Barcelona is in Trouble – What’s Happening at the Camp Nou?
When Barcelona lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in August the soccer world was shocked. But it was more the scoreline, rather than the result, that seemed incredible. After a season where more head coaches came and went – and Lionel Messi publically questioned his future at the Camp Nou – the defeat seemed an apt way to finish off the campaign.
The shortened offseason threw up more problems – on and off the pitch – and Barcelona now finds itself languishing in mid-table and dealing with the surprise resignation of its club president. What exactly is going on at the Camp Nou? And how can the famous Catalan club turn things around to make 2020/21 anywhere near a success?
Lionel Messi may have shocked everyone when he demanded to be allowed to leave Barcelona in the summer, but these problems did not suddenly appear last season. Barcelona might be one of the most successful soccer clubs in Europe, with a way of playing the game that has been used as a template by players and clubs around the world, but things have been going very wrong at the Camp Nou for quite a while now.
When Barcelona won the treble in 2015, including the Champions League, everything seemed rosy. A new president had just been elected and there seemed to be a lot of hope for a future in which the entire club would be run in the same successful manner as the team had played out on the pitch. But five years later, there have been no more triumphs in the Champions League and possibly the finest player ever to pull on the Barcelona shirt wants to leave.
The financial problems have been bubbling in the background for a few years now but the 2017 sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain was supposed to fix all that. His €222m transfer tag should have allowed Barcelona to reinvest in some of the best players in the world, while balancing any existing debts. But that’s not the way it went. The players brought in to replace him were either unused or loaned out to other clubs and regarded as failures.
Since 2015 Barcelona has spent over $1bn on players but has won nothing outside Spain. When the club attempted to bring Neymar back the summer before last, the willingness was there by all parties involved – but the money wasn’t. Neymar was supposed to be the future of the club when he originally joined. But first he was allowed to leave – and then there were not enough funds in the bank to give him another go.
Last Season’s Problems
The 2019/20 season will be remembered around the world as one of the strangest on record. The COVID pandemic suspended play – and then extended the season to fulfill fixtures and decide league and other tournaments. In the end, Barcelona ended up winning nothing at all and left the biggest humiliation to last in that thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich. Lionel Messi wanting to leave only added to the misery but even that seemed to be very ‘on trend’ for the year.
Although there were the ongoing problems off the pitch, the season looked like it initially might be a success. Exciting youngster Frenkie de Jong was signed from Ajax and he joined Antoine Griezmann whose €120m buyout clause was triggered so that he could leave Atletico. There were some questions about how all these players would fit into the side, but hopes were high that a third successive La Liga title could be won. But the 1-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao on the opening day of the campaign only foretold how the rest of the season would go.
When Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele were ruled out for the rest of the season with injuries and the club was granted permission to complete the emergency signing of Martin Braithwaite from Leganes, the move was met with outrage from the Madrid club and much of the rest of Europe.
Barcelona then lost to Real Madrid in the Bernabeu at the start of March – the first time that had happened in the league since 2014. By the end of the month the entire La Liga season had been suspended due to the coronavirus. Barcelona never really recovered once the league restarted in June and ended up trailing bitter rivals Real Madrid by five points by the end of the season. Then there was the embarrassment of the Bayern game to finish things off.
Lionel Messi Problems
There is an argument that suggests that even with everything that happened at Barcelona last season – and for a few years before – it would all have been fine if Lionel Messi was happy. But he really wasn’t. The running of the club had been annoying the Argentinian superstar for a number of seasons, but everything came out in the open at the beginning of 2020.
The club seemed to suffer crisis after crisis – much of its own doing. After drawing the city derby with Espanyol in January, head coach Ernesto Valverde was sacked. The club was still top of the league at that point but the performances had been criticized for showing a lack of style. Former player Xavi was heavily courted to be Valverde’s replacement but Quique Setien ended up overseeing the team for the remainder of the season. He may have promised a return to the days of Xavi and Iniesta on the pitch, but we all know how that turned out.
But for Messi it was the reaction of some of the officials within the club that had the biggest impact. Sporting director Eric Abidal (another former player) seemed to suggest that some of the players had played a major part in Valverde’s sacking. When Messi heard about the accusation he demanded that Abidal say exactly what he meant and to name names. This very public spat was the biggest sign, to that date, that Messi was unhappy with the way the club was being run.
In an attempt to balance the books there was a slew of departures that brought in little in the way of actual transfer money but saved millions in wages. Arda Turan finally left after years of not playing, Arthur joined Juventus – but the deal included Miralem Pjanic coming the other way to appease the accountants – and Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal also left the Camp Nou.
But the transfer deal that angered Lionel Messi the most was the sale of strike partner Luis Suarez to Atletico Madrid. Messi took to social media to show his frustration for the way the club was being run but seemed resigned to the fact that that was the way things were at Barcelona now. Suarez obviously didn’t want to leave but was forced out, while Messi looked longingly at the exit but was refused his wish to go.
This Season’s Problems
After Quique Setien was sacked in the wake of the Bayern humiliation, Ronald Koeman was announced as the new head coach. It seemed a strange appointment and there were questions raised about how his favored formations and tactics would go down with the players – and whether Lionel Messi would be happy with this latest decision by the board.
Koeman’s decision not to include talented youngster Riqui Puig in the first team squad seems like a strange decision, especially considering that the new center back and center forward that most people believed the team desperately needed never arrived in the transfer window. Two convincing wins over Villarreal and Celta Vigo in the first two games looked like papering over the cracks once again. But there have been no victories since then in the league and another crisis seems to be on the horizon.
First there was a draw with Sevilla at home, before a shock defeat to Getafe. But then Barcelona fell 3-1 to Real Madrid in El Clasico – in the Camp Nou. After another draw, against Alaves, the club sits in 12th position after six games.
Messi might have taken some comfort from the surprise early resignation of club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who announced his departure by also stating that the club would be part of a new European Super League. With new elections scheduled for next year, there may now be even more uncertainty surrounding the club, with the expected arrival of Xavi as new head coach putting Koeman’s ongoing status in doubt.
The one shining light has been the Champions League, where Barcelona has won both its opening group stage games. The most recent victory came in Turin against Juventus, with Messi scoring a stoppage time penalty to confirm the win. He hasn’t actually scored from open play yet this season though and the goals of another young star, Ansu Fati, have been vital in keeping the club as high as it is in La Liga.
What Now for Barcelona?
Although Real Madrid beat Barcelona in the season’s first Clasico, one of the problems with the Camp Nou club is that it seems as though all of the big Spanish clubs have fallen behind when it comes to winning trophies in Europe. With inflated squads and wages, Barca, Real and Atletico all struggled last season and the likes of Bayern and PSG look the more exciting prospects at the moment.
But Barcelona is a special case even within that La Liga bubble. Lionel Messi is completely correct in despairing of the way the club has been run over the past few years. Millions have been wasted on transfers, while some of its best players have been allowed to leave.
Even though both Real and Barcelona are in unfamiliar league positions at the moment, the wealth and resources of both clubs do mean that they will undoubtedly be battling for the title towards the end of the season. At this point, it would seem that the Madrid side would come out on top but that is far from certain. What is needed from Barcelona is a very good Champions League campaign. But even that might not be enough to keep Lionel Messi happy.
It is unlikely that Messi will play another season at Barcelona at this point – even if Xavi or Pep Guardiola return as the head coach for the 2021/22 campaign. There have been massive highs for the Catalan club since Messi joined as a teenager but mismanagement and fragile egos have turned it into a place of chaos and crisis. It seems unthinkable that Barcelona could go yet another season without winning a trophy. But if Messi leaves that won’t be the biggest problem that any new president or head coach will face.