Dodgy transfers, boardroom mayhem, managerial merry-go-round: Barcelona have been in disarray for a while, the cracks are deepening now
Barcelona may be just four points behind Real Madrid in the league but the club has all but conceded defeat while dropping six points in last four games.
Quique Setien was leaving the room when he was reminded that he had a turn left at the table. He went back, grabbed the dice, and rolled it over indifferently, fully aware of the futility of his move. A few elbow-bumps and pat on the backs later, it was time to call it a night.
Against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, in a match Barcelona had to win to entertain realistic hopes of winning the league, Setien waited until the 90th minute to bring on Antoine Griezmann. The game had been tied at 2-2 for 28 minutes, the second-half had been on for 45, and Suarez had been showing a lack of fitness for 85. At the post-match press conference, the Barcelona coach said, “To put him on with so little time left is hard for a player of his level. But it would have been worse not to put him on.”
Griezmann has played a total of 86 minutes across Barcelona’s last four league games - a period in which they have dropped six points and relinquished the pole position in the table to Real Madrid. His fitness, unlike Suarez's, isn’t up for debate either. Unless they have a miraculous Champions League campaign in August, Barcelona are staring at their first trophyless season in six years; and repeatedly benching Griezmann might be the decision that ended up placing the league in Real Madrid’s hands.
Barcelona’s famous philosophy, which has brought them unprecedented success since the turn of the century, is based around control. In the years between 2008 and 2015, during which they touched their zenith, Barcelona’s biggest strength was their rabid hunger for control. When they didn’t have the ball, they pressed opposition players as if their lives depended on it. Pep Guardiola demanded that his team play at their highest intensity in the 5-6 seconds right after losing possession, because he believed it gave them a high chance of recovering the ball quickly.
In a sport where random, instinctive decisions can often decide matches and championships, what, really, is control? While definitions may differ, the gist will boil down to managing the moving parts of a football team with the best possible efficiency. The moving parts, in turn, can range from the kind of pasta the team eats on the day of the match to the number of metres a defender is allowed to keep between himself and a certain striker. You can’t always control the mind or the body, but you can control the information you feed them.
This January, when Ernesto Valverde was sacked unceremoniously, they were top of the league, albeit precariously, but looking likely to land their fourth title in five seasons. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions’ League the previous season. But results be damned, the board - and to some extent, the fans - weren’t overly pleased with the structured, pragmatic football their team was playing under Valverde. They wanted to see a return to the tenets of Cruyffian fluidity and thus hired Quique Setien, who had a measly 37.4% win-rate to show for from the 500 games he had managed. Five months and eighteen games later, Barcelona are out of the Copa Del Rey, have resigned to losing the league, and face a tough home second-leg against Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16.
This sort of decision-making falls well in pattern with the Barcelona of this decade. After Pep Guardiola left his post in 2012, Barcelona promoted his assistant Tito Vilanova and promptly got caught out against teams who had found a way to tackle their brand of possession-based football. After the relapse of a parotid gland cancer caused Vilanova to quit in the summer of 2013, they hired Gerardo Martino on Leo Messi’s behest and lost the league title to Atlético. Then, of course, he was sacked too. Six months after winning the 2014-15 treble under Luis Enrique, Barcelona sacked Director of Football Andoni Zubizarreta - a popular figure within the club, who also worked closely with managers to identify potential signings. Calling it a merry-go-round would be an insult to the joyous amusement-park attraction.
In the time since, they have spent €800 million on around 30 new players. Only three of them started the match against Atletico. Their most expensive signing (Coutinho) is on loan at Bayern Munich, their second-most expensive signing (Ousmane Dembele) has played five league games for them this season, and their third-most expensive signing (Griezmann) gets lesser game time during a title run-in than an emergency pick-up from Leganes (Martin Braithwaite). The average age of their starting line-up against Atletico was 30, which too, was helped greatly by the outlier in 20-year-old La Masia graduate Riqui Puig.
It beggars belief that, in this situation, they swapped 23-year-old midfielder Arthur Melo for the 30-year old Miralem Pjanic, who is a brilliant talent, but likely to be past his best and fittest days. But when you dive into the details of that transfer - the curious timing of it, the amount of money changing hands in a post-pandemic market - do the true extent of the complications come to the surface. Reportedly, Barcelona’s coaching staff didn’t want Arthur to leave. Even if the Brazilian hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as the “next Xavi,” there was a latent belief between the coaches that he and Frenkie de Jong would become the midfield fulcrum on which Barcelona’s future would be built. He was pushed out of the door because FC Barcelona had to show certain figures on their balance sheets by the end of this financial year, failing which, their board of directors would be personally liable for 15% of the loss.
The problems exist well beyond managers and transfers. Last December, Arturo Vidal sued Barcelona over a dispute about bonus payments; a month after, Lionel Messi and current Sporting Director Eric Abidal were taking jabs at each other on social media; and the month after, radio network Cadena SER reported that club president Josep Maria Bartomeu had employed a digital media firm to help boost his image and, in turn, disparage prospective rivals and even some of his own players. Think of this; think of Arthur and Coutinho; think of the managerial - and by that token, tactical - changes; and do any of the decisions inspire the feeling of control?
The biggest problem with analysing Barcelona is viewing them through the lens of their domestic results. In 2018, Damian Hughes, a professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, wrote The Barcelona Way, where he outlined five key principles that drove Barcelona’s success, and could be used to, in his words, unlock the DNA of a winning culture anywhere. While this author has no credentials to point fingers at Hughes’ research, it looks increasingly likely that Barcelona win despite, and not because, of how they are run.
The buck for their success usually stops at Messi. There was a time, not too long back, when Messi was the spearhead of a prodigiously talented team. He could spend long portions of a game reading opposition defenders and finding the right spaces to occupy because the rest of the team was able enough to dominate most games on their own. Right now, he is their most important forward and creative midfielder, in principle and in numbers. Every time they hit a wall, the eyes start looking for Messi. For a footballer of his ability, some of the attention and dependency is warranted, but most of it is the creation of a club that hasn’t worked hard enough to build a good support system around him.
Over the last decade and a half, Messi’s feet have brought a lot of joy, enabled a lot of success, and evidently hoodwinked his own club into believing that he is timeless. But athletes rarely are. Messi is 33. One day the nutmegs and panenkas will stop. If the current situation at the club is anything to go by, so will the titles.
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