When it rains, it pours.
Following their weekend defeat to Atlético Madrid, Barcelona find themselves sitting 12th in the La Liga table and in the midst of their worst league start in 29 years. The match also saw mainstays Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto carted off with injuries, both of whom will be out for a few months.
Unfortunately for the Blaugrana, the problems don’t stop there. They are facing an institutional crisis, financial problems, plenty of media controversy, and poor performances. Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope as with each issue comes key takeaways and lessons to be learned from this club in disarray.
Uncertainty with Presidential Elections
Barcelona currently find themselves in a state of limbo. On January 24th, the club is in line for new leadership that will hopefully steer the ship that’s been off-course for the past half-decade. In lieu of a private owner, Barça are run by a president and board who are elected every six years by official club members, called socios.
The most recent president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, oversaw a period filled with strife and controversy. Consequently, he resigned after a motion of no confidence was on the verge of ousting him and his board last month.
Bartomeu’s reign of terror was halted in between, but maybe little too late. (Photo via Imago)
In the meantime, an incumbent team led by Carles Tusquets is in charge; however, this just means that real change can not be implemented for at least another two months. It also means the new board will not have the month of January — the winter transfer window — to bring in any players they want.
Naturally, there are big questions about who will win the presidency. Some gravitate towards the exciting Victor Font whilst others prefer the tried and tested Joan Laporta, who was President during Barça’s peak years in the late 2000s to early 2010s. Interestingly, this deadlock could make way for a less-popular candidate like Jordi Farre to win.
It’s hard to isolate a key lesson from this institutional crisis, but at least fans can be reassured that an unsuccessful president and board can be properly removed by loyal fans. The successful motion of no confidence is a testament to Barcelona’s ownership structure, and the incoming board must provide stability and optimism for the future of the club.
One of the legacies of the aforementioned Bartomeu’s presidency was the financial hole it put the club in. The devastating effects of COVID-19 were exacerbated by a poor wage structure that resulted in salaries being nearly 80% of total club income.
Rakitic and Vidal leaving resolved a lot of financial issues at Barça, especially with the wage structure. (Photo via Imago)
The club has tried negotiating deals with players to limit the impacts, but finding solutions have been difficult. Barcelona now finds themselves facing bankruptcy, which affects all aspects of the club, including the livelihoods of employees, players, and even Barcelona’s attempts to buy new players to inject some new blood into the squad.
The financial situation is a clear warning sign for new leadership to make better decisions in terms of wage structuring and spending large transfer. Barça cannot afford to make anymore signings concerned with “flash over substance”. Once again, permanent changes can not be made until the end of January, so Barça will have to find temporary solutions, hopefully through the youth ranks.
The Lionel Messi Transfer Saga
In late August, Lionel Messi sent shockwaves across the world by announcing his desire to leave FC Barcelona. The decision was supported by most, except for President Bartomeu, who controversially decided not to accommodate the Argentine’s wishes.
There was hope that the story would simmer until next summer, but it is increasingly taking over the headlines and not going away anytime soon. It’s clear that the six-time Ballon d’Or winner is doing his best to prevent these issues from impacting him on the pitch, but even he is ultimately human.
Lionel Messi looks like a shadow of his former self right now. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
The idea of preventing a club icon from making his own decisions is still absurd and speaks to the many problems of the Bartomeu presidency. The transfer saga will stay with the club until Messi either re-signs or moves to another club and with that goes any semblance of tranquillity and order in the club.
Barcelona must learn from this mistake, and the new leadership that arrives in January must support whatever decision Messi makes. No club legend, let alone the greatest player of all time, deserves to be treated as such.
In addition to the Messi transfer saga, it feels like a new story undermining Barça players comes out every week. Naturally, every large club attracts media attention and controversy, but Barça players, in particular, have been put through the wringer. For example, just last week, Antoine Griezmann’s uncle came out with damaging remarks against Messi, but that is not an isolated incident.
Messi soon hit back at these statements, saying, “The truth is that I’m a little tired of always being the problem for everything at the club” after being swarmed with reporters post returning from International Duty.
No love lost between Messi and Griezmann? (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
These issues are going nowhere, as is the nature of controversial and catchy headlines, but a takeaway here is the fortitude of the Barcelona players who deal with these issues with such grace and composure.
Initially, it was hard to get a grip on the identity of this Ronald Koeman-led Barça team. Were poor performances merely a result of a mismatched squad needing time to gel, or was it a sign that this team was never going to find their footing? Unfortunately, the latter seems to be true.
The results speak for themselves, but this squad is clearly lacking character and unity, and watching them often feels like watching 11 individuals running around a field instead of one cohesive unit. To add, their weaknesses are easy to read and effortlessly exploited by opponents.
The only takeaway is that it’s clearly time for a change. The upcoming match against Dynamo Kyiv feels like the perfect opportunity for the team to try out something new; perhaps a different formation overlooked players and a fresh tactical approach.
📰 — Koeman could change the team’s formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 against Dynamo Kyiv and Osasuna, after losing Gerard Piqué. [sport] pic.twitter.com/tf3hpPDrb3— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) November 23, 2020
It is also the time for individuals like Antoine Griezmann and Clement Lenglet to prove that they can lead the team in absence of team leaders Messi and Pique. The question is, will there be any changes, or will Barça continue to perform the way that’s gotten them sitting 12th in the table?
Adding to the laundry list of Barça’s enigmas is the injury crisis they have on their hands. Defenders Piqué and Roberto are out for a few months, but the Blaugrana don’t have many backup options. Ronald Araújo and Samuel Umtiti are both injured as well, and the latter has yet to earn trust from Koeman. Frenkie De Jong looks set to fill in at centre back for the next few games, but that leaves more questions about who will play in the double pivot.
For tomorrow, however, everything indicates towards an official debut for Oscar Mingueza, who is the only other centre-back in the travelling squad apart from Clement Lenglet.
Gerard Pique’s injury is a massive blow to the team. (Photo via Imago)
Injuries come out of nowhere, and a team can never fully be prepared, but there is a clear lesson here for the Catalans in terms of squad building. In the future, Barça should have a more well-rounded squad in case things like this do happen.
Fans and followers alike will hope that this rough patch is merely momentary, but it could very well last the entire season, or at least until new leadership is brought into the fray at the beginning of 2021. Nevertheless, given the severity of these issues, patience is paramount. Things may feel like they’re getting worse, but in every problem the club is facing, there are key lessons they must learn from so they can be better in the future.
Although things are looking grim, the darkest hour is just before the dawn.
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.