Los Culés in crisis: how Barcelona fell by the wayside

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After yielding their La Liga crown for the first time since 2017 and succumbing to a humiliating 8-2 thrashing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Barcelona seem to have hit an all-time low. For the first time in six seasons, they have not won a major trophy. As a result, Quique Setién faced the uproar of Barça fans across all seven continents. Just how has this once-great club fallen so far from grace?

On a European level, Barcelona’s decay has been years in the making. Los Culés have only reached the semi-finals of the Champions League once since they last took the trophy in 2015. Before that they’d reached the last four in six out of seven seasons, winning the competition twice. While success in Spain has been fairly regular, Barça have struggled to realise their European dreams. Against Bayern Munich, Barcelona looked devoid of leadership and any kind of defensive nous.

Piqué is not the player he used to be with Carles Puyol alongside him, and Clément Lenglet still looks inexperienced at this level. Samuel Umtiti is an assured defender but injuries befall him too often. They couldn’t deal with the Bavarian side’s energy, leaving Lisbon with their tails between their legs and rightly they should be ashamed. That was the first time Barcelona have conceded eight goals since 1946. Clement Attlee was the Prime Minister the last time they lost a game by six goals; that seems a world away.

Lionel Messi went AWOL on the night, and increasing reports have pointed towards discontent at the Camp Nou. As much as he is so often the solution, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner encapsulates the club’s problems. It is well-documented that he has a key role in decision-making at the club, namely regarding new signings or managerial appointments. A player should never have such power in a team’s hierarchy, and that has played a part in Barcelona’s downfall. Nobody on the pitch seemed to be playing for their manager anymore, and this team was but a shadow of its former self.

Nobody on the pitch seemed to be playing for their manager anymore, and this team was but a shadow of its former self.

Barcelona are a side who have failed to progress from their bygone golden era. With an ageing squad – the average age of the first XI against Bayern nearing 30 – they have problems to address in the transfer window. They have lost crucial players like Iniesta, Xavi and Puyol, all of whom were influential figures in the dressing room. Puyol in particular has been greatly missed, as defensive issues have plagued Barcelona’s European ventures for years. Though Messi is often regarded as the greatest footballer ever, he is anything but a leader on the pitch and that showed on Friday night. Piqué rightly came out openly and spoke about his team’s failings, but every one of their team needs to stand up and be accounted for.

This kind of attitude is instilled from the top, through the manager. Blaugrana’s appointments since Luis Enrique left the club have not had the desired success. Ernesto Valverde was a solid choice, who had done well with Athletic Bilbao considering their transfer limitations, but was often criticised for an all too defensive style of play, not in keeping with the ‘Barça way’. Thus, after his sacking, Quique Setién was brought in, a manager known for his emphasis on possession and midfield domination. Yet, unfortunately for him, having Real Betis as the biggest name on your football CV will not demand the respect you need from Barcelona players to succeed. He was seemingly doomed from the start in that sense.

Ronald Koeman has since replaced him, who will need to hit the ground sprinting let alone running. Many believe that the former Barcelona player – who scored the winning goal for the Catalonians in the 1992 European Cup final – could be what is required to stop the rot.

Rebuilding the club’s image could be a process that takes years. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the club hard in their pockets; they no longer welcome fans to the Camp Nou, and with the average wage in the squad being €11 million a year their coffers look evermore stretched. The club are now paying the price for years of bad investment. Hundreds of millions were spent on Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann, none of whom even started against Bayern. While the former has been ravaged by injuries, the jury is still out on Griezmann, with the Frenchman struggling to connect with Messi.

Barcelona’s outlay of €870 million since their last Champions League win has been dismally misspent. The cherry on top of Friday’s disastrous cake was the performance of another nine-figure signing, Philippe Coutinho, on loan from Barcelona, who scored two goals and created another against his own parent side.

Now, Barcelona are left to try and turn the tide of senescence, offering their unwanted elders in exchange for better long-term investments. Without significant spending power, a renaissance could take years. With their golden generation long in the past, Barcelona now strive to prevent its memory being melted down by the failure that has followed it.

Image: Ajuntament de les Franqueses del Vallès via Flickr.

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