Trouble in Paradise: What Has Gone Wrong for Barcelona?

Football club Barcelona has a long and illustrious history. The club has been at the pinnacle of Spanish football for extended periods of time while fiercely battling Real Madrid supremacy. 

While both clubs have phenomenal business models characterized by brilliant marketing and merchandise sales, Real Madrid has made better inroads in the last half decade both commercially and sporting-wise. The Santiago Bernabeu outfit has remained at the pinnacle of commercial success while also extending their dominance on the European stage to thirteen titles, at least six more than their closest rivals Milan who have seven. Barcelona have five in fourth place tied with FC Bayern Munich.

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While it will take both time and the requisite strategies to knock Real Madrid off the perch of commercial success, stopping their stretched dominance on the European football front has purely been Barcelona’s failing. 

In more ways than one, Barcelona has hit below the belt when least expected. From squandering 3-0 leads twice in successive seasons to bowing out to Juventus and Atletico Madrid two seasons earlier, Barcelona not only demonstrated that even the finest of players can be mismanaged but can also be out-thought by far more resilient and purposeful opponents.

So where exactly has a club of Barcelona’s pedigree failed? While there is a plethora of answers to this question, fundamental truth lies in the club’s inability to first recruit the right players, inject pace in the team, revamp the ailing La Masia academy and get the right tactician in the dugout. 

In the recent El Classico, Barcelona bossed possession as is to be expected. The ever-impressive Sergio Busquets was busy recycling possession as was Frankie De Jong and Arthur with Vidal adding steel to the midfield four. The team was set to control the tempo of the game and on this metric, the Barcelona midfield succeeded resoundingly subjecting Real Madrid to a mere 44% possession at the Bernabeu with superior accuracy. 

Sadly, this is probably the only sensible battle the Catalans won in the Spanish capital as they were outrun, out-thought and neutralized. 

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Analysts argue that a singular loss shouldn’t spell doom on a team that is otherwise doing well. While this assertion holds water Barcelona’s need for pace in wide areas and upfront is embarrassingly dire and for a while this has hampered the team’s success against compact low opponents who are comfortable without the ball and are intent on defending their eighteen yard box. 

In the El Clasico, it was embarrassing to note that none of the Barcelona players playing in midfield or attack had the pace to get beyond the backline of Ramos, Varane, Marcelo and Carvajal. A few times, Messi and Griezmann were put through on goal but were unable to make meaningful attempts with the balls due to the glaring lack of pace. Varane and Marcelo recovered in time to either dispossess or hurry the attackers leading to comfortable defensive situations for the Madrid backline. 

At the other end, Vinicious Junior’s pace was worrying Nelson Semedo more times than the noise from the stands. 

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In the last transfer window, Barcelona spent time looking for a Suarez replacement to no avail. The Catalans were mooted with moves for the likes of Aubameyang of Arsenal and Lautaro Martinez of Inter Milan but nothing concrete materialized. In the end, Martin Brathwaite was signed to fill up the Suarez void. While it’s a no brainer that Martin and Luis aren’t on the same level, it baffles many within the upper echelons of football to see Barcelona signing players whose use will be minimal. 

Players like Junior Firpo, Emerson, Cucurella have been signed by the club in the summer but it remains to be seen how they will be integrated into the team. In the summer and the January transfer window, Barcelona has spent €273m and quite frankly only two of those €273m-worth of signings can be said to offer real quality and competition for places when everyone is fully fit. Neto’s signature from Valencia made sense since Cillessen had long departed. But one would argue that Coutinho’s transfer to Munich was baffling with Malcom signed and shipped out within a season in a 40 million pound deal.

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The La Masia academy was once an enviable production line for the senior team. At one point during Guardiola’s era, a Barcelona team was fielded with purely La Masia graduates. The academy has produced players like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Fabregas, Thiago, Puyol, Pique and many others. However, there appears to be an impedance to the famous production line. 

As seasons have gone by, fewer and fewer academy graduates have made the team and this has made Barcelona open their checkbooks. 

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From Tata Martino to Setien, have Barcelona been courting the right coach for their project? A manager’s stint is labelled a success or failure after its completion but questions linger on many pundit’s faces on why Barcelona cannot lure a younger, hungrier, more dynamic and innovative manager who can work his way around getting the most from the senior members of the team while also tactically outsmarting opponents. 

The last time Barcelona had a fairly young and dynamic manager was during the tenure of Luis Enrique and they won a treble. Pep Guardiola had been there earlier and won fourteen titles in four years. Outsiders believe that the Barcelona board should be flexible and think of candidates outside Spain in order to blend the best Spanish talent with international methods. 

This would invariably increase their chances of landing the elusive Champions League.

Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeSparrow3