The lack of selflessness and cohesion has led Barça to disaster, but their lack of leadership has also been very evident in the most recent and painful defeats.
“We still have some unfinished business in the Champions League –– more than anything –– because of the way we were knocked out of the competition”. That is what Lionel Messi said in August 2018 after the Joan Gamper Trophy match between Barça and Boca Juniors. Fast forward two years, “we have reached rock bottom” from a visibly upset Gerard Piqué expressed after Barcelona’s shameful loss against Bayern Munich.
How can a team belonging to one of the most legendary clubs ever, including the best player to ever play the game, after spending more than €1 billion in the last six years, still lose and lose in such a shameful way after conceding eight goals? The reasons are plenty, but there is something that no tactic or technical advancement can fix: the lack of character this team has shown.
For Barcelona, the Champions League was a priority this season. After winning La Liga four times in five seasons, the significance of being Spanish kings might have faded slightly for the blaugranas. Similarly, the dominance they have exhibited in the Copa del Rey might have diminished the importance of the trophy in the squad. However, Barcelona were very hungry for the coveted Champions League. Since the 2014/15 season, the Spanish side has been unable to win the trophy.
Apart from this, the fact that eternal rivals Real Madrid won the competition thrice in a row just made the Catalans hungrier for this special victory. That’s why Messi’s words in August 2018 were so significant. A god-like figure in Barcelona, yet the Argentine genius seldom speaks publicly and almost never this passionately. The culés hung onto Messi’s words, everyone hoped for a Champions League in the last two seasons, or at least an indication that it could soon if not immediately return to Barcelona. That’s why this loss against Bayern Munich was much worse for the club than people all over the world think.
Now, Barça are in a state of chaos after the loss –– even more so than what has been the recent norm. Two managers have been sacked this season, technical director Éric Abidal has been sacked, the fans have completely turned against the current board and worst of all, it no longer seems impossible that Messi may leave. The loss has shaken the club to its core, but it has affected the fans incredibly as well.
People who spend their life supporting this club, people whose lives have always revolved around football and those who cling to the current Barcelona squad to replicate even a small portion of the golden days they grew up seeing, all of them had to watch as the eleven players in claret and blue conceded eight goals and they had to watch as their captain, the best player they have ever seen, helplessly looked on, almost as much a spectator as them.
Barcelona’s problem leading to the loss isn’t just the rigidity solely, neither is it only the lack of directness or the sluggish play they have exhibited. It is a problem at the psychological level. The players look as if they are afraid of the Champions League and as if they don’t possess the character that winners do.
As the match against the Bavarians went on, there came a point around six goals in when the Barça players were all still and static. Nobody was even making the crucial runs, nobody was hungry for the ball and looking to create. Nobody was telling their teammates not to lose hope or to keep trying. Even the manager was standing with his arms crossed, looking rightfully worried. This lack of character was further emphasised when the team apart from Barça B midfielder Monchu departed from the back entrance of the training facilities to avoid the fans.
Barça seems to be lacking the leadership that captain Carles Puyol would provide | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Messi is the kind of leader who leads by example. But when his magical performances fail, he may not be the best captain. Gerard Piqué does try but he is not enough alone. Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto don’t have that fiery spirit that Barcelona’s captains need. Barça need a person like Carles Puyol. Not because of his superb defending or great ball-playing ability, but because of his character.
Can anybody even imagine Puyol standing still the way the entire team did when they were down by five or six goals? Does it seem like Puyol would leave from the backdoor to avoid the fans? The blaugranas desperately need a leader like Carles Puyol. Even against Liverpool or Roma, Barcelona seemed like a team without character towards the end. The players needed a player who can lead them into battle the way their old captains did.
“Does he want to spend his time left in that shirt given the performances and the way the squad is looking at the moment in comparison to other teams around Europe. Has he got the time to sit there and wait?”Rio Ferdinand on Lionel Messi to BT Sport
These problems with character are the most dangerous. Even with the best players in the world, if you have 11 players who are scared of taking risks and who keep remembering their past mistakes, it won’t work out. This dismantling of Barcelona by Bayern raises further questions. The most worrying one is: could this defeat be something that along with the terrible administration tips over Messi towards leaving the club? Will this specific squad even have the belief that they can win the Champions League? After the current loss, who is going to stop Barcelona from spiraling out of control? It seems like Barça will have to make every decision perfectly now to avoid becoming fallen giants.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.