It was a big ask for any football club to hang on to whatever they had before the shutdown due to coronavirus. A three-month break is larger than the normal offseason these teams get. When everything was on ground as shaky as Barcelona’s lead in La Liga, it was probably always doomed. The only thing that could save them is the thing that always saves them, and that’s whether Lionel Messi could conjure more space magic to cover all the various warts.
Even that’s not enough now.
Barça limped to a 2-2 draw at home with Atletico Madrid, which means they trail Real Madrid by a point but Madrid has a game in hand. Considering the remaining games Madrid have, it’s hard to envision them slipping up twice. Barça is somewhat unlucky against Atletico — Marc Andre Ter Stegen saved the first penalty against them only to have it retaken because his foot was infinitesimally off the line. Yannick Carrasco dove for the second penalty — but once the score was tied, Barcelona never really looked like finding a winning goal.
On the field, the problems against Atletico were the same as they’ve been. When Messi didn’t do everything, Barça didn’t have any answers. As a perfect example, Messi had six shots against Atletico. No one else had more than one.
In addition, they were sliced open on the counter like a cadaver. Their starting midfield trio of Arturo Vidal, Sergio Busquets, and Ivan Rakitic are all over 30 and have the mobility of cadavers, and they’re not going to get in the way of much. Any team that plays with pace gets just about whatever they want when they do get the ball. This has been a problem for a while now, and the main reason Barça has crashed out of the last two Champions Leagues in furious and hilarious fashion (3-0 to Roma, 4-0 to Liverpool, both in the second leg when holding commanding leads after the first leg). When teams get at them, they cannot clot the wound.
Barça has drawn three of its last four matches, and in none of them could they claim to be hard done by. The expected goal-counts of those draws, what each team’s chances suggested they “should” score, were 0.8-0.83 against Sevilla (ended 0-0), 1.92-2.13 against Celta Vigo (ended 2-2), and 1.44-1.87 against Atletico (ended 2-2). Barca were conceding the same quality and quantity of chances they were creating, despite having way more of the ball.
Bad results are one thing, but reports this week have been rampant that the team is turning on its manager, Quique Setién. Players weren’t thrilled with Antoine Griezmann’s introduction with 10 minutes to go, as Griezmann proceeded to stumble around waywardly like the town drunk as he has all season. Messi, and a lot of the players, have been at odds with Setién since he took over, not enamored with the high-intensity training or other tactics, as well as unhappy that Ernesto Valverde was fired at all with the team leading La Liga.
It seemed to come to a head during the draw with Celta as Messi clearly ignored Setién’s assistant during a water break. Even Jay Cutler had to smile at the derision.
The problems run beyond the manager. There have been cracks and fissures in the hierarchy at the club for months, starting with the hiring of a social media consultant to smear the players. There has been no cohesive plan, and the recent decision to sell Arthur Melo to Juventus in part-exchange for Miralem Pjanić only makes Barcelona older. Arthur at one time was seen as the heir apparent to the midfield anchor that Sergio Busquets has been, and now there doesn’t appear to be any sort of plan to replace him. Pjanić certainly doesn’t.
This also goes with more reports that Barça’s finances will not allow for the splash or two its fans would demand in the offseason, and the squad needs freshening. Luis Suarez’s best days are behind him, Griezmann doesn’t fit, Gerard Piqué is definitely on the back-nine of his career. Those are major problems at both the front and back, along with midfield. So yeah, everywhere. And as Messi slips further into his 30s, his ability to simply military press the entire club to the heights they’re accustomed to wanes.
The slim hope Barça has to make this all okay is to win the Champions League in August. But it wouldn’t be favored should it draw PSG, Munich, or Manchester City, and that’s even if it can negotiate the second leg against Napoli with that tie locked at 1-1. Given its fiery crashes of the past two attempts, no one should be too confident it’ll get this one right.
Barcelona still touts its academy, La Masia, as the gold standard. But it hasn’t produced another Xavi or Iniesta to supplement the declining front line. Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati look promising, and Fati has already started contributing, but they have a long way to go. And Barça doesn’t have that kind of time.
All of it makes it seem like this age of Barcelona, where they’ve been the standard-bearer for the entire sport essentially for 15 years, is coming to a close. They can’t say they haven’t been warned.