Barcelona have been a faltering giant for many years now. One would even say that the real decline had started after Luis Enrique won the elusive treble all those years ago. After that, it was all downhill.
Yes, the Catalans managed to pepper over the cracks with some La Liga titles and Copa del Rey silverware but the quality of football was never the same. Of course, it all seems to be culminating now in 2020. Josep-Maria Bartomeu is gone, for better or worse, Lionel Messi was close to leaving, the team is struggling to win games and the mood is as bleak as it gets.
The latest reality check they’ve received came in the form of Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo at the Camp Nou as the Bianconeri crushed the Azulgrana 0-3 and usurped the first place in their Champions League group. As demoralising as the game was, it also proved some things we knew long ago – Barcelona are too reliant on a small Argentine lad and Riqui Puig is the only shining light in the squad not named Messi.
Ever since Ronald Koeman has taken over the team, the La Masia gem has been on the fringes. So much so that we’ve only seen him four times on the pitch so far in 2020/21 for a total of 77 minutes across those games. In other words, not even a game’s worth just yet. (Transfermarkt)
However, there’s also been a recurring theme around the 21-year-old midfielder every single time he stepped foot on the pitch – Puig has been Barcelona’s best performer whenever he was given a chance and not a single appearance has gone by without him impressing everyone.
Take the game against Juventus as the latest example. For the duration of the first 66 minutes, you can only say Messi was the one pulling the weight of the whole team. However, those 24 odd minutes he received from Koeman were enough for Puig to be named man of the match and change the whole dynamic of the team.
There is something about him that simply oozes class, skill and competence. Yes, everyone will criticise his diminutive stature and physique but when has that stopped a Barcelona midfielder from completely taking over games?
We also hate talking about the infamous Barcelona DNA but if there was ever such a thing, Puig would certainly have it. Whether it’s pure ball control, footballing IQ, positional awareness or space occupation, the young midfielder has it all.
From the moment he stepped on the pitch, things started moving for Barcelona – the ball was retained and recycled much quicker, additional passing channels were opened and the team started to breathe once again. In so many ways, Puig does things that would usually fall to Messi’s shoulders and Messi’s shoulders alone.
The Argentine is a highly creative outlet but without Puig on the pitch, he is also their only creative outlet, making Barcelona’s attack dull and predictable. Koeman still insists on the double-pivot as Barcelona’s only midfielders but even in such a structure, it will be interesting to see for how much longer can he ignore Puig.
That may not be his preferred position but at the moment, not a single other midfielder deserves that spot more than him. And this includes Frenkie de Jong who is somehow escaping all the criticism without really performing at a high enough level.
The way things stand, Koeman’s tactics are far from perfect and he’s been unlucky with all the injuries that have been mounting in the squad but part of the problem is that he’s not even playing his best players.
It’s a good thing that Barcelona finally have a coach who’s vocal and wants things done his way but in this instance, it’s heavily hampering the team. We know Puig has it in him to completely change the course of the game for the better and add that level of unpredictability and freshness but he can’t do it from the bench or even worse, from the stands.
We also know he loves the club but unless things change, he may be forced to leave it for his own good. At this point, who could even blame him? Performing on such a high level should see him start and finish games, not pray for a couple of minutes every other week and in insignificant clashes.
It might be a bit too much to call him Barcelona’s saviour but that statement is also not too far from the truth. Unfortunately, until Koeman realises the damage he’s doing by chaining him to the bench, there’s not much he can do to change their fortune.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.