It couldn’t end any other way, especially when you bone it and get zipped by Rayo Vallecano to fall to ninth in the La Liga table.
Barcelona had no choice but to axe Ronald Koeman as manager. He was always overmatched for this post, and no amount of cueing up the highlight of him scoring the winning goal in Barca’s first Champions League win was going to change that.
This is what you get for hiring a manager that biffed it at Everton. The writing was on the wall from his very first weeks on the job, when he booted Luis Suárez off the team by phone, and then watched Suárez spearhead Atletico Madrid right by him and Barca to the title last season.
We all know where Barca want to go from here, and that’s to sign their former legendary player Xavi as manager. This is the Barcelona way, to stay insular. Koeman was supposedly someone who “got” Barcelona because he played there. Whether Xavi is a great manager or not, we won’t know until he shows up. He’s only managed in Qatar, and while he’s won the league there, you figure out what that means.
It’s a popular narrative for Barca, and one they think is possible whenever they snap their fingers. They’re under this illusion that they just produce teams and managers and that they can essentially be on autopilot and that anyone who is at least familiar with the workings of the club can manage it. Maybe Xavi is a great tactical mind — maybe he isn’t. He certainly buys a lot of good faith with the supporters considering his status and their desperate need for any good news. Especially if it links back to their golden era. But “Remember when…” isn’t a sound business strategy.
The truth is that Barcelona has produced one great team, one great manager, and everything else flows from that. The core of Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué, Busquets, and Messi, came through La Masia in 2005 or so, Guardiola took hold in 2008, and, from there, either that squad or the remnants of it hauled in eight league titles and three Champions League trophies. But it was one batch. Guardiola has gone on to find success with Munich and Manchester City, so maybe he was just a unique, brilliant coaching mind that just happened to come through Barcelona. It doesn’t mean they automatically produce the next one.
They’ve tried. We’ll never know about Tito Villanova, who sadly became ill and passed away after just one year on the job. They tried an outsider with Tata Martino, partly due to his relationship with Messi. He lost the league to Atletico while also exiting the Champions League at their hands. Out he went after one season. Luis Enrique, a former player, came in and tried to change the way Barca play. With the frontline of Messi, Neymar, and Suárez, Enrique eschewed the slower, possession-based ways of before and instituted a more direct, “let’s get the ball up to the best forward line in history as quickly as we can and let them fuck shit up!” system. They won the league twice in two seasons and a Champions League, and the fans basically hated him for it. That’s not the Barca way! Ernesto Valverde came in and won the league twice as well, but Messi and Suárez and Busquets and Iniesta were still around. Of all the Barca men since Guardiola, do we know if they were great managers or just smart enough to get out of the way of a great squad still in place?
It’s the same story on the playing side. Since that golden generation came through, has Barca produced much of anything? Suárez, Neymar, Rakitic, ter Stegen, Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves… they all came from somewhere else. There have been bit-part players coming through the system since, but less and less have formed the spine of the team. More and more it starts to feel like they produced Messi and his cohorts, and want to claim/believe that they always will and that can always happen and that La Masia is some sort of soccer Wonka factory. It isn’t.
And the problem for Barca now is that it has to. Without some financial shenanigans, always a distinct possibility in Spain, they aren’t going to be able to afford massive transfers to pull them out of this. Is there a better team in this version than Koeman was able to pull out? It’s hard to see. Where will the improvements come from? At best they’re going to have to be efficient and smart in the transfer market, and that hasn’t exactly been their specialty (points at Ousmane Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho and chokes on vomit).
And they need a new batch of homegrown stars. Maybe it’s Ansu Fati. Maybe it’s Pedri. But they’re 18. It wasn’t so long ago when it was going to be Thiago and Sergi Roberto and Rafinha and crew to take on the torch. They’re either elsewhere or just squad players now.
Barca doesn’t have some magic formula. They were able to produce maybe the greatest team of all time and live off that harvest for a decade and a half. But now they’re just like anyone else, except… they have no money. Maybe the answers don’t come from inside after all.