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Learning from Liverpool and AC Milan: How Barcelona can return to challenge for European glory

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Photo via Imago

AC Milan and Liverpool FC — two clubs with a total of 13 European Cups between them, won across many decades and formats of Europe’s most prized competition, can be described as undisputed European royalty.

Istanbul in 2005 and Athens in 2007 saw these European giants battle it out to leave another mark in the history books. Steven Gerrard would lift Liverpool’s fifth European crown in Istanbul, whilst Paolo Maldini walked to the podium in Athens to collect Milan’s seventh. 

The years since those events have not been kind to both clubs, as financial troubles have led Milan into a barren 14-year spell without Europe’s top prize, whilst Liverpool ended their own 14-year wait in 2019.

Over the last decade, a period where these two clubs, for the most part, did not even qualify for the competition; the Champions League became a staple in the trophy cabinets of Spain’s two giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, with the pair winning seven out of ten editions of the competition between 2009 and 2018. 

Barcelona have come a long way since their European dominance. (Photo via Imago)

Spanish football was thriving and had amassed an impressive collection of the world’s best players, whilst the league as a whole was brimming with quality – evident with the Spanish clubs’ success in UEFA’s other competition, the Europa League.  

Over the last few years, this took a turn for the worst, with neglectful management leaving Barca and Real in a pit of debt and unable to compete with the English clubs, Bayern Munich and PSG at the top of the modern European game.

The pandemic put the final nail in the coffin for both. It took away another source of income, which restricted spending and allowed Atletico Madrid to overtake them to win the La Liga title last season. With no end in sight for both clubs’ financial problems, where does that leave Spanish football in terms of competing on the European stage? 

For Barca, President Joan Laporta has already set about clearing the Catalan side’s debt, but it will take time due to the sheer enormity of the sum. With the clubs in England, alongside Bayern and PSG’s ability to spend big over the foreseeable future, the five-time European champions might find themselves waiting a while before adding a sixth. Still, there is hope, which can be found in the stories of the aforementioned two, AC Milan and Liverpool. 

Downfall of the Rossonerri

The beginning of Silvio Berlusconi’s tenure as owner of AC Milan was beyond spectacular; impressed by his work at Parma, legendary coach Arrigo Sacchi was brought in to lead the new era, the legendary Dutch duo of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit followed to lead the Rossoneri’s front line. A year later, the Dutch trident was complete adding midfielder Frank Rijkaard to the mix. 

The Holy Dutch Trinity. (Photo via Imago)

All this led to Sacchi ending a 20-year wait for the Scudetto to return to Milan in 1987, followed by back-to-back European Cups and the establishment of this Milan side as one of the greatest in the game’s history. 

Fast forward to 2017 and the end of the Berlusconi era; the joys and success of those days are a distant memory, as the Italian’s focus on political ventures and his inability to recover from the global financial crisis that began in 2007 left Milan on the brink of self-destruction due to debt and a squad unable to compete at the top. 

This opened the door for a new era under Chinese businessman Li Yonghong, who bought the club from Berlusconi in 2017 and invested heavily in the squad; to the point where he could not pay back a loan to Elliot Management, who then seized the club from Li and are now the current owners. 

Both Li and Elliott Management tried to rectify Berlusconi’s mess by spending big; bringing in Leonardo Bonucci, Andre Silva, Lucas Paqueta, and Krzysztof Piatek. All have since left the club and have performed admirably in their new homes. Apart from Bonucci, these players were young and would have been crucial to Milan’s future. Still, it was ultimately a case of the right players at the wrong time for several reasons – with the managerial merry-go-round playing a major role. 

This decade was an embarrassing mess for Milan, as the financial troubles forced them to become a selling club. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and Andrea Pirlo had to be sold and were replaced by cheap alternatives, leaving the seven-time European Cup winners in a feeble position.

What could have been? (Photo via Imago)

AC Milan have gone through nine managers since they last lined up for a Champions League match, with many different styles of play. Stability was impossible to find, meaning suitable recruits were few and far between. The new managers did not want players his predecessor signed, and new formations meant some signings like Paqueta could not find a spot in the first XI.

The situation over the last decade was sad to witness for a club with a history as rich as AC Milan’s. The financial troubles led to panic, which resulted in a lack of philosophy and vision: this bred a revolving door of managers, outgoing stars being replaced by lesser quality players and a club that was not appealing to the game’s biggest names, despite their illustrious past.  

These are the waters Barcelona are currently treading, as the Catalan side’s situation ticks many of the boxes that dragged AC Milan down. The Blaugrana are drowning in debt. Big signings need to be shifted from the wage bill to make back the money and replaced by free agents. The lack of a stable manager over the last two years is not a problem now but could be if Joan Laporta reignites the cycle with Ronald Koeman.

Additionally, other clubs seem to have a bigger pull, which was recently seen in the Gini Wijnaldum case, and all this before even mentioning the loss of the club’s greatest ever player Lionel Messi.  

A forced farewell to the greatest ever. (Photo via Imago)

The positive news for Barcelona is that some elements of the downfall are not present in their situation. The club has a philosophy and a vision forward, and they trust the youth players. The club’s reputation has not taken as big a hit as Milan’s did. The squad is much better and fresher than the one the Rossoneri were left with. 

On the final day of last season, AC Milan qualified for this season’s Champions League for the first time in eight years. The club is financially stable under its current ownership, and the consensus is that the Rossoneri are on the rise. It will be some time before they lift their eighth European Cup, but it proves that financial hurdles can be overcome, which is good news for Barcelona. 

The Reds’ resurgence

Looking at Liverpool FC now, one can see a club that runs with everything in sync. The owners understand the chairman, the chairman understands the CEO, the CEO understands the manager, the manager understands the players, and the players understand the fans – despite some bumps along the road, such as the recent Super League fiasco. 

The club is financially healthy, it is the most competitive it has been in 30 years, and every step taking is calculated for the future to ensure that this success remains constant. But it was not always like this. In fact, Liverpool fans are probably the faction that understands most closely what Barcelona fans are going through at the moment. It is worrying and scary, but all it takes is one sensible leader to fix it and, most importantly, time. 

Against the odds, Liverpool won their fifth European Cup in 2005 against a superior AC Milan side in one of football’s greatest ever games. This was a chance for the Reds to kick on and use the success of Istanbul to bridge the gap to Manchester United, who were going through a period of dominance in England for over a decade. 

The stepping stone. (Photo via Imago)

Liverpool would recruit Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano over the following two years, which resulted in an FA Cup in 2006 and another appearance in the Champions League final in 2007 – where Rafael Benitez’s men fell 2-1 to their opponents from two years ago.

On February 6th, 2007, everything changed. American duo Tom Hicks and George Gillett bought the shares of David Moores and gained full control of Liverpool FC, which at the time had only £45.8 million worth of debt. The duo promised to take the club forward and shared their vision for the club upon their arrival, but hindsight would show that, just like Josep Maria Bartomeu, their word meant nothing. 

Three years later, after an abundance of broken promises, a lack of investment, a hostile relationship with the manager, and some hefty loans, Liverpool found themselves in debt of £237 million and sat in the relegation zone throughout October 2010. It was the darkest time in the club’s recent history, but it was all about to change. 

That same October, the club was sold to New England Sports Ventures, another United States-based group that would later become known as the Fenway Sports Group. It was the equivalent of Laporta’s arrival at Barcelona for the Scouse faithful — the spearhead of a new era. The next decade was a rollercoaster of emotion for the Merseyside club. The club became financially stable, and off the field, they went from strength to strength. 

On the pitch, the story can be split in two: pre-2016 and post-2016. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool were agonizingly close to winning the 13/14 Premier League title, narrowly missing out to Manchester City. This momentum should have been used to kick on just like 2005, but instead, the Reds went backwards as the more successful clubs began to close in on Liverpool’s valuable assets.

The departures of some crucial players followed the agonizing title loss of 13/14. (Photo via Imago)

Luis Suarez was sold to Barca, and Raheem Sterling went to Man City in the space of two years. These were replaced by Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, and Christian Benteke. With all due respect, not exactly moving forward, is it? 

In October 2015, exactly five years after their takeover, FSG got the man they were eyeing for quite some time, in Jurgen Klopp. Unlike Rodgers, Klopp was open to the idea of a transfer committee, something the man Liverpool fans refer to as ‘the hidden genius’ Michael Edwards would take charge of in November 2016. 

Slowly but surely, with Klopp and Edwards working in tandem, the Reds began to climb the ladder of the English game, selling smart and buying smart using analytics.

Liverpool would add Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, Gini Wijnaldum, and Mohamed Salah over the following years, with Edwards infamously recommending that the Merseyside club buy Salah over Klopp’s choice Julian Brandt, emphasising the importance of hidden figures in driving a club forward. 

Liverpool were still selling stars, but now there was a plan in place upon their departure. When Barcelona came calling again for Philippe Coutinho, the £142 million fee received from the deal would be spent on recruiting Virgil Van Dijk (£75m) and Alisson Becker (£67m) – two transfers who proved pivotal in their coming success. 

Klopp, Van Dijk and Allison were pivotal recruitments in the past few years. (Photo via Imago)

In 2019, Liverpool became European champions again, winning their sixth European Cup in Madrid and beating fellow Premier League rivals Tottenham 2-0. The following year, Klopp’s men ended a 30-year wait for a league title, obliterating the league and its records in the process. 

This was the product of 10 years of hard work and dedication, making the right decisions and taking everything step-by-step. This is the blueprint AC Milan is currently following, and Barca and Laporta can also take hints from it. 

Barcelona’s wait 

Why does Barcelona only need to take bits from this journey? Essentially because they are not in as bad a position, sporting wise at least. 

The squad is still strong and have some of the best young players in the world in Frenkie de Jong, Pedri, and Ansu Fati, who will be cornerstones of the team in the future. This is a solid foundation, which both Liverpool and AC Milan did not have.

A solid foundation. (Photo via Imago)

Financially, the club is a mess and is much worse than both Liverpool and Milan were, but once again, the positive is that the Catalan sides revenue stream is much stronger than both clubs. Which, on paper at least, allows for a quicker recovery. 

The problem for Barca is the present. While they find a way to clear this debt and signing players for free or through swap deals, their European rivals grow stronger. PSG, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea can spend cash for fun. With the next generation of stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland on the brink of major moves, Barcelona are in no position to compete for their signatures. 

Although the club has not lost all of its powerhouse image, there will be cases like Wijnaldum’s, who will reject the club because of money or their competitiveness in Europe. This is a problem both Liverpool and AC Milan faced as well. Therefore the Azulgranas will need to do the opposite of what Josep Maria Bartomeu’s board did — recruit smartly and effectively.  

Finally, a notable piece of both Liverpool and AC Milan’s success is having the right manager. It is no secret that Laporta is not fully convinced by Ronald Koeman, an issue that needs to be sorted sooner rather than later. The Catalan side needs to be led by a man Laporta fully trusts and who shares the same vision for the club from next season. This ensures that no money is being wasted and that every step is catered to that manager doing his job effectively.

Laporta has a major job on his hands. (Photo via Imago)

So when will Barcelona reign supreme in Europe again? Liverpool’s 10-year journey is the best plan to go off of. Recovering from situations like Barcelona’s takes time and requires patience, which the fans need to be ready for. The Catalans have a lot going for them that the two clubs mentioned throughout did not.

This is the hardest job of Joan Laporta’s life. The Spaniard and his board need to get the majority of his decisions right from here on out if Barca are to be competitive in Europe anytime soon. A long and tough road lies ahead.

And that road starts now, as the Catalans will face the very team that humbled them two years ago, exposing all the cracks that were hidden beneath. In this season’s Champions League, Bayern Munich will join group E to face the Blaugrana. A revenge mission is perhaps too far-fetched to think about at the moment, but it will be the perfect test to see how far Barcelona have come since the 8-2 debacle.

Europe is full of fantastic leagues and over the course of my career I hope to tell stories from each one. Pep Guardiola’s Barca side brought my attention as a kid to La Liga and more specifically FC Barcelona, and still to this day is the greatest team I’ve ever seen play. Thierry Henry once said “If you tell me that you love football and you don’t love Barcelona, you’ve a problem”. This is a statement I’m 100% behind and for me, it’s why FC Barcelona has to be a part of my journey as a writer.