Photo: John Seb Barber via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

SINCE the middle of last season, people have been writing-off Barcelona. It started with the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 against PSG and the whispers reached a crescendo with the departure of Neymar.

This was the Neymar that helped Barca turnaround the UCL tie with the French club, the very same Brazilian star that was part of one of the most feared trios in European football. He represented the future of Barcelona more than any of their big names.

But Barca’s fragility was highlighted again when they went out of the competition to Juventus and the fact that Real Madrid scooped their third Champions League in four years underlined what looks like the end of an era for the Catalans.

The way Neymar departed, coupled with Barca’s lack-lustre and clumsy close season suggests the club’s suits took their eye off the ball. Complacency? Arrogance? Or just incompetence? It is probably a mixture of all three.

Life hasn’t been the same since Pep Guardiola departed and maybe it won’t return to normal until either he returns to the Nou Camp or Barca build a new structure that includes a coach of the same exalted status. Barca are on their fourth manager since Guardiola departed in six seasons and in that time, they’ve lifted one Champions League to Real’s three.

The mood around the club was temporarily put aside with the terrible events of mid-August with the terrorist attack on Las Ramblas, but when Barca opened their La Liga season with a 2-0 win against Betis, just 55,000 people turned up. Not since 2008 has the first La Liga game of the campaign seen such a low crowd at Barcelona – 54,678 against Santander. That said, in the second half of last season, crowds had started to drop at the Nou Camp, with just 56,000 seeing Barca play Gijon.

How Barca shape up against Real

Barcelona   Real Madrid
2 (111 pts) UEFA Coefficient [1] 1 (134 pts)
722[2] Value of squad 743
One title, one semi-final Champions League, last five years Three titles, two semi-finals
26.9 Average age of squad 25.9
63% Foreign players 52.2%
21 Current internationals 16

Nevertheless, the departure of Neymar, the lack of big name arrivals and rumours of discontent around the talismanic Messi may have contributed to a relatively low turn-out, especially as events like terrorism often serve to inspire a response from the public to send a defiant message to those that wish to disrupt and kill. If that was the case, could the attendance have actually been lower under normal circumstances?

Take a look at the current Barcelona team and it is clear the golden days may have come to an end. As the stars of tiki-taka have drifted away, the replacements are not in the same class, and some real surgery will have to take place for Barca to regain their place at European football’s summit.

The Neymar affair may end up costing those in high places their positions and people are lining-up to criticise the Barca senior management. President Josep Maria Bartomeu is under pressure even though his term in charge does not come to an end until 2021.

It’s not just Neymar that has driven the anti-Bartomeu camp. Lionel Messi’s new contract was announced before it was sealed, indeed it is still awaiting his signature. Until that happens, Barca are vulnerable and if Messi was to depart, it could unleash a period of real turmoil.

Barcelona’s managers since Pep

  Domestic honours Win rate Champions League
Tito Vilanova La Liga 2012-13 75.56% SF
Gerardo Martino 67.80% QF
Luis Enrique La Liga 2014-15, 2015-16; Copa del Rey 2015, 2016 and 2017 76.2% Winners 2014-15

Barca needed to prematurely announce Messi’s agreement to a new four-year contract. Neymar rumours were rumbling, clubs like Manchester City and Paris St. Germain had open wallets and comments like “new challenge” were being linked to their 30 year-old Argentinian prize asset.

Even Messi must be looking around at the players he’s lining-up with and questioning how it was allowed to get to this stage. Xavi’s long gone, Iniesta is arguably past his best and the dynamic trio has been broken up. Barcelona were not that far off Real Madrid last season in terms of points and they scored 116 goals in La Liga, but all they had to show for their season was a Copa del Rey win. For the third time in four years, Barca went out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals. In that competition, Barca looked less comfortable than they have in years and should really have been despatched by PSG in the previous round – it was possibly this tie that fuelled the transfer of Neymar to Paris.

But some people are predicting a decline at Barcelona to compare with past “end of empire” events. This is very premature and underestimates the power and status of the top clubs in European football. Barca are one of a few that generate revenues of more than half a billion, that gives them a lot more options than the rest of the field.

True, Barcelona are in transition, something which should have been avoided if succession planning and player management had been better. Certainly, the club’s recent transfer activity does hint at a degree of panic setting in. Apparently, Barca’s much heralded academy, La Masia, has not been as successful in producing home-grown talent as in the past. This means the transfer market has become even more important for the club, but recent signings have been less successful than anticipated.

The arrival of Paulinho for EUR 40m has raised eyebrows, not least that he’s 29 and been playing in the mercenaries playground that is China. He’s one of a band of wandering Brazilians and has failed to show that he’s consistent and committed to any one club. But the player that expectation will be heaped upon is Ousmane Dembele, who is just 20 and again, has somewhat itchy boots. He spent one year in Dortmund, where he messily moved to from Rennes a year earlier. Dembele has talent, but he’s still “work in progress” and his business ethics represent a real sign of the times.

There should be no more prestigous club than Barcelona, but as Neymar has shown, the club is as vulnerable as any other when big money clubs come calling. Dembele signed a five-year contract with Dortmund and look what’s happened – there’s no guarantee that he will remain in Spain to the point he reaches maturity.

Barca paid EUR 105m for Dembele, a player who has scored 18 goals in 58 games for Rennes and Dortmund. It’s great business for the Germans, but they’ve paid over the odds – in the recent CIES Football Observatory survey, Dembele was rated to be worth around EUR 87m, but we are now in the post-Neymar world where players’ valuations have suddenly rocketed.

Hence, Liverpool midfielder Phillipe Coutinho, another Brazilian, is being valued  at EUR 150m after repeated bids from Barca. CIES valued the 25 year-old at EUR 70m in their report. People know Barca are cash rich and desperate to land some big fish. Talk of Manuel Lanzini of West Ham as a possible new recruit suggests Barca are running low on ideas. Despite admissions by people like Gerard Pique that, “we’re not at our best”, Barcelona’s position is relatively easy to remedy. This is, after all, the second biggest club in the world (according to Deloitte) and the third most compelling football brand (source: Brand Finance). The key will not necessarily be La Liga, because they will surely have enough to finish in the top two, but will be how they perform in Europe. That will be the benchmark, but Barca should come out of a group that includes Juventus, Olympiacos and Sporting Lisbon. By the time the last 16 comes along, Barca may be in a better place than they are at the moment.

Barcelona’s size in figures

  2016 2015 2014 2013
Position[3] 2 2 4 2
Brand strength [4] 914 586 457 444
Shirt sponsorship[5] 34.2 43 43 45
Kit deals [6] 34.3 45 44 46
Revenues[7] 620.2 560.8 484.6 405.2
Av. Attendance [8] 79,724 77,632 71,988 71,120
Matchday revenues [9] 121.4 116.9 116.8 117.6
Broadcasting revenues 202.7 199.8 182.1 188.2
Commercial revenues 296.1 244.1 185.7 176.8
Net transfers[10] (4) (84) (39) (33)

[1] UEFA

[2] Transfermarkt, valuation in EUR

[3] Deloitte Football Money League – ranking of clubs

[4] Brand Finance Football 50 2016 – value of the club brand in EUR millions

[5] Brand Finance – figures quoted in USD

[6] Brand Finance – figures quoted in USD

[7] In EUR – millions

[8] La Liga games at Nou Camp

[9] Deloitte Football Money League – all revenues

[10] Transfermarkt and wikipedia