The match against PSG at the Camp Nou could have been a season-changer. Under different circumstances, it probably would have been. It was such a boost of energy, such a big win. But the weekend after, Barcelona lost to Deportivo away from home. Even though it was an unforgivable slip in the league, most of us forgave the team: they had just done something spectacular, after all. But with that loss died the momentum.
It reminds me of the tail-end of the 2013-2014 season. The 3-4 win at the Bernabeu gave Barcelona a massive boost. It was talked about as a title decider, and it should have been just that. It would have been just that, had Barcelona not gone on to lose to Granada, and draw against Getafe and Elche just a few weeks later. Momentum can’t carry a broken team.
But where 2013-2014 was a last-ditch, desperate effort to let go of the glorious era of the past, and win something with a tired group of players, this season has felt like the natural end of the road. The team, just like in 2013-14, is tired, as is the manager. But some part of it feels inevitable.
For much of last season, Barcelona played the best football it has played under Luis Enrique. It’s easy to forget now, but we all enjoyed it and dreamed of another treble up until that fateful loss against Atletico in the Champions League. It felt a lot like the loss to Chelsea in 2012. Was Barcelona massively inferior on either occasion? Probably not. Did they concede stupid goals, and then bang their heads against a brick wall for the rest of the game? Yes. And where 2011-2012 was the end of the road for Pep Guardiola, 2015-2016 probably should have been the end of the road for Luis Enrique. There was nothing more to give, no new place to take the team. The season had been great, and probably would be remembered differently if it wasn’t Madrid that won the Champions League. But it was time for a change.
Why Luis Enrique chose to stay, you’ll have to ask him. Ambition is a funny thing. After winning 5 of the 6 major trophies in two years, you crave more. But much of the ongoing season, and even the summer preceding it, has felt like being on board a sinking ship with a captain who doesn’t know where to go. And it’s not because the players aren’t good, it’s not that everyone isn’t trying. It’s just that the clarity is gone; the world-beating confidence is gone.
When I speak of clarity, I mean the kind of clarity that prompted Luis Enrique to ask for the signings of Luis Suarez, Rakitic and Mathieu before his first season. Each filled a gap in the squad. Barcelona needed a center forward, and got the best one. They desperately needed someone who could play on the right side of the midfield with Messi, because Xavi wasn’t going to play 50 games a season anymore. People raised their eyebrows when the signing for that need was Rakitic, who is nothing like Xavi, but Enrique knew what he wanted, and it worked. And Mathieu, even if everyone seems to hate him now, was signed for a glaring necessity too. Barcelona needed a lefty center back, who could play left back. Even if he falls behind in terms of quality, profile-wise Mathieu isn’t entirely dissimilar to Abidal. And we needed a player like that for that season.
What Luis Enrique wanted to build for 2015-2016 is difficult to know, because the transfer ban destroyed any plan he could have had. Signing a right back in Aleix Vidal made sense, because last season was always going to be Alves’ last. Signing a midfielder/winger in Arda, however, didn’t make the same kind of sense, and almost felt like the kind of signing that was made just because the player was available and we had the cash lying around. What specific gap did Arda fill in the squad? You couldn’t answer that question the same way you could in the case of Rakitic, Suarez or Mathieu. If they were looking for the Iniesta-profile, they didn’t get it. If they were looking for the Xavi-profile, they didn’t get it either.
For the ongoing season, a lot of signings were made. Did they really address the deficits in the squad? Not entirely. Sure, signing a backup for Luis Suarez was somewhat justifiable, but is Paco Alcacer so much better than Munir that the swap was worth it? And is he enough like Suarez to conceivably be able to fill that role when the Uruguayan is on the bench? Suarez is a physical monster, he wrestles with the defenders. Alcacer is a small but quick player who likes to slip behind the line and run. How was he ever going to fill Suarez’s massive boots?
Then there’s the case of the left back. Yes, Barcelona needed one, but was Lucas Digne really the best option available? He was cheap, so it’s not like it matters massively, but if you sign a left back to compete with Alba and then end up playing without a left back in the most important games of the season, it speaks of the same lack of clarity that I mentioned before. If you wanted to play a 3-4-3, could that money have been spent on a center back better than Mascherano? The truth is, Luis Enrique probably didn’t know he would end up playing a 3-4-3. Unlike the team of 2014-2015, this team wasn’t built with a plan.
And then of course, there’s the curious case of André Gomes and Denis Suarez. Starting from the latter, Suarez played his best football at Villarreal when he was deployed as a wide, right midfielder. This season, he has barely played there. He has played more on Iniesta’s side, and spent most of the time on the bench. Either Barcelona didn’t know they player they signed, or tried to play him in a position he was never going to make his own.
André Gomes, on the other hand, is interesting in his own right. If he hadn’t just won the Euros with Portugal, would he have been signed? If he wasn’t as handsome and marketable, and if Real Madrid hadn’t wanted him, would he have been signed? Probably not, because his signing makes little sense. He’s not a deep-lying playmaker like Busquets, and is too lethargic defensively to fill that role. He’s certainly nothing like Iniesta, and positionally much less aware than Rakitic. In his essence, he’s a counter attacking player with a decent dribbling ability and a decent shot. In other words, he was never good enough to be a Barcelona player.
Barcelona’s midfield without Xavi is a difficult puzzle to solve: many have tried and most have failed. Last summer was the clearest effort yet to bring in a new core of young players for that zone, but that effort seems to have resulted in little success. Barcelona is just as dependent on Iniesta and Rakitic delivering as they were last season, and the problem of giving Busquets some backup hasn’t yet been solved either.
The gaps in the squad before this season were somewhat clear. Barcelona needed center backs, a wide player to fill that position when Messi roams to the center, and a long-term midfield solution. Out of all the signings the club made, only Samuel Umtiti has delivered, and seems like the kind of player who could be there for a decade. Why weren’t these other needs addressed? Maybe it’s because Enrique and his staff are standing too close to the painting. They’ve tried a lot of different things. There was the initial “Messi as a false 9”-phase, then there was moving him to the right, then there was moving him behind Suarez and making Rakitic a wide outlet rather than the core of a midfield, and finally there was the 3-4-3. It’s not that they haven’t tried, it’s that they seem to be scrambling now. Out of ideas, out of options. That’s why Enrique only made one substitution against Juventus. He didn’t know what else to do.
This is why I would prefer to see someone new come in for next season. Who knows what a mastermind Unzue could be, but it really feels like the kind of season after which you need a complete overhaul. Someone who can come in from the outside and say: “These are the players we need, these are the players we don’t need, and this is how we’re going to play.”
Who that manager is, I don’t know. Jorge Sampaoli might have been the number 1 candidate until his team’s loss to Leicester in the Champions League. If not him, could it be someone like Ronald Koeman? Maybe a Valverde? Maybe they’ll bring back former B-team coach Eusebio who has done a good job at Real Sociedad? I don’t know. It is, of course, easy to criticize and complain, but finding solutions is difficult.
Regardless of who comes in, however, next summer is absolutely crucial for the club. Piqué is 30, Messi turns 30 in the summer, Suarez is 30, Iniesta is 32, even Rakitic is 29, and Busquets turns 29 in July. The core of the team is aging, and frankly, a lot of these problems should have been solved by now. A lot of the other veterans should have been replaced by now. To the Mathieus and the Mascheranos of the squad, you’ll have to be able to say “Thank you for your service, and goodbye.”
Rebuilding is a long process, and we’ll have to remember that we’ve been in the middle of it for quite some time. We even managed to win a Champions League in the middle of that rebuilding, as well as two leagues and a Club World Championship. But there’s no room for stalling anymore.
This season has been like driving full speed at a wall. Everyone has seen the wall, but nobody has been able to change the course. Crashing is not the end of the world. Football, like this, is cyclical. Sometimes you crash, other times you fly. But at this point, the club is the one who has to actively take the steps to start a new cycle.