by Paul Giblin
While Real Madrid will take the plaudits for winning this season’s La Liga title, it has been a series of disappointments for their traditional rivals FC Barcelona.
Barca must still be thinking that had they done some things better at boardroom level, it would be them celebrating the title rather than Zinedine Zidane’s men.
Barca’s 5-0 win away to Alaves to end the domestic campaign threw some make-up on the end of the season, but Leo Messi’s words, “anyone can beat us,” following their 2-1 defeat to Osasuna three days earlier contained more truths than many will like to admit, and point to a lack of planning at the highest level at the club.
The season started with the diplomatic and underrated Ernesto Valverde in the dugout after surviving the double disappointments at the end of last season, with Barca’s 4-0 defeat in the Champions League to Liverpool and their Copa del Rey final loss to Valencia.
The summer called for the squad to be renewed and rejuvenated and Antoine Griezmann finally arrived (a season late some may say), along with Frenkie de Jong and left back Junior Firpo.
Of those three only De Jong can be deemed a success and even he still has to improve. Griezmann has worked hard in every game, but has struggled to adapt, while Junior has failed to show the quality that Barca need to allow Jordi Alba to rest on a regular basis, and is likely to leave this summer.
The fact is, Barca started the season with the backbone of the team made up of players aged over 30. Leo Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic, with Rakitic only staying after the club failed to sell him over the summer despite having been vital for Valverde’s team in the two previous campaigns, are all over the age of 30.
To his credit, Valverde promoted the precocious 16-year-old Ansu Fati, and that foresight has been rewarded with Fati netting 7 league goals this season and offering hope he will progress to be a star at the very highest level.
Other players have disappointed, with Artur Melo again failing to show why Barca signed him and the season would end with Melo being sold to Juventus amid rumors of an over-active social life.
Meanwhile Ousmane Dembele (who along with Philippe Coutinho was signed to help replace Neymar) spent nearly the whole season injured, while Coutinho spent the campaign on loan at Bayern Munich. To put things into perspective, that is the 225 million euros Barca got for Neymar, plus around 40 million on top of that spent on two players who didn’t play.
The shadow of Neymar seemed to hang over the club last summer with continued rumors of an attempt to bring him back to the Camp Nou.
With the efforts to sign Neymar taking over too much attention, other important matters slipped by the wayside. Barca failed to buy a central defender to support Pique and Lenglet – essential given Samuel Umtiti’s knee issues.
Barca were below their best until the New Year, but they still went into January as leaders, only for Valverde to be sacked after a Spanish Supercup defeat to Atletico Madrid. What made the sacking more surprising was that Valverde was sacked without a replacement being lined up.
Club President, Josep Maria Bartomeu clearly thought that club legend, Xavi Hernandez, who is coaching in Qatar, would leap at the chance to be the returning hero, but Xavi (probably looking at the squad and Bartomeu’s unpopularity) turned down the offer. That left Barca scrambling for ‘Plan B’ or ‘Plan C’ and finally Quique Setien, who had been sacked by Betis in 2019 was brought in. “One day I was in the country with the cows and now I’m at the Camp Nou,” he commented at his presentation.
Setien’s style of football was closer than any to the Barca passing game. Indeed Setien is inflexible in his devotion to that style, which with an aging squad has its drawbacks as Athletic Club showed when they knocked Barca out of the Copa del Rey with their energy and speed in attack.
By this time Suarez was out for several months after needing a knee operation and Barca again scrambled around for a replacement, eventually spending 20 million Euros on Leganes’ Martin Braithwaite, who had netted 4 goals for the Madrid based club before his arrival.
Barca went into the enforced break for the coronavirus with a two-point lead over Real Madrid, but when football eventually restarted the differences between the two rivals was clear.
Madrid had a deeper and a younger squad and were able to rotate and rest key players, while at Barca Setien had to repeat and repeat with few alternations and Leo Messi playing virtually every minute.
The lack of depth was highlighted when they couldn’t field an entire sub’s bench against Alaves, but by then the league was lost with too much sluggish play allowing teams to close them down and tired legs in defense conceding vital goals – and so the league was lost.
Setien will have (probably) a chance to redeem himself in the Champions League, where four wins could bring glory, but if he fails, he too will probably be out.
However, one basic problem remains: Barca’s key players are still getting older and none of them have natural replacements. Unless the club gets things right over the summer, whoever is in charge at the start of next season is going to face the same problems Valverde did in August. And given that Barca haven’t got their summer right for several years now, who thinks they’ll hit the bullseye this time?
And there is one final worry: when Messi, Suarez, Pique, Busquets and company do retire, they will not bring any revenue into the club, but their replacements will cost tens, or perhaps hundreds of millions of Euros.
How Barca are going to finance these changes over the next season or two is a massive challenge. Enditem