Barcelona’s seven deadly sins

Barcelona were utterly destroyed and humiliated in their latest Champions League knockout exit, losing 8-2 to Bayern Munich in Lisbon. It is their heaviest European defeat ever, and their largest in any competition for nearly 70 years.

This is the club that brought us Xavi, Iniesta and Pep Guardiola’s dominant dream team. The MSN frontline and the 2015 treble. All of those were so recent, but now seem so distant. How did things get so bad, so quick? Gregor Kerr looks at the root issues at the Camp Nou.

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Barcelona have exited the Champions League in embarrassing fashion for the third consecutive year (Credit: Reuters)

1. The collapses

The three-goal collapse two years ago in Rome was humiliating. The four-goal implosion last year at Anfield was traumatising. This time, it’s hard to even describe, but perhaps most damning of all is that it was somewhat predictable. The Annual Barcelona Champions League Exit ™ is now a stylish and much-anticipated event. It is always spectacular and unrivalled in drama. It has become a point of humour. For the first time in recent memory, Barcelona are literally laughable.

A mental block now exists whenever the crunch time in the Champions League arrives. They look nervous, intimidated and completely lose their composure once the second goal is conceded. In Rome, Liverpool and last night they all conceded early on and couldn’t recover. There is some degree of mental scarring on the squad, and the same thing keeps happening.

The most striking comparison to this humiliation was the one inflicted by Germany against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. Both were ruthless and almost scary demolitions of teams who had fallen from their perch. Thomas Muller played in and scored in both. Was this Barcelona performance even worse than Brazil that night? Muller seemed to think so, saying: “Actually, we didn’t dominate so much against Brazil. Today the superiority was greater.”

2. The infighting

Manager Quique Sentin was already a man on his way out of Barcelona before this hammering, if anything the Bundesliga champions’ victory just sped up the process. He is already expected to leave the club in the coming days. Fingers have been, and will continue to be pointed at him, just as they were at Ernesto Valverde before him. The constant in this decline is the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu.  Gerard Pique, severely exposed on the night, pointed upwards in the positions of power at Barcelona, “The club needs changes, structural ones, not players or managers,” he said.

Director of Football and former European Cup winner at Barcelona, Eric Abidal, has played a close part in the failings at Barcelona and the inner politics. Earlier this year he told newspapers that “many players weren’t satisfied or working a lot” in the final months of Valverde’s management. This prompted a public response from Lionel Messi, who usually steers clear of controversy, who responded saying “Everyone has to be responsible for their job…when you speak about players, you should give names. If you don’t, you’re tarnishing everyone and feeding things that are said that aren’t true.”

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Messi and Abidal, once teammates, lining up before their 2011 Champions League win 

There is a circle of blame. Fans blame Bartomeu and Abidal, who pass this blame on to criticise the manager and players, who turn back on Abidal and Bartomeu. It is a toxic culture inside a club who were once associated with harmony and long-term planning. Abidal is now set to leave the club as sporting director following the defeat.

3. The transfer policy

 They are in danger of treading the path that AC Milan followed. Once powerhouses, able to hoover up the best talent; now a joyride for agents and players on the slide. Look at the signings of Kevin Prince-Boateng, Paulinho and Martin Braithwaite for examples; and those are just the very worst.

Coutinho was Barcelona’s best player on the night but played for the other team. He cost them €100m+ but contributed more for Bayern on the night than he has for the Catalans. Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann also broke the €100m+ price barrier, both sat on the bench. Malcolm cost over €50m, Neto for €26m, a 31-year old Vidal for €19m. What was the purpose in these signings? Where was the planning?

It’s even more baffling, yet somewhat predictable, that Arthur represents one of very few smart transfers at the club who can form a new spine, but he’ll shortly make way for 29-year old Miralem Pjanic who swaps places from Juventus. It’s about the here and now for Barca, no succession planning. There are no signs of who replaces Pique and Busquets, nobody is quite sure who replaced Iniesta or Xavi.

4. The stubborn, inflexible game plan

On the pitch the long-term Barcelona style of play persists, even when, as successful as it has been previously, clearly does not suit their players. Pique and Lenglet must find Busquets and De Jong under pressure, who must come deep, who must then spray the ball out wide. No room for nuance, or pragmatism. There are simply no other ways to play football it seems. They may be trying to stick to tiki-taka, but it looks nothing like it should. That style of play has been through so many managers and players that it has come out of the other side looking like a cheap imitation.

The game has changed. The era of passing a side to exhaustion has gone, and the era of in-your-face, press to death and force mistakes football is here. It’s about wins, at any means. Did Bayern feel the need to play in needless areas of the pitch? No. They totally bypassed the midfield when required. They are flexible, Barcelona aren’t.  The best teams now have to be strong, athletic and relentless. Barcelona were none of those things and haven’t been for a while in the Champions League.

This game probably signified the change of a succesful style and succesful teams. Barcelona, a team so many will have grown up idolising, disintegrated in front of millions watching. Bayern represent the new style of football, where you have to match them physically or risk being ran all over. They were unmatched in every area of the pitch.

5. The lowering of standards

What reasons do the club have for continually appointing unqualified and unproven managers? Setein came from Real Betis, Valverde from Bilbao. How are managers of this calibre deserving of the responsibility of satisfying the most demanding of fans. In what way are they prepared for such a cauldron of expectations? Are Barcelona repulsed at the thought of hiring the best in the game, and firmly believe that every appointment must be an inspired find like Pep, a niche find that nobody saw coming? If you appoint average managers, you know what follows. It’s an incredibly intimidating and demanding job, but experience of working in that kind of environment hasn’t been sought after.

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Only a miracle would have kept Setien in the job before Friday’s defeat, as he is set to leave just eight months after becoming manager (Credit: Getty)

There is also a misguided loyalty to players. It’s important to have homegrown players in the team, to give a sense of identify and authenticity more than anything else. The persistence though, to play Pique and Busquets through their decline, with little to no pressure of losing their spot is what encourages passiveness. There are no repercussions for these players failing spectacularly on the big stage for several years in a row. Their personal legacy of course is without question, but they shouldn’t be there purely out of loyalty.

They aren’t alone in the aging process. Messi, Vidal and Suarez are 33. Rakitic is 32. Alba is 31. Even Griezmann is 29. The team has been allowed to grow old together and there doesn’t appear to be any thought of “what happens next?”.

6. The finances

It’s no surprise that the financial situation of Barcelona is rocky when you factor in that over €1bn has been spent on players since 2014. Longing for the past, they have continually looked to bring back Neymar to the Camp Nou for the previous two summers, but the stumbling block is that they simply could not afford him. With or without Neymar, a rebuild has been needed but the finances to do so simply don’t exist.

The management of wages is dangerously reckless. The yearly average salary of €11m per player sucks up 69% of their total revenue. For comparison, Real Madrid is 52%. Attempts have been made to rectify this, with Coutinho, Ivan Rakitic and Samuel Umtiti all being made available for transfer in recent years, but it is hard to convince a player earning so much to leave. The financial grave has been dug and it’s hard to escape. There have also been plans to expand the Camp Nou, which will likely cost at least €500m.

Back to the AC Milan comparison, they were regularly within the top three richest clubs in the world during the start of the century, but now find themselves outside the top 20. The same can happen to Barcelona.

7. The Messi problem

It would have been very easy to believe that Messi would see out the rest of his career at Barcelona, retiring a one club man. The scariest of scenarios has started to unfold, as even he has made his displeasure public. The earlier mentioned Abidal incident, an increasing need to bail out teammates, a revolving door of managers all has weighed down on the captain. He looks less capable of an inspiring European performance than he did before.

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Messi hasn’t played in a Champions League final since 2015 (Credit: Getty)

After losing his grip on La Liga this season, Messi was already said to have been seriously contemplating his future. This humiliation will have only intensified these thoughts. He is free to leave next summer when his contract expires and talks of an extension have dried up. Barcelona will through their entire budget to keep him on board if they have to, as they have done for years, but things may be too far gone now. The collateral damage may be done, and it doesn’t appear that Messi has faith in the hierarchy to correct things.

Barcelona is not an easy club to play for, especially in today’s team. Even Messi’s ability has not been enough to dig his teammates out of the mire in previous seasons. It would probably be harsh to say the magic is fading, but his brilliance can only cover the team’s issues for so long. The team is built around him but is still failing to get the best out of him. Similar to Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson left, Barcelona post-Messi is almost impossible to replace and is now a genuine possibility.

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