I’m sure Barcelona, both their fans and the club itself, are tired of signs and symbols of how far they’ve fallen. Must get repetitive. Blockin’ out the scenery breakin’ their mind by this point. But their last Champions League game of the season was one of the harshest yet.
It had sort of broken Barcelona’s way before their match against Bayern Munich kicked off. As tepid as Barça have been in the competition, when they weren’t being wretched, they still had their fate in their own hands. Win and they were through. Secondly, Bayern Munich had nothing to play for. They’d clinched the group long ago. Third, thanks to a rise in COVID rates in Bavaria, Munich would have to host the games with no fans, so Barça wouldn’t have to counter any kind of atmosphere turning the vibe against them.
So against a team with nothing on the line, in a vacuous, quiet stadium, with their last chance to salvage anything from this season, Barcelona... got pulverized, 3-0.
So it’ll be Thursday nights come the new year for Barça, for however long they stay in the Europa League. An insult to a club like Barça, so they’ll tell you. Depending on their draw, you wouldn’t fancy them to go more than a round or two, which is the real insult. They’re seventh in La Liga, six points out of a Champions League spot for next year, and their margin for error to get back to the top four is basically next to nothing.
And yet none of this has been too bad, if you look at it the right way. Life is perspective, is it not?
The concept of a “rebuild” in soccer is almost non-existent. The pressure on the big clubs is simply too great, even game-to-game, much less season-to-season, to ever back up intentionally for the benefit of the long term. Any other team can’t bottom out because they’ll be relegated, which can cause season-upon-season of trouble for clubs (hi there, Sunderland or Derby or Leeds or Deportivo). You can’t just strip everything down to the studs and start over, because you may lose the studs, too.
But in this case, Barça has the opportunity. As bad as they’ve been, they’re not going to get relegated. No matter who they lean on for the rest of the season, there will be enough talent to never really have to think about relegation. They’ve already installed their coach who they hope and believe can restructure the first team, so they don’t have to worry about finding someone to implement a new style. They’ve got that in Xavi, who also buys time with the fans and media, given his connection to the club.
Which means Xavi can spend the rest of the season finding out what he has in Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo, Gavi, Yusuf Demir, Ricard Puig, Sergiño Dest, Nicolas Gonzalez, Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, and Ansu Fati if he ever gets healthy for twelve consecutive minutes. There aren’t stakes anymore for them to screw up. They can’t win the league, they’re out of the Champions League, the top four is a stretch, and who knows how much they can care about the Europa League. Even that they can treat as an audition for their younger players.
The fear is that Barça need the money from the Champions League so badly, that if they don’t make it next year they’ll be in even more trouble than they are now. That could be the case, but given just how badly the club is in debt and all the things they have to solve anyway, it’s likely that Barça wouldn’t have had much more than the change you find in the car ashtray to spend on new players come the summer anyway. Hopes for a massive summer shopping spree were forlorn at best.
We’ve seen this sort of forced rebuild before. It was Chelsea two years ago. They were put under a transfer ban by UEFA, meaning heading into the 2019-2020 season they couldn’t sign anyone new (though Christian Pulisic was allowed to join up as he had been signed right before the ban went into place and was loaned back to Dortmund). Which meant they just had to make do with what was on hand. Granted, they had more in the cupboard than Barcelona have now, but they still had to rely heavily on the likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, thanks to the minutes that Chelsea had no choice but to give them. Mount and Reece James played themselves into pillars of the current European champs. Abraham and Kurt Zouma played themselves into profitable sales to other clubs. Andreas Christensen came in from the cold to at least be a regular/rotation player now.
Again, it’s a rough comparison, because Chelsea still had Jorginho, Kante, Rudiger, Kovacic from previous seasons to go along with the youngsters they had to use. Barça have maybe Frenkie De Jong, Memphis Depay as long-term pieces. The rest like Alba or Busquets or Piqué are old enough to only be counted on for only a year or two. And that’s if De Jong and Depay want to stick around a non-Champions League club.
Still, it’s rare that a club like Barcelona can have all the pressure, all the stakes, removed for half a season like this one has. This is almost a blank slate. This kind of opportunity probably won’t come around again. If Barça still thinks it can produce anything like their golden generation again, this is the perfect setting for it. Or to find out that they can’t and have to build a new plan. It’s time for Barça to finally admit where they are.