Barcelona are in a state of crisis, of that there can be no doubt. It is potentially the greatest crisis in the club’s history — even including the four decades spent while Spain was run by a right-wing dictator who disliked Catalan culture, banned the language and imprisoned or “disappeared” many from that city and its environs — but question a dozen different people and you’ll almost certainly get a dozen different answers as to what they they believe the true crisis at the club to be.
Ask the 28,000 hardy souls who watched a dismal 1-1 draw at home to previously limp, easily-beatable Granada and they’ll say: “Monday night’s game hit crisis level.”
Ronald Koeman’s team, with a couple of exceptions, showed remarkable variation between being witless, embarrassing, devoid of confidence and bankrupt of ideas. It was 90 minutes of some of the worst football at Camp Nou in living memory. So poor that Koeman could be looking for his next job soon. Although, that is doubtful partly because Barcelona really don’t want to have to pay off his contract and also because they are right in the middle of a set of matches where kicking out the current coach and making a knee-jerk decision about another, even for the interim, would be a gigantic risk.
For some Barcelona watchers, the headline is how this club, this squad and most notably this team copes without Lionel Messi for the first time in 17 years. Others will point out that the club’s staggering level of short, mid-term and long-term debt is sufficient to finish many businesses outside the idiosyncratic, self-indulgent football world. That’s a proper crisis.
And after the last week of tit-for-tat sniping and discord between president Joan Laporta and coach Koeman, there will certainly be those who’d plump for the idea that “crisis” refers to the problems that are evidently doing damage right here and right now.
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Things, if not yet terminal, are patently very far from ideal both between Laporta and Koeman. And, don’t worry, there’s yet another “crisis” to highlight.
When Laporta first won power at Camp Nou, in 2003, Barca had never had a shirt sponsor in their entire history. He not only used the election campaign to trial his backing for sponsorship on the shirt, he and his board chose to re-endorse the radical change with another vote at the first Annual General Meeting after winning the presidential election. Spooked by the idea of putting a gambling firm’s name across the Blaugrana shirt, in 2006 they chose to invest money in humanitarian charity UNICEF so that the debut branding was unique in world football. When Gerard Pique brought Rakuten to the table in 2016-17, the Japanese sponsors injected immensely valuable sums of money.
But two things suggest that the club may soon be hawking the Barcelona shirt around the market as their deal with Rakuten comes to an end in 2022. A video showing Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele mocking Japanese hotel staff during Barcelona’s 2019 preseason tour incurred serious anger from many people, including Rakuten president Hiroshi Mikitani, who demanded immediate explanation and apologies. And Barcelona are now a significantly less attractive brand than it was when Pique put them together with Asia’s equivalent to Amazon — significantly less so.
Few expect Rakuten to renew when the deal ends. Brutal timing. If the financial black hole is crisis No. 1 then it will only spiral catastrophically if Barcelona either have to sell their shirt sponsorship rights below market value or fail to attract an investor.
And don’t forget another crisis: The gradual but increasingly noisy rift between the club and its fans. As the local council raises the limits of how many spectators Barca are allowed to have inside the Camp Nou amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the club is finding it hard to entice the same number of “socio” (members) to attend. At a time when the team crucially needed to feel the roar of belief and defiance from the fans, Monday night’s crowd was pitiful — 13,000 short of what was permitted.
This isn’t, however, exclusively to do with fan disgust at club standards. The pandemic has changed habits, cut many people’s disposable income and left some previously stalwart fans, particularly the elderly, less secure about being in large crowds. But the clear fact remains that Barcelona have a job on their hands to convince some of their fanbase that what they would be coming to see (not just whether or not they’ll get to cheer a win but whether they’ll be entertained) is worth the visit.
Such is the dire state of play that president Laporta put out a personal video before the Champions League match against Bayern Munich last week pleading with the club’s supporters (the video was subtitled in English, but delivered in Catalan) to attend and to roar with positivity. The short version of it was: “Tonight is Champions night. I ask you to motivate our players and our coach more than ever. It’s one of those nights you have to come to the stadium with strength, enthusiasm, pride, and with the Barca shirt to make it clear: Barca has returned! #BarcaBayern.”
Koeman set up a team to defend, to avoid a mauling and to ensure that there was no repeat of the 8-2 the last time the sides met. (Some might say to avoid the kind of humiliating defeat which would have threatened his continued employment.)
What he did not avoid, however, was the ire of his employer. Not only was there an extended emergency board meeting after the comprehensive 3-0 defeat — Julien Nagelsman’s only complaint was that his Bayern team didn’t score more goals — Laporta’s party-political broadcast to club members (culers or cules) the next day was noticeably different. The video’s abridged version was: “A message for all the culers: trust and support our team. Do not doubt that we will solve this situation. ‘Visca el Barca!’”
Spot the difference? Ahead of the Bayern match, it was a plea on behalf of the team and the manager. After the comprehensive defeat, Laporta’s video specifically didn’t mention giving support to Koeman. Read into that what you will, but two things are fundamentally true about Laporta: He doesn’t like it when people don’t follow his orders and he’s a naturally talented, well-planned communicator. The omission of support for Koeman was deliberate.
The previous week, in talks about whether the Dutchman’s contract, which ends in June 2022, should be extended, Laporta told him that a new deal would be conditional on Riqui Puig and Samuel Umtiti being given much more game time and on Barcelona playing attacking, attractive football. Laporta, ill-advisedly, then briefed the media. “I told Koeman to toe the line” was the gist of the message. Koeman objected, in public — stating that Laporta had been shooting his mouth off. Tit-for-tat public squabbling by two of the most powerful and influential men is rarely positive for either the club, the coach or the team.
What’s being obscured is that the biggest crisis Barcelona face right now is the gradual, but disastrous, loss of their modern football identity. The central value for just short of the last 20 years, during which the club lifted more trophies than at any other comparable period in its history and sparked worldwide appreciation for a new brand of football, was the way in which Barcelona believed they should play.
Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Samuel Eto’o, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol were exceptional individuals, but what elevated their teams above the sum of the parts was the entire concept of how to play. The Johan Cruyff-Pep Guardiola concept of possessional and positional football has been consistently eroded over a number of years and, recently, abandoned altogether.
Yes, the pitiful spectacle of centre-backs Ronald Araujo and Pique becoming Barcelona’s best striking options late on against Granada on Monday as the rest of the team lumped the ball into the box as if this were England in the 1980s, proved the complete abandonment of Cruyff-Guardiola football. But it’s not a new development.
Powerful European teams, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Liverpool, Bayern, now expect to beat Barcelona by a handful without reply. Why? Because, as Xavi used to explain at his and the team’s absolute peak, Barcelona play at an outright disadvantage with their big-brained, but small-physique footballers.
The midfield maestro, who should already be coaching this team instead of Qatar Stars League club Al Sadd and re-inculcating the lost values, would always point out that it was the footballing ideals of “keep the ball, make the opponents chase the ball, don’t make mistakes, win possession back rapidly when it’s lost — drive the opponents crazy.” Xavi maintained it helped them defeat, sometimes humiliate, very good football outfits which often possessed advantages in height, power or athleticism.
Spaces on the pitch, ball possession and passing were all used in a radically different way to what Koeman gambled on against Bayern — and radically differently from much of his 3-5-2 football last season. And when these once shimmering concepts are allowed to rust, even just a little bit, the bigger, faster, harder working teams push Barcelona aside. It’s been happening for a few years now.
Now, with the perfect storm of aging players, a departed genius, economic catastrophe and internal feuding, Barcelona are in danger of being stripped stark naked. They can’t compete physically with most teams, whether in Spain or Europe, because they are populated with diminutive stars like Pedri, Jordi Alba, Eric Garcia, Gavi, Nico, Yusuf Demir, Sergi Roberto and slender, elegant footballers like Frenkie de Jong, Busquets and Pique.
What used to happen was that they made the ball their 12th man. It was more than their “friend,” it was their secret weapon. Not now. Europe’s chorus that “The Emperor has no clothes” Is noticeably being picked up in Spain too. Athletic Bilbao chanted it on week two and could easily have beaten Barcelona; Getafe were humming the same tune in a narrow 2-1 defeat at Camp Nou on week three.
Other clubs will find it a catchy melody. So, what’s the remedy?
Barcelona have a squad which, once everyone is fit, could win the title in Spain. It’s feasible. Of much more short-term concern to Laporta, Koeman (if he’s still in charge then) and those who have loaned money to the club to help them survive this dramatic financial crisis, is whether the team can avoid defeat in Lisbon for their second Champions League game next week. Having lost heavily to Bayern, and likely to do so again in Munich, there are potentially only 12 points to play for in Group E. Defeat at Benfica would leave nine points up for grabs — a total via which a club can, no guarantees, qualify for the knockout rounds where vital remuneration lies.
But a loss in Lisbon would require Barcelona to produce a faultless 100% of points against Dynamo Kiev home and away plus a home win against Benfica. Do you fancy their chances?
Laporta is in an invidious position. He returned to power by selling the snake oil that he’d restore not only the good times but the “Cruyff” times. Right now, the financial position is such that the team, by hook or by crook or by playing route-one long-ball football, absolutely must qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds and then stay in the competition for as long as humanly possible. Elimination in the group stages, for the first time since 2000-01, would be cataclysmically disastrous in financial terms
Koeman, evidently, is offering percentage football. Formations and team selections aimed at keeping his job secure but at trying to keep the patched-up XI competitive until, gradually, Alba, Pedri, Sergio Aguero, Ansu Fati and Dembele return.
But Lapota, with Jordi Cruyff on his staff, finds this brand of football, particularly what was on show in the dreadful performance against Granada, anathema to his presidency, his ego, his devotion to Johan Cruyff and, ultimately, to his reputation.
Answer me this: in his position what would you do? Stick with principles, dismiss Koeman and go cap in hand to Xavi to offer him the job? Dismiss Koeman and either persuade Jordi Cruyff to take over or follow his recommendation to poach Roberto Martinez from Belgium? Or to hell with footballing principles — just keep Koeman and back him to the hilt with a prayer that he’s going to be the crisis solver?
Maybe we’ll pass the best answers along to president Laporta. He needs all the help he can get.