Well, it was a good run while it lasted. After basically an entire calendar year of almost—almost—nothing but unbridled joy, Barcelona, their fans, and the media covering the club, have switched back to their natural setting: pure freak-out mode.
If there’s one thing this iteration of Barcelona should’ve earned by now, it’s trust. Trust that these players, among the very best at their respective positions, have the ability to win trophies. Trust that this manager, who orchestrated what remains an almost unfathomable reversal of fortune last season, knows how to get the best out of his team by keeping them physically sharp, mentally motivated, and tactically prepared. Apparently, many have studiously avoided these lessons of the past couple seasons and see a team that is still strongly favored to win La Liga and the Copa del Rey as a team in crisis.
For their part, the team has done nothing to stem the apocalyptic rhetoric with their play on the field. Barcelona have come dangerously close to ruining their season.
Mere weeks ago, Barça were on top of the world. They had nine-point and 10-point leads in La Liga over Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, respectively, an enormous cushion that, with just eight matches left in the season, all but guaranteed them their second straight league title. In the Champions League, where they hoped to become the first team to win the competition in consecutive seasons, they had an eminently winnable matchup against an Atlético team that always plays them tough but rarely comes out victorious.
They had earned all this momentum on their quest for back-to-back trebles (they’ve already won a spot in the Copa del Rey final) thanks to a landmark 39-match unbeaten streak. For the worst-case scenario to come to pass, Barça—a team that hadn’t lost since early October—would likely have to lose at least once to Atlético in the Champions League, take Ls in four of their eight final matches in La Liga, and top it off by losing the final game of the season to Sevilla in the Copa. Somehow, they’re well on their way.
Barça started April out by losing their first game of the month, the Clásico against Real Madrid, which was disappointing but not overwhelmingly so. Barça would have to really bungle things to lose the league, and it made sense that these players who had expended so much energy over so many games for two entire years would take it a little easy in a league match that had little value for them outside of the simple pleasure of getting one over on their chief rival.
Then the Champions League match against Atlético happened, and things got a little more sketchy. Atleti jumped out to an early lead, scoring that all-important away goal, and generally causing a lethargic Barcelona tons of problems early on. Thanks to Fernando Torres’s dumb decision-making that earned him two quick yellows and put his team down a man, Barça managed to salvage things and came back to win, 2-1. They definitely could’ve and should’ve scored more on the day, and their consistently questionable finishing was cause for some concern, but again, not too much. Avoid defeat in Madrid for the next leg, and Barça would yet again find themselves in the semifinals as favorites to win the whole thing.
The league match that following weekend was when the idle concerns about Barça turned into genuine, if still measured, worry. There, a flat-out poor Blaugrana team went into the home of Real Sociedad, the site of their meltdown-causing loss the season prior, and lost again. With that they’d coughed up almost all of that massive points lead, and much more disturbingly, they hadn’t put together a complete performance in nearly a month, since the Arsenal game in mid-March.
Then Barça lost to Atlético. Then they lost to Valencia. And now they are out of the Champions League, have no margin for error in La Liga, and might watch what could’ve been the greatest two-season stretch of all time burn to a crisp in the most agonizing, humiliating fashion.
The players and manager are obviously both spooked and enraged at what’s threatening to happen. You could tell from their change of demeanor during last weekend’s match against Valencia that the Barcelona squad is terrified. Right after the visitors benefitted from an Ivan Rakitić own goal 26 minutes in, the Barça players panicked. Everyone was jittering and frantically sprinting about, trying to stroke hero passes left and right when the simple option made more sense, trying to score a hat-trick with every kick of the ball instead of calmly trusting their normal gameplan. That trust has apparently deserted the players as well.
This nervous response came very close to working out, as Barcelona completely dominated Valencia the rest of the way, creating scoring opportunities at will against an opponent that for whatever reason was perfectly content to allow Barça as much time and space on the ball as they wanted. And yet it was Valencia that scored the second goal of the day, feasting on a suspect Barcelona defense that hasn’t looked this fragile since the darkest days of the Gerardo Martino regime, while only one of Barça’s many chances made it past the keeper.
What once made even the idea of facing this Barcelona team an exercise in futility—the blind hope that, against all odds, this fearsome, historically great front line of Lionel Messi and Neymar and Luis Suárez could somehow all conspire to have a bad day at the office at the same time—became the norm; neither Messi (who, if he isn’t playing hurt, has to be just dead tired) nor Neymar (who hasn’t even been good, let alone the fully-actualized superstar of his peak form earlier this season, for months) nor Suárez (still hard-working, but now seemingly more prone to the kind of baffling misses that have always blemished his game) have performed up to their regular standards in weeks.
The midfield engine of Rakitić and Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta—which forms both the foundation of Barcelona’s attacking game and the core of a rock-solid defensive strategy built on lung-busting pressing—has arguably suffered the most from this long slog of a season. This is the area of the pitch most affected by Barça’s severe depth problems. While the emergence of Sergi Roberto as a more-than-competent jack of all trades has been a much-needed boon, Rafinha’s injury, Arda Turan’s unavailability for the first half of the season followed by his failure to integrate well in the second half, plus the refusal to get Sergi Samper into the rotation, have all meant that the three preferred midfielders have had to play many more minutes than would’ve been ideal.
As for the defense, Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano have been good, but Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have both squandered too many chances in the final third, failing to do much with all the open space they’re allotted out wide. Along every line of the team, there are serious issues of depth, fatigue, and inexplicably average play.
Understandably, the media has sought answers for what has gone wrong. It is here where the manager, Luis Enrique, has revealed how the recent results have gotten under his skin. Luis Enrique is a proud and brash man who has never had a genial relationship with the Spanish press. Supremely confident, he has at all times during his tenure insisted publicly that he has a firm grasp on his team’s struggles and successes, and that he could come up with solutions.
Seeing as he led Barcelona to the treble his first season, then to the brink of a second one this year, his vision has largely been vindicated. However, the press hasn’t much liked his curt, arrogant, Popovichian comportment in his interactions with reporters, many of who fancy themselves experts in the field or at least as entitled to have their personal theories heard out if not implemented by the Barça boss.
This is why one aptly named reporter questioned Luis Enrique about his strategy of physical preparation of the team, and why Lucho offered a pretty savage jab in return:
A journalist for the Diario Gol website, Victor Malo, asked the manager whether the physical preparation at the club might be to blame for the recent bad results, according to sport-english.com.
Luis Enrique responded by saying: “What was your surname?”
When the journalist replied “Malo” –meaning “bad” in Spanish – the manager said: “Correct, next question.”
Refusing to back down, Lucho made his lack of remorse for barring up Malo at the weekend presser clear again today in front of the media:
“I have nothing to say sorry for. I haven’t lacked respect towards anybody. On the contrary, a lot of the media have lacked respect to me and various members of the club. Many members of the media have done that and I don’t ask them to say sorry. If you don’t like my style, I don’t give a damn. A damn... to say it politely.”
While Luis Enrique is always snappy with the press, these kinds of statements indicate that the budding tumult surrounding the team’s poor form is starting to irk him even more than usual. It’s understandable that he’d feel the need to respond this way; hasn’t his track record here earned him some leeway? Luis Enrique was mocked by certain sectors of the press during the worst times of his first season, called a fraud who was in over his head, too authoritarian and aloof to connect with the players, and too tactically inept to concoct a playing style worthy of the team and its players. After he responded to all those questions by winning everything, even after things looked dire, isn’t he right to expect some deference now?
As a specific matter, the questions about the squad’s physical fitness are fair; they also miss the mark, at least when used to attack the coaching staff. Luis Enrique and his staff have previously been rightfully lauded for keeping the team so fit and energized. The underlying reasons why the team nevertheless does appear gassed at this point—the lack of trustworthy squad depth for the forwards and midfielders; the transfer ban and club’s fiscal rules that inhibited their ability to add more rotation options; injuries; the inevitable mountain of matches that are bound to pile up when the team plays to the end of almost every competition—cannot fairly be used as a rebuke of the managerial staff’s work. If you play so many games with so few rotation options, you’re going to get tired; if you create a ton of chances every game, you’ll score six of them sometimes but other times none will go in and you’ll lose. And even with this fatigue and bad luck, Barcelona are six games away from having another unreservedly great season.
It’s that last fact that should put things in perspective for everyone. Here’s soccer statistician Michael Caley’s La Liga title projection, based on his expected goals model:
Though Barcelona are tied on points with Atlético Madrid and are only one point up on Real, they are still huge favorites. They have the head-to-head advantage on both clubs (the first tiebreaker in La Liga) and thus control their own destiny.
Barcelona don’t face another team in the top half of the table for the rest of the season; meanwhile, Atlético have difficult fixtures against Athletic Club, Málaga, and Celta Vigo, and Real Madrid still must play Villarreal, Real Sociedad, and Valencia—all of that on top of both their Champions League duties. For either Madrid team to win the league, they will need to run the table on their fairly difficult schedule, and still need Barcelona to slip up against at least once flat-out bad team. It’s certainly possible that Barcelona gags this up, especially in light of how far they’ve fallen off the past couple weeks, but even after all this, it’s not exactly likely.
Still, the players are visibly panicky, the manager is pissed, the press is out for blood, and fans are running around shitting their pants. It all feels like an overreaction, but, for Barcelona, it also feels completely, unremarkably normal.