Once admired for his fighting spirit on and off the pitch, the reputation of Éric Abidal at Barcelona is being damaged by his actions as the club’s sporting director.
Éric Abidal, former player at Barcelona, was appointed as the club’s Technical Secretary in the summer of 2018. Culés hoped that the addition of the Frenchman would cause a change in the club’s quesitonable decision making, but all that has followed since Abidal’s introduction, are even more questionable decisions.
It is safe to say that Josep Maria Bartomeu, the current president of FC Barcelona, isn’t the best person to make sporting decisions, and so it is the role of the delegated technical secretary to head the sporting sector of the club along with the manager. Abidal has been nothing but a disappointment so far. The role of a Technical Secretary / Director of Football is to scout promising players, handle contract negotiations, be able to close transfers, etc. At the Catalan club specifically, it is unclear as to how much freedom and power Abidal has, but assuming that he does have prominent control, let us look at some of his incompetent decisions.
The Messi saga
Lionel Messi, is a soft spoken personality, at least publically. Messi has never been one to slander his teammates or staff members publically, however, he hit back at Abidal, and that too, quite publically. On Instagram, Messi spoke about being angry at Abidal for generalising the behaviour and opinions of the squad members. Abidal had previously in an interview said that the squad was happy about Ernesto Valverde’s sacking, though Messi did not agree with Abidal’s claim, and was more angry about Abidal refusing to take specific names.
“Many players were not satisfied or weren’t working hard and there was also an internal communication issue. The coach and dressing room relationship has always been good, but there are things that I can smell as a former player”
in February hinting that something was wrong before Ernesto Valverde’s dismissal
This was an extremely unprofessional event that shouldn’t have taken place, let alone publicised. It showed the lack of communication between the players and the directors. Éric Abidal performed his duties appallingly, and was responsible for causing one of the most humiliating events in Barcelona’s recent history.
Players missed out on
As the Technical Secretary of the club, Abidal has the responsibility of scouting promising and well established players for Barcelona. Since his appointment, the amount of incoming transfers that have worked out, can be counted on one hand. Abidal had set his scope on Lyon’s left-back Ferland Mendy, but according to reports, decided to drop his interest due to Mendy’s mediocre performance versus Barcelona in the Champions League. Today, Mendy is a star player at Real Madrid and is on his way to becoming one of the best left-backs in the world for the next decade, while the left back signed as his alternative, Junior Firpo, is struggling to play two games in a row.
The transfer saga of Matthijs de Ligt during last summer was one that captivated the football world. Then, 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt captained AFC Ajax to a Champions League semi-final, while displaying commendable defensive ability and inspiring leadership. Se Ligt was certainly going to leave that summer, and Barça were the front runners for quite a while, especially after signing Matthijs’ best friend, Frenkie de Jong, in the preceding months.
Now much controversially, it was Éric Abidal who refused to sign Ferland Mendy | Photo by José Breton / Zuma via Imago
Nevertheless, according to reports, Barcelona refused to give De Ligt the play-time assurance he was asking for and took the route of saving financial resources for Neymar Jr and trusting newly-signed Jean-Clair Todibo. Well, one year later Neymar is still in PSG, Todibo has been loaned out and is discussing his permanent exit, and Barcelona has one fit centre-back – Gerard Piqué – against Napoli in the Champions League.
Yet another example of Abidal’s inability to scout the right players, is the case of Ferran Torres. Ferran Torres is all but a confirmed Manchester City player now. Torres is a promising 20-year-old winger at Valencia, available for a cut price due to his expiring contract. For some reason, Abidal has not paid any attention to Ferran at all. The blaugranas are in desperate need of a winger, and Ferran Torres would have been the perfect low-risk, high reward candidate. But just like multiple other promising targets perfect for the club, he slipped away.
If there is one thing Abidal is worse at than getting players in, it is getting players out. Success is a continunous stream, it must be attained at all times. For a club to be successful, it is crucial that it lets go of the players who’s role at the club is over, but of course, at Barcelona, the opposite is done.
Samuel Umtiti is a prime example of this. It is reasonable to say that Umtiti’s career at Barcelona is over. His decision to force his involvement in the 2018 World Cup hasn’t worked out in the long term. Umtiti’s knee is always caught in a recurring injury. Notwithstanding, instead of selling a declining player making 200,000 euros per week, the club has decided to keep him, and from recent reports it looks like Umtiti is going to insist on staying for yet another season, amassing at least 12 million euros from the club in that time.
Due to their high salaries, Barcelona is unable to move on several unneeded players | Photo by Stuart Franklin via Getty Images
It is Abidal’s job to transfer out players, and he is failing at it. Yet another example of this, is Jordi Alba. Alba is a player who has had a lot of ups and downs in the last few years. He certainly isn’t one of the biggest players to get rid of, but the issue is with the contract he was offered. A 29 years old, Jordi Alba was offered a 5 year contract worth 43 million euros last season. It is unclear as to if Abidal was biased towards Alba due to them sharing the same position on the pitch, but there is no way a sensible sporting director at any top club in the world commissions such an imprudent move.
How many more chances?
Abidal’s actions largely dictate the trajectory the club goes on. His decisions so far have resulted in the Catalan club following a downwards spiral. One question remains: how many more chances? How many more decisions should Abidal be allowed to make, knowing that his word in these coming seasons can haunt Barcelona for the next generation.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.