Crisis, what crisis? – Barcelona’s problem

LOOK at the facts: top of La Liga, in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, crowds of 74,000 people packing the Camp Nou every game, and now top of the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time. Barcelona were supposedly, in crisis mode.

It’s all relative, of course, as some people have noted. Bury was a crisis and they are no longer playing football. Even by elitist discomfort standards, Barcelona’s “crisis” was not a “Manchester United situation”. It’s just that Barca are accustomed to high quality, flowing football and they’ve not been getting that. They’ve been rather spoiled in the Catalan capital.

Coach Ernesto Valverde was the fall guy in this drama and was relieved of his duties by Barcelona. They made a mess of it and were left with egg on their face as Xavi, one of their favourite sons, turned down the job a few days ago. This left Barca in something of a quandry because Valverde had been told by the club that he will be getting the sack – a quite bizarre way to conduct business. Former Barca midfielder Andrés Iniesta has said the Valverde affair was a “bit ugly” and that people should  have more respect for the coach. The whole episode made Barca look very unprofessional and lacking scruples. It also meant the club had to act quickly to find a replacement for Valverde. The baton was passed to Quique Setién, the 61 year-old former manager of Real Betis.

But who exactly is in the driving seat at the Camp Nou? There are hints of player power in Barcelona. Lionel Messi has said he may leave if his “demands” are not met. According to media reports, Messi wanted Valverde to be dismissed immediately and for Ronald Koeman to take his place.  Those same reports suggest Messi also wanted the club to get rid of players who are not good enough and for Barca to sign PSG’s Neymar and Lautaro Martinez from Inter Milan. He recently blamed his team-mates for “childish mistakes” in the Super Cup defeat in Jeddah, the game that added fire to the “Valverde out” movement.

Barcelona cannot afford for Messi to depart as they are still very reliant on the Argentinian and now Luis Suarez is out for a few months they cannot risk losing their talismanic number 10. The “gorilla in the room” is what will Barca do when Messi retires? He has scored 13 goals this season in 14 games in La Liga. Barca’s home form has been good, in nine games, they have scored four or more goals seven times. But away from the Camp Nou, Barca have lost three, drawn three and won four. Big summer signing Antoine Griezmann, who cost € 120 million, has struggled to adapt to the Barca style, but the other big signing, Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong, who cost € 73 million, has been a success. Although Barca are top of the table, they don’t seem particularly happy about it and Real Madrid are breathing down their necks with one of their least appealing teams of recent years.

Valverde’s style did not go down too well with Barca’s fans, even though it was good enough for the club to extend his contract for two years last February. In truth, the writing had been on the wall for him since the Liverpool Champions League debacle in 2018-19 when a three-goal lead from the first leg was thrown away as Barca lost 4-0 in the second leg. Barca also lost the Copa del Rey final last season against Valencia.

In this season’s Champions League, Barca came through their group unbeaten and will face Napoli in the last 16. Goals were a bit scarce – nine in six games – but it wasn’t one of the easiest groups, including Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund.

Perhaps that’s why Barca were keen to dispose of Valverde – they were still smarting from last season’s capitulation at Anfield and they don’t want any careless slip-ups. Having gone into Christmas ahead in La Liga and qualified for the last 16, they may have wanted a little insurance ahead of the vital games. It was interesting that Valverde criticised the decision to playing the Spanish Super Cup in the Middle East, admitting that the only reason the competition was being played in Saudi Arabia was money. “The bottom line is football has become a business and as a business it looks for income,” he said. Was he trying to force his employers’ arm by speaking out? If he was, it worked.

As for the league, they are going to have to work harder for the title this season as Barca and Real Madrid are level on points. When the two sides met just before Christmas, it was one of the worst clasico encounters seen for some time, adding fuel to the argument that the Spanish giants are both less than formidable at the moment. Setién is a disciple of the Barca style and an admirer of Johan Cruyff, but he’s never won a major honour as a manager. Will his appointment make them any happier?


Photo: PA

Barcelona may be approaching the end of a cycle

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?



Photo: PA