After a disastrous night at the Camp Nou, it is time to look back at how Barça lost the league title and see whose fault it is that the club is heading in the wrong direction.
How? Why? When? Did we deserve it anyway? Are we allowed to blame the refs? Should we hate ourselves for this? What should we do now?
All these questions come after a sad day, perhaps the most miserable day to be a Barça fan in a very long time. After a rollercoaster of a season, where everyone tries their best, the La Liga title goes back to Madrid after two years in Barcelona’s trophy haul. The reactions seem excessive, maybe too demanding from the fans. After all, this title has gone to Barça on eight out of the last twelve occasions, and losing once shouldn’t be too irritating.
However, seeing all these fans, all these pundits and the greatest player to ever play for this club whine after this title loss shows an underlying problem that neutrals don’t see. Barcelona lost the league title and cannot cover their decline with titles anymore and now have to self-criticise, as captain Lionel Messi said. They can’t say that there isn’t a problem that has occurred all season long, neither in the Champions League or the Copa del Rey. This title wasn’t lost at a certain point; it began chaotically.
“We were inconsistent during the season. Real Madrid did their thing. We lost a lot of points. We have to do some self-criticism. We are Barça”
First, the obvious away problems that neither Ernesto Valverde nor Quique Setién knew how to solve. This loss isn’t on a specific manager, as some social media intellectuals try to say. Rather, it is on a whole squad, which looked drained from matchday one.
Then, injuries were the most significant burden of the term. It started with Leo Messi missing about a month of the season along with Luis Suárez at the start. These two injuries, accompanied by Ousmane Dembélé’s knock against Athletic Club on the first game, meant that the frontline was deprived of its best assets. Barça had to rely on the newbie Antoine Griezmann and La Masía graduates in Ansu Fati and Carles Pérez.
The injuries followed them throughout the whole year, with Arthur Melo, Jordi Alba and even Marc-André ter Stegen all suffering injuries at some point in the campaign. Suárez’s second injury of the term and Dembélé’s third made it really problematic for Setién, who had to endure these two injuries in his first days in January.
“Since January, everything that’s been happening at the club has been weird and bad”
Injuries played a role in Barça’s title loss, but in no way, shape or form do the culés have the right to hide behind it. The performances weren’t good enough. Valverde’s side looked bereft of ideas and confidence as they lost and drew many away duels at the halfway point. Clashes against newly-promoted Osasuna and Granada, the draw at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta, the dull goalless draw in the home El Clásico, the infuriating draw at the death against Espanyol at Cornellà…All this meant that Valverde’s men were underperforming for most of the first half of the course.
The blaugranas finished on 40 points at the halfway point, tied with Real Madrid, and the cookie continued to crumble as Ernesto Valverde failed to see out the season. Quiqe Setién came and sold everyone dreams. He promised football champagne; he pledged that the good years were set to come back, his first press conferences made us fall in love with him.
“I don’t have titles or an extensive curriculum, but [what I do have is that] I love this philosophy and my teams have played football very well. And that is the only thing I can guarantee, that the team will play well”
in January in his first press conference as a Barcelona manager
We had gotten what we wanted as culés, good football and performance, but we had forgotten one thing: the results. Setién’s team didn’t play badly at all; they were just even more dull than their predecessors. The first encounter with Granada was sublime despite the lac of chance creation: 1,000 passes, 80% possession and one goal. The liberation of Messi’s opener and Riqui Puig’s part in it made us fall in love with Barça again.
After that, the honeymoon period was over. The 2–0 loss at Valencia’s Mestalla came when Quique was still experimenting, and culés accepted the Copa del Rey elimination to Athletic Club if it meant they would concentrate more on the league and the Champions League. Against Napoli, it was uninspiring, but Antoine Griezmann got the goal in a 1–1 draw, and maybe Setién had a plan after all.
The most hurtful moment of the campaign was the El Clásico 2–0 defeat to Real Madrid away from home. Barça played decently, not good but not as lethargic as Madrid, and perhaps deserved more with more clinical finishing from the attackers. Vinícius Júnior’s goal unlocked everything, and the lack of concentration would be a recurring theme for the Barça defence while being toothless would be the biggest problem of them all.
The coronavirus break happened, with Barça on top after Real Betis stunned Madrid at the Benito Villamarín. But everything got bleaker and bleaker after it. The players were sluggish, with just a few keeping their way above water: Messi, Riqui Puig, Sergio Busquets, Ter Stegen, Clément Lenglet, Gerard Piqué…But some of the others performed way below their and the club’s standards.
The problems, as Lionel Messi tried to explain, go way deeper than just a few bad results | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
Players that have lacked consistency like Luis Suárez or Arturo Vidal seemed to shoot Barça in the foot. The games on many times went from bad to worse, with the second half against Sevilla being the epitome of a league campaign that was messed up from A to Z, no matter the manager.
The board should feel ashamed of themselves too. Not only did they plan the squad horrifically in over the past transfer windows, but they also created further turmoil in the blaugrana camp with the I3 Ventures scandal and the Arthur Melo sale. Why couldn’t they have waited until the transfer window to sell Arthur? All these rumours, all this wasted talent, for nothing.
Ever since the transfer, Arthur has played four minutes while Barcelona’s future Miralem Pjanić has been enjoying life with Juventus, so the eyebrows have to be raised at the management of this Catalan club. Not just the managers, but the higher-ups. They planned the squad poorly, they did all these shady dealings, and they should be held accountable for their actions.
“We are Barcelona and we must win every game”
Always remember, culés, that we are Barça. A bad run of form or a bad season, even a bad board, should not define this club’s identity. Keep your head up and look at what we can achieve in the future, and stop looking into the past. Barcelona will be back stronger.
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.