Imagine a dull, overcast day with a momentary glimmer of sunlight, which is then quickly snuffed out by a barrage of dark clouds rolling over to conceal any hopes of respite.
Such has been the situation at FC Barcelona for a few years now.
Granted, the magnitude of issues the club has been grappling with has only risen to the surface in the relatively recent past, but as the adage goes – when it rains, it pours.
The Catalans have been dealing with the fallout of catastrophic management leading to unfathomable financial turmoil to begin with, on a scale that would have likely bankrupted most privately-owned institutions.
As if it was not enough, they have been shrouded in the controversy surrounding El Caso Negreira – accused of corruption and bribery over payments made to Enriquez Negreira, former vice-president of the Referees’ Technical Committee (CTA).
And to make matters worse, the Blaugrana are also being hampered on the pitch after being hit with a barrage of injuries that have dangerously thinned the squad out before the most crucial stretch of the season.
The underlying reasons
After Sergi Roberto’s injury was confirmed earlier today, the Catalans currently have a whopping eight players injured if you include Gavi and Alejandro Balde, despite projections that they will return soon.
There are numerous causes for these injuries, particularly this season, so let’s take a look at them one by one.
Abnormal fixture schedule
Growing commercialisation in football has completely revamped the sporting calendar, and not only do the players have to deal with their usual league, cup and European competitions, they also have plenty of commitments.
Barcelona and Madrid, being prime examples of this, have to fulfill expectations from a global fanbase, which means pre-season tours like the one they had in the USA this season, with travel to plenty of different corners of the globe.
This season, the off-season was even shorter than usual, and the lack of rest, travel and immediate jump back into a new campaign has undoubtedly been taxing.
Paul Balsom, a member of the UEFA Fitness For Football Advisory Group, had co-authored a paper with Richard Hawkins (head of physical performance at Man United) in the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal in the lead-up to Qatar 2022.
The paper alluded to a study that found that professional players now feel they are required to play too many matches and their recovery and health are affected poorly, specifically during international competitions with excessive travelling.
The paper argued that “player safety and well-being are now being seriously challenged” by fixture congestion even before the World Cup.
After the first-ever winter World Cup, the players were thrust straight back into their usual club schedules, which has definitely played a part in their recovery.
And clubs like Barcelona and Madrid, who have many top-level players featuring at the highest tier of international football, have naturally suffered more.
Thibaut Courtois and Eder Militao suffered serious ACL injuries at the beginning of this new season, Pedri’s fatigue seems to be catching up to him, and de Jong has also had ligament problems, among plenty others who have muscular issues.
And the impact is clear across football. Christopher Nkunku, Tyrone Mings, Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus, Tammy Abraham, Jurrien Timber and Nabil Fekir are but a few examples of the injury epidemic this season.
Different training routines
Off the back of discussing fixture congestion, which is only made worse by the international breaks, there is also a difference in how players train for club and country.
While the national associations and clubs try to harmonise their regimens, given the sheer tactical and personnel differences (usually) in a player’s club and national team, they have to be subjected to different physical training systems.
That leads to imbalances, and the already existing overload then cause even more injuries when there is too much regular alternation between club and international football.
While in Barcelona’s case there is more bad luck involved, as Spain and Barcelona share quite a lot of the same players, there is still a difference in roles and responsibilities.
Financial woes leading to poor squad depth
Barcelona are no longer in a position to splash cash on reinforcing positions in the team whether or not they need them.
The stringent budgets in the transfer market have led to them signing only players that are feasible, which is not always the right piece to the puzzle.
Having a lack of quality reinforcements means that the same lineups are put through the wringer time and again, and in the Blaugrana’s case, the youth players have to step up and assume a much more prominent role than they usually would.
Not having enough experience with the intensity at the top level, and with some players like Lamine Yamal – and Pedri back when he broke through – still growing into their bodies, this leads to much more exertion than these players can handle.
Medical and physical staff are lacking
Some of the blame has to go towards the fitness team at the club, who are clearly faltering with managing load and conditioning in training.
A glance through the club’s Instagram will show how many times the players are just out on the pitch doing on-ball drills, when there should be an equal focus on conditioning, explosive movement training and gym work.
Barcelona face a lot of opponents who are content with letting them do all the hard work, and after getting into a rhythm, if and when the pattern of the game changes, it looks as though their bodies cannot handle the strain.
In the 2021/22 season, the Catalans had a whopping 17 players who had been injured at least once and it was merely October.
Later that year, reports of tension within the Barcelona players and physical staff also emerged, and when Xavi arrived and brought Dr Ricard Pruna back with him, it was thought that things would improve.
There is still a serious need for introspection by the club on how this matter is to be handled.
The danger of history repeating itself
Without looking too far back, the 2022-23 season posed similar issues for Barcelona, when they lost their most crucial players during the business end of the Champions League group stage.
It resulted in getting knocked out of Europe’s premier competition for the second year running in the first phase itself, with the likes of Ronald Araujo, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri facing injury woes during the season, among others.
Not to forget, the same issues relapsing led to them being knocked out of the Europa League in the same campaign as well.
At the end of this October, the Catalans once again face an incredibly gruelling fixture schedule, with the El Clasico sitting as the star atop the tree.
Barcelona have slipped up twice in their last three league games, meaning the clash against Real Madrid could be an early indication of whether Barcelona have wind in their sails to retain their title.
They have already made a better start in the UCL compared to previous seasons, but nothing can be taken for granted.
You can never rule out the sheer factor of bad luck, especially with the anomalous couple of years we have faced, that have no doubt led to this sudden burst of complications.
But for Barcelona, it has been happening for too long to ignore, and while fixing the club’s finances is going to be a long process, there are plenty of measures that can be taken in the meantime.
After all, while in this rebuilding stage, they have to preserve their stars of the future, even if it may mean sacrificing on a few results to keep rotating the squad.