Our Guest Author: Ruairidh Barlow
The Barça dressing room has been too powerful and difficult to deal with, as it has ended up exposing a certain lack of personality from Quique Setién in choosing the veterans over the deserving youngsters in Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig.
In his first pre-match press conference as Barcelona manager, Quique Setién admitted that some players are “higher up in the hierarchy because of what they have been proving”. Perhaps that would prove to be the statement which would ring truest of those he made, in a world where there was still room for optimism at the Ciutat Esportiva. “Everyone will have opportunities”, Setién promised. Mixed in amongst his own wide-eyed enthusiasm was a nod towards La Masía, an ever-present point of contention under Valverde. A manager turned pantomime villain on social media, his successor would send the Riqui Puig hype train into a frenzy in Setién’s first game against Granada, substituting the youngster on for the final stages of the match.
“This club has an extraordinary academy. From the bottom up, if they are given a chance it’s because they deserve it. I absolutely have a willingness to take care of the kids because they bring positive energy and, aside from that, they make sure those above them don’t get too comfortable”
in his first press conference as a Barça manager
Yet it would be a global pandemic later before Puig saw any meaningful minutes again. When he finally got them, he was brilliant. Constantly in motion, his vision and navigation of space gave a boring midfield access to a different dimension. Even when faced with Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid, one of the meaner defences in Europe, he was a constant headache for Saúl Ñíguez and Thomas Partey –– a partnership 587 games his senior.
So when Barcelona finally stumbled their way to the end of the La Liga season, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati were the solitary rays of light amongst a gloomy atmosphere, the most pessimistic years. Their cameos in a team that so often played without imagination were an injection of life. A glimpse, a reminder, of what it should look like.
“In my previous teams, I have always said the same message to the kids and followed it up: if you have earnt it, you can play in the first team and be another member of the squad”
in his first press conference as a Barça manager
With Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal absent through suspension, it appeared not just a Twitter fantasy but a logical solution that Puig would start against Napoli in the second leg of the Champions League last 16. Antoine Griezmann was recovering from a muscle injury, and with both him and Luis Suárez yet to recover much form, it seemed almost unthinkable that neither Puig nor Fati would start. The stars had aligned in the stands, centre stage was for the youngsters.
Yet they saw not even a minute. Consigned to the bench while Barça B captain Monchu Rodríguez made his debut and Barcelona clung on to a two-goal lead. Not a single second of the game they missed the B-team play-off for, of the match they had earned. Frenkie de Jong, Sergi Roberto and Iván Rakitić played with Griezmann ahead as a mediapunta, behind Suárez and Lionel Messi. A first for the Frenchman, the performance was equally novice. Once again, his attacking output so scarce that people praised the star forward’s defensive efforts.
Riqui Puig didn’t get his debut in the Champions League, and Ansu Fati was subbed on against Bayern were the humiliation was already confirmed | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
Of course there is a certain logic to playing the big names. However much Bartomeu and associates have inflated their wages, their reputations were earned on the pitch. Experience does count. For all of Barcelona’s flaws, technical quality is not one of them; the usual scapegoats for the team’s wider failings –– Rakitić, Griezmann, Suárez –– have all proven themselves over their careers. Each has at one point or another had a reasonable claim to being the best in the world at their position. The former two were
crucial parts of their world-cup-finalist sides.
But it’s starting to feel like a long time since these reputations were reinforced by our eyes rather than our memories. Poor form stretching so far it feels increasingly like decline. When Barcelona last beat a top-level side, it was a far from vintage Atlético de Madrid, with a far from vintage performance. Before that, a forgotten 3–0 victory over Liverpool. Now fifteen months behind us.
In stark contrast, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig have defied their inexperience at almost every opportunity. It is hard to argue that Barcelona have not looked visibly better, visibly more like Barcelona, with them in the side. Only Suárez and Messi have scored or assisted more regularly than Ansu. He would play just twenty meaningless minutes against Bayern, while Puig never even got on the pitch.
At the beginning Quique Setién affirmed that the opportunities given to youngsters will “ensure that those ahead of them don’t relax”. The degree to which he foreshadowed his own frailties, betrayed his own supposed dogmatism, is fitting of the tragedy Barça find themselves living in. Sour-faced on the touchline, he became a hostage to Valverde’s line-up.
And the canteranos must be amongst the most disenchanted by recent events. For all the reverence they may have for their heroes, they are not naïve enough to ignore such a clear gap in performance. Regardless of how it hurts the side on the pitch, no manager can hope to maintain the respect of their employees when displaying such deliberate prejudice.
Beyond a humiliation against Bayern or scraping past other teams, the consequences are more poisonous. This habit of trusting the older players come what may goes against basic human psychology. The natural paradigm dictates that good performance is rewarded with more opportunities, without which performing well loses all meaning.
Too often proven quality and experience has been chosen over the merits from the youngsters | Photo by Rafael Marchante / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
“We are not good enough to control the whole match”, remarked Setién after the Napoli victory. Yet that was exactly what he did while at Betis and Las Palmas. Symbolic of a discourse that has appeared increasingly separated from reality with every passing match. He sold his beliefs in order to wander amongst the so-called Vacas Sagradas –– the dressing room heavyweights. Their competitiveness on the pitch cannot be doubted, as it has probably prevented Barcelona from falling far earlier.
Without the threat of losing their place, though, the incentive to compete in training is just as absent as the one to perform. The outcome is not just demotivated, sellable youngsters, but an unavoidable slide in standards. Regardless of how much they strain and struggle on matchday, even talent is powerless to resist the effects of mental rust. The disregard for the day-to-day work is at the heart the poor performances and
the simple mistakes.
A team’s edge is sharpened every day in training and Barça look like they are permanently in preseason. It is hardly surprising that the answers are nowhere to be found on matchdays when there are no questions asked the rest of the week. For so long Barcelona have had the key in Messi. Stuck in a maze of blind alleys, with no help from others, not even he can find the door now.
Until this culture changes, the azulgranas are doomed to wither and die a never-ending death with their ageing side. Quique Setién’s meek submission to the sacred cows in Barcelona is the source of his imminent reunion with the cows in his native Cantabria. Sport is the ultimate meritocracy, no matter your background, those deserving are rewarded. Barça, meanwhile, has become an aristocrat’s paradise. The rich are untouchable, unassailable for the rest of the squad, regardless of whether they deserve it or not.
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.