With the arrival of Miralem Pjanić looking imminent, it is essential to remember that Barça’s biggest assets always lie at home with the La Masia youth.
In what is one of the most bizarre and shocking transfers from Barcelona’s perspective in recent years, 23-year-old midfielder Arthur Melo will be departing to Juventus with Miralem Pjanić coming to the Camp Nou. The fans’ beloved Brazilian will finally leave after a months-long transfer saga which has kept everyone on edge. A deal which is nothing more than a financial cover-up, it has not gone down well with the Barça faithful. The current board’s history of poor decisions and shady business is well documented. However, with this fiasco, president Josep Maria Bartomeu and his entourage have stooped to an all-time low.
From a footballing perspective, it is truly baffling. One of Barça’s most promising young midfielders, making way for a 30-year-old, who, albeit a great player, has had one of his poorest seasons in recent years and is much closer to the twilight of his career. This move is being fiercely detested by the Barcelona fans and the primary reason for it, is that money is the only concern. The board’s incompetence has continually chipped away at the club’s financial well-being. And now to dig themselves out of this hole, the long-term sporting project is being compromised.
Amid all the anger and negativity, though, it is necessary to look at the bright side of things now. Miralem Pjanić is undoubtedly a great player. With the right ingredients, he will definitely contribute a lot to the team. The Bosnian was an undisputed starter at Juventus and will thus demand a lot of game time at Barça too. But, despite all the arguments in favour of Pjanić, the focus must be on the La Masía youth. The mine where Barcelona’s gems await polishing, counting the moments to their time in the spotlight.
Bags of promise since the restart
Ever since the La Liga season has restarted, the La Masía boys are slowly starting to show just why they should be among the starting names on the teamsheet. So far, Ronald Araújo, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig have all showed signs of their immense quality. Araújo’s wonderful performance at Mallorca, Fati’s inspired display against Leganés, and Puig’s game-changing showing versus Athletic Club de Bilbao have all been treats to witness.
Even against Celta de Vigo, Puig and Fati started the game and were impressive. They showed exactly why their vitality and explosive talent is just what the team needs. Despite a disappointing 2–2 end result, their showings were positives to take away. And although we are yet to see the likes of Álex Collado and Monchu Rodríguez feature, anyone who has followed their time with the B-team knows their immense quality. They have been named in every matchday squad so far. It is only a matter of time before they get to step out on the pitch.
They are showing that they aren’t just back-ups for injured or suspended first team players. They are truly world-class players in the making, who must be given their chances to prove just that.
In spite of the signing of Pjanić, La Masía gem Riqui Puig deserves much more than a simple rotational role in the senior squad | Photo by STR / AFP via Getty Images
When all is said and done, the very fabric of Barça’s being and its traditions lie with La Masía. Historically, FC Barcelona have always put emphasis on cultivating youth at their academy and watching them blossom into world-beaters. Granted, the workings of football have largely changed. It is difficult to take risks with young players when a club can simply splash money for a proven superstar.
But for Barça, things cannot be that straightforward. And this has been evident over the past few seasons. They have tried to spend their way to glory but it hasn’t always worked. And for the most part, it has only caused harm to the club’s finances. For these very reasons, the identity of the club has become somewhat faded. Barça can never forget that some of the greatest players in the history of football became who they are right at home.
And sure, there can never be another Xavi Hernández or another Andrés Iniesta, let alone another Lionel Messi. The list goes on. But who’s to say that there cannot be the first Riqui Puig or the first Ansu Fati who rise to greatness? If these recent years have taught us anything, it’s that players will come and go, but La Masía will always remain a constant of Barcelona. And that cornerstone of the club’s identity must always be respected.
Glass half empty: Is the season already over for Barcelona?
If the objective for Barcelona for the present season was to make up for what was lost in its predecessor, then they have gotten off to the possible start. In nine matchdays in the current campaign, the Catalans have garnered up a measly eleven points from a possible 24, and even with 30 matchdays yet to play, doubts have been cast over their title credentials.
Leagues are lost in the first eight games
In his book Pep Confidential, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola said that leagues are lost in the first eight and won in the last eight games of any given campaign. One need only look at the Barcelona and tumultuous end to the 2019/20 season for evidence of the same.
Despite heading into the lockdown holding a two-point advantage over nearest challengers Real Madrid, Barcelona proved to be the perfect test subject for what Pep Guardiola’s experiment. In the final eight games of the season, Los Blancos won 22 points while the men in Garnet and Blue garnered up just seventeen. Why so?
Well, a panoply of systemic issues ranging from the incompetent management of Quique Setién to the atrocious defending from the back four as well as unexpected injuries were enough for the Blaugrana to concede the title.
A pattern all too similar — if not worse — is repeating itself in the current campaign. As mentioned before, the former champions have won just eleven points from a possible 24 and are on their worst start to a season since 1991-92 under Johan Cruyff. Some conspiracy theorists would argue that because it happened then, history might repeat itself, however, the context today is significantly different from that of the 90s.
With 23 points and sitting atop of the pile is Real Sociedad and they show no intention of slowing down. Not right now, anyway. Ten games into the season, the Txuri-Urdin have emerged victorious seven times, drawn twice and conceded defeat just once. They have hit the back of the net 21 times (best in the league), and have picked the ball from theirs on just four occasions.
📊 — Barcelona are currently placed 13th on the La Liga table. They are 12 points away from the league leaders (Real Sociedad), and are 4 points away from relegation zone. pic.twitter.com/DuECLJT0jt— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 23, 2020
Barcelona meanwhile are on one of their worst scoring seasons in recent history, averaging just below two a game while conceding just over one in each. To put into perspective just how disastrous a campaign this is turning out to be, the Catalans would need to taste defeat just once more to equal their record from the 2014-15 treble-winning season.
Much from this point on will depend on La Erreala’s form in the future. Based on expected goals and points, a dip might be on the cards, however, how drastic it will be, or if it will even come around in the first place, is uncertain.
A lack of tactical ingenuity
Koeman’s stubbornness has left the season in the dust for Barcelona. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
A handful of the matches played during the Ronald Koeman era that have shown glimpses of how his ideal Barça side should play, however, these sorts of performances have often been sandwiched between games that were, to say it lightly, deplorable to watch.
The Dutch manager does not seem to have a set plan of action for whenever the team finds itself a goal down. In moments where his critical thinking ability is put to the test, he seldom passes. Rather than insist on maintaining control of the ball by adding a midfielder or two, he completely drains the team of them, perhaps believing in the logical fallacy that more attacking players equal to a higher chance of winning.
Not only is he inept at making proper changes to the side when in a losing position, but his willful ignorance at the failures of his favoured 4-2-3-1 also massively contribute to the team’s inability to win.
Riqui Puig should be the symbol of everything Barcelona should strive to be, however, due to his preference of one formation and one only, arguably the Catalans’ best midfielder finds himself cast into the shadows.
Everyone loves Riqui Puig…everyone but Koeman apparently. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
If a system in which the midfielder that embodies the Barça way of playing is not playing, and the arrangement itself is barely living up to its expectations, then a continuation of the same will serve not only to widen the gap between the Blaugrana and the rest of Europe’s elites but also stray further and further away from what made them great, to begin with.
A crisis in the clinic
As if it were an epidemic within the dressing room, injuries have once again proven to be the incurable seasonal plague that Barcelona simply can not find a way around.
It would by no means be logical to place blame on the manager for these unforeseen and uncontrollable happenings, however in light of their title challenge, the more injuries come, the slimmer Barça’s chances are of surmounting a challenge worthy of being crowned the best in Spain, let alone Europe.
In attack, the Blaugrana are just one injury away from being forced into playing with three attackers upfront. It might force Barcelona to go back to using the 4-3-3, but it will stem from a position of compulsion rather than by design.
On the contrary, given the fact that Ansu Fati will be out for another three months, any lesion on either one of Ousmane Dembélé or Lionel Messi, the two most productive members of the current attack, could signal the end of any title challenge the Catalans, if there is one to begin with.
The absence of Fati and Pique will hurt Barcelona massively this season. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
In defence, following the long term injuries sustained by Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto, the same horrid storyline repeats itself. The two-time treble winners find themselves just two injuries away from having just neither a centre-back nor a left-back. The shallowness the defence faces today, in comparison to the depth it nearly boasted just two months ago shows to what extent football’s hand can be as unpredictable as it is cruel.
Given the trend, Barcelona have found themselves victim to over the past two seasons, another wound might be somewhere around the corner. Of course, no one in the Barça camp wishes this upon their players, however, the odds seem firmly stacked against their favour.
Any scope left for Barcelona in this season?
Barcelona is by no means a club known to surrender, in any season — in the La Liga at least —, but finding themselves a whopping twelve points behind this early on makes the task seem almost unsurmountable. As unlikely as it sounds, the Blaugrana still do have a chance to clinch the title for the 27th time.
For this to happen, however, Barcelona will not only have to weed out some of its core systemic problems but also pray that fate’s cruel hand will not strike them another blow. The problems Barcelona face are not set in stone, fortunately. They will need plenty of mental strength, tactical ingenuity and luck to go the extra mile and do the impossible.