surplus to requirements at the Catalans, we saw him come off the bench and score 2 goals and provide one assist. Coutinho looked real hungry to prove and reinvent himself yesterday. So why would Barcelona want to sell and loan out such a player? Arsenal is gladly waiting in the wings to take him on another loan. With yesterday’s display, other clubs would now be interested and inquiring about him.
Barcelona might be having a re-think after all and they might just want him to stay. This might be the new manager’s decision as Quique Setién is expected to be sacked soon.
Why has Antoine Griezmann not been able to display the scintillating form he had as an Atlético Madrid player? The coaching staff need to analyze why, find out what needs to be done and make him effective. He is surely a better player than we are seeing now.
Did the board need to sack Ernesto Valverde mid-season and employ Quique Setién. Valverde, although not playing the tiki taka style of football espoused by the great Johan Cruyff and followed by the remarkable Pep Guardiola was keeping the ship afloat. His style of football was thought not suitable for the Barca faithful’s so he had to go. A better decision would have been to relieve him of his duties at the end of the season. He was primed to at least win the La Liga but Setién was brought in and everything went south. A word of sympathy for Setién though. He was against the tide and most probably was bound to fail without having time to bring in players during a transfer window to implement his football philosophy. Perhaps this is what Xavi saw when he declined the manager position when he was first approached. Great was his wisdom when he decided he was not ready to take on the role. Perhaps he is now ready as the ship is sunk and he can be seen as the saviour to bring it afloat.
Lionel Messi is undoubtedly the greatest player of his generation if we judge solely on skill. He is a player that every team would want to have but age is no longer on his side. He is 33 years and still delivering but the club needs to start planning when he is no more as effective as he should be. There is a focus and over reliance on him. Perhaps that is why Coutinho and Griezmann are not as effective in the team. Rumours in the dressing room have it that he is an overbearing influence on managers and football tactics. Valverde tried to bench him based on his tactics, but he got the wrong end of the stick. Barcelona needs to find another system of play without him in the team.
Luis Suarez at his age should not be the main striker at the club. His legs are virtually gone and it would be hard for him to run the requirement 6km average run that is demanded in every match. Injuries have troubled him also.
The board President seat is due for election in 12 months’ time. A review of Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure would show he should not be re-elected. The board have wasted the finances of the club on players who have not in one way or the other returned the investment and paid exorbitant wages to bring the players in. Assumptions are that the total wage bill amounts to an 80% outlay of revenues coming in. This is bad management. This board actually paid some of Coutinho’s wages to score 2 and set up one against them in yesterday’s Champion’s League match.
Interesting times at Barcelona. This time, the board have got to get it right with their finances, new manager and their system of play. If not, Real Madrid would dominate La Liga for a while and Barcelona’s wait for another Champion’s League trophy might become a quest for the holy grail.