Why Barca could get worse before getting better
The Catalan club is in freefall with an injury depleted squad, misfiring players and bad finances.
Another time, another Bayern Munich side, another 0-3 loss at Camp Nou in a Champions League game. Lionel Messi wasn’t there too, prompting the headline, “Without God, there is no miracle.” That defeat came after a 0-4 loss away to Bayern making it the worst in the competition’s semi-final since Eintracht Frankfurt beat Rangers 12-4 on aggregate in 1960.
But for a Camp Nou used to magic on a weekly basis, sometimes oftener, being overrun by Bayern at home in 2013 didn’t feel like doom and gloom. Barcelona had made the semi-finals of the world’s toughest club competition for the sixth successive season and they were well ahead of Real Madrid in La Liga (eventually winning the title by accruing 14 points more). Moreover, the reverses came in a season when coach Tito Vilanova was battling cancer, defender Eric Abidal had had a liver transplant and they were missing key players (Sergi Busquets, Carles Puyol, Jordi Alba and Javier Mascherano). True, they had to get ready for life without Xavi, the midfield maestro would leave in 2015, but the rest of the wizards were there, Luis Suarez and Neymar were yet to join and a fifth Champions League would be won in 2015.
“This team has a future,” Xavi had presciently said after being overrun by Bayern.
Last week’s 0-3 defeat to the Bavarians - Barcelona’s third successive Champions League loss at Camp Nou after 38 unbeaten home games - and Monday’s 1-1 draw with Granada salvaged by a second-half stoppage time goal by Ronaldo Araujo, feels more like the chronicle of a malaise foretold. Barcelona had zero shots on target against Bayern’s seven; the data for big chances missed was 0-4; for shots inside the box it was 2-10. The numbers were better against Granada: 17 shots, 6 on target, 78% possession and 91% pass accuracy. Against a team employing the low block, Barcelona played 639 passes but proof of why things are far from right lay in the fact that 293 of them were played back.
Uncharacteristically, they also played 54 crosses, 45 from open play. Only twice has that happened with Barcelona since 2005-06 and never after November 2016 against Malaga. Uncharacteristically again, it was central defender Araujo who looked the most potent attacking threat. For a team that would rely on sharp exchange of passes and darting runs, for a team whose style would leave opponents chasing crooked shadows, this felt different, if not odd. It sparked comparisons with, hold your breath, Stoke City.
Coach Ronald Koeman explained Barcelona couldn’t play “tiki-taki” because the personnel weren’t available. Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Sergio Aguero, Martin Braithwaite, Pedri Gonzalez and Alba were injured. Barcelona want to play in a certain way, he said, but change must be made when one is needed. “If we have to make crosses, so be it.”
Koeman, a former Barcelona star, has also introduced a string of young players. Barcelona ended the game against Bayern with six who were 22 or younger. Yet, it is difficult to be hopeful. Because generational talent don’t always come in a bunch from a club’s youth system and even if they do, they need a structure to blossom into stars. Employing Gerard Pique as attacker alongside Luuk de Jong, as Koeman did against Granada, too does not seem to the right recipe for reconstruction. Neither is lining up five defenders who struggled with the off-side trap against Bayern. Or relying on counter-attack because Barcelona don’t have the speed for it. They were also behind in the press so while Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to hoof the ball upfield, Bayern could comfortably play out from the back.
Even if Koeman’s statement of De Jong being better than Neymar at crosses is overlooked, the Dutch forward hasn’t really been the missing piece in the jigsaw in the way Romelu Lukaku has been at Chelsea. Not at a club where Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Ronaldinho dazzled. So, is Koeman the right fit? And if not, who?
“This Barcelona is not that of eight years ago,” said Koeman after the Granada game. This seems like a continuation of what happened in Liverpool, Rome and Lisbon. At least then, there was Messi to paper the cracks: 30 goals and the golden boot last season. There was also Antoine Griezmann. Now there is Memphis Depay, De Jong and a litany of injury worries.
And financial worries. Pedri and Fati need a new deal by next season and there is no guarantee Barcelona can keep both or even one. They do have a clutch of very good players: Fati, Pedri, Ter Stegen, Frenkie de Jong and Alba. Pique can still marshal the defence and Busquets played a stellar role for Spain in the Euros. Problem is, all this may not be enough to stop Barcelona from sliding further south.
It’s happened in the past. In 1942, Barcelona ended 12th in the league. Between 1960 and 1990, they won La Liga twice. “To complete the project may take several years,” Louis van Gaal had said on taking over as Barcelona coach in 1997. For Barca fans, to quote Shelby Rogers on teens taking over women’s tennis, “buckle up, it’s a long ride.”