“I hope some good comes of this,” Barcelona defender Gerard Pique had said after his team’s 8-2 mauling against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals. That it was not just another 3-1 or 4-2 defeat was perhaps something Pique hoped Barcelona could learn from. He summed it up with ‘we’ve hit rock bottom’, which implies that there really is no way left to go but up.
It was a historic hammering but only in the context of the 2020 edition; the margin of defeat this time perhaps portraying the true gulf that now exists between Barcelona and a top European competitive mean machine such as Bayern Munich.
4-0 at Anfield; 3-0 in Rome; 3-0 in Turin, and the 4-0 in Paris in 2016 (the last one miraculously overturned) had come before. All of those should have signalled something, but did not. Not for Barcelona anyway.
Each of those was a hammering in its own measure and each — along with the 8-2 against Bayern — had come under different managers with very different concepts of seeing and playing football.
That in itself does not say much about the clarity of thinking of those who run Barcelona but it certainly screams of a lack of direction from the hierarchy. Signs have been here and there in La Liga too, but it’s in Europe that incompetency is usually laid bare. Many had seen it coming, once more in fact, except the people in charge. Or perhaps, they were too foolhardy to attempt to rectify the problems they amassed.
Something reeks at Barcelona. There is an atmosphere of incompetence. The standards have fallen at one of the world’s biggest football clubs and how! Many are calling it the end of an era, possibly due to the presence of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique. But the era, crafted by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, Frank Rijkaard, Joan Laporta, and guided by the philosophies of Johan Cruyff, had long ended. The era succeeding it has been a masterclass in disastrous management. Barca have stayed in the past but without the crucial structure that needed to be held onto.
It was in 2010 that Sandro Rosell was elected as Barcelona president after Joan Laporta’s tenure had ended. Rosell, along with his then vice-president Bartomeu, had inherited what was perhaps the greatest club side of any generation. They proceeded to not only hurt Cruyff’s pride by stripping him of the club’s honorary presidency but ensured that the club ditched everything it had to do with the legendary Dutchman. In fact, Barcelona did what Cruyff would never endorse, adopting a ‘galactico-like’ policy under Bartomeu. Guardiola, frustrated with the level of interference, left in 2012 and Tito Vilanova took over before he lost his battle with cancer.
From that point onwards, Barca have been in chaos. When Xavi lifted the Champions League in 2015 during his final season, it was a signal of the end of that particular team’s journey. Their era had finished even before that point and in a club that lost its soul and searched for meaning inside mere results. No European trophy has come following 2015 and there is a familiar pattern to their European demolitions. The midfield had never been vitalised appropriately, leading to faster teams finally catching up while overall transfer policy always reeked of desperation but never meeting needs.
Was it hard for Barcelona fans to see one of their youth graduates in Thiago Alcantara running and coordinating the Bayern midfield, frequently skipping past Busquets and Vidal? Thiago sought to move for greener pastures in 2013 due to lack of playing time while the club whimsically chose to shorten Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s influence by not revitalising the midfield. Money from Thiago transfer was used to buy Neymar, who left too; the hierarchy unable to even react as PSG came calling.
Since 2015, Barcelona have spent almost one billion euros on 29 signings. None have been a success.
Publicly humiliated, Barca, desperate to make something of Neymar’s transfer windfall, contributed to Liverpool’s rise through the Coutinho purchase. Bayern bought Leroy Sane, Alphonso Davies, Niklas Sule, Leon Goretzka, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski, Thiago, Kinglsey-Coman and Jerome Boateng for less money (£139.6m) than the £142m Barcelona paid for Coutinho. The atmosphere at Camp Nou perhaps ensured even the gifted failed. Then on Saturday, Coutinho, on loan at Bayern, scored two against the club that owns him to add to the misery.
Patience is running thin but the fans’ concerns have not been voiced enough with football in the pandemic played in empty stadiums. The 8-2 mauling however has seen Messi’s patience perhaps coming to an end too. The Argentine, on the last legs of his career, is mulling a change of scenery. That their greatest ever player is even considering it should have led to elections right away, but it did not.
Amidst a financial crisis completely of their own making, Barca cannot sign players unless they sell. Against Bayern, Barcelona named their ‘oldest’ lineup in Champions League history (average age 29 years and 329 days). How do you finance a restructuring when you have players on massive salaries no one wants? Suarez at €15m a year, Busquets (€9.36m), Alba (€5.2m), Vidal (€8.58m), or Rakitic (€7.8m)? What do you do with Dembele, on €9m? Or with Griezmann?
And Messi? Who can realistically afford the 33-year-old Argentine? And even if he stays, how does the club support him? Something bigger was at stake at some point but Barca lost the plot. When Pique said they were rock bottom, perhaps he did not quite consider how deep a hole the club have themselves dug into. And the management? They will continue till March next year. The super club era at Barca may have now come to an end and it has backfired tremendously. They are rocking on a structure as rickety as their defending against Bayern.