BARCELONA have made their worst start to a season in 25 years, but in truth it is very much a relative problem based on high expectation, a superb domestic record in recent years and the cost of being part of the wealthy European elite. Furthermore, they have been without their talisman, Lionel Messi, and doesn’t it show?
Barca coach Ernesto Valverde is under pressure and the whispers are gathering momentum that the club will dispense with his services before too long. According to some media reports, Messi has remarked that he was surprised Valverde wasn’t let go last season. There is also speculation about his possible replacements, including Xavi (apparently Messi’s choice), Luis Enrique and, unsurprisingly, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino.
Although Barca won La Liga again last season, they ended with the Liverpool debacle in the UEFA Champions League and defeat in the Copa Del Rey final at the hands of Valencia. The former was particulary worrying because it was the second successive season in which they had capitulated after holding a seemingly commanding first leg lead.
Barca have already lost twice this season, at Athletic Bilbao and Granada, that’s just one less than the whole of last season’s league campaign. While they are comfortable at home, away form has been very unconvincing.
They also have some problems at centre back, and have conceded 10 goals in the La Liga in six games, compared to a total of 19 combined in the previous five seasons after half a dozen games.
They’ve scored 14 in their six games, but 12 of those have been in the Camp Nou. The total is low by their standards, but they have not had Messi to provide the goals. Last season, he scored 36 of Barca’s 90, which equates to 40%. But Barca’s scoring rate has dropped considerably in two years, from 116 in 2016-17 to 90 in 2018-19. Messi’s absence is really felt in the goalscoring stakes and nobody has filled the gap in his absence.
Little wonder that people get nervous and bent out of shape when Messi is unfit. In his first start, against Villareal, he had to be substituted with a thigh injury. “When something happens to Messi, everybody stops, not only on the field but in the stands as well,” said Valverde. After being sidelined with a calf injury, Messi’s latest knock underlines that at 32, he may be more vulnerable than ever before. The same could be said of a few Barca players.
As well as Messi, Barca have Gerard Pique, the unsettled Ivan Rakitic, Busquets, Luis Suarez, Vidal and Alba all over 30. People are starting to question if Busquets and Suarez, for example, are still automatic choices. Pique , meanwhile, has blamed a hectic summer – spent in Japan and the US – as a major contribution to Barca’s tepid start.
Messi is not the only injury to worry Barca, Suarez has not been fully fit and Ousmane Dembele, Neto, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba have all been on the treatment table.
Barca did make some good headline signings in the close season, though, paying € 120 million for Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, and € 75 million for Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong. They hoped to sign Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain, but that may have to wait for another transfer window. The “will he, won’t he” saga was undoubtedly a distraction, not just for Valverde and his staff, but also for the squad itself.
And it’s a squad that still requires a touch of rebuilding, although the introduction of 16 year-old Ansu Fati has been spectacular and may provide the good news story of 2019-20.
At the moment, Valverde also had a lack of pace in his midfield and he’s also waiting for Griezmann (three goals this term) to show what everyone knows he’s capable of. A fit Messi’s return will change everything, of course.
Valverde has a win rate of 66.67%, that’s the lowest since Frank Rijkaard between 2003-2008. One of the criticisms this season has been the constant changing of the line-up and the number of mistakes being made on the field. Valverde ran an informal trench in his first seasons but the model that has served the club well is in need of surgery, requiring a tough coach and some tactical modifications.
This is Barcelona, however, the solution is in their own hands. Their rivals, Real Madrid, are going through a similar process – they’ve already lost their talisman and there’s discontent in the dugout, too with coach Zinedine Zidane under intense scrutiny. But the big two need to be challenged and it may be that this season will be the one where nothing can be taken for granted. While the Barca faithful may not be happy with that scenario, would that be such a bad thing for Spanish football?