By their own astronomical standards, Barcelona have had a poor season. Transfers struggling to adapt and a convincing Champions League defeat in the quarter-finals for the second year running is enough to draw widespread criticism. However, Real Madrid’s first La Liga triumph since 2012 is the ultimate salt in the wounds. So, is this the end of an incredible era? Or is Real’s victory a blip after years of Catalan dominance?
If you look back over Barcelona’s season, results pop up which would have been impossible to think of even a couple of years ago. Despite their incredible comeback (football narrative at its finest), they still lost 4-0 to PSG. It wasn’t just a defeat, it was a domination. After their comeback, the wheels began to fall off the Barca wagon, as Real’s were beginning to set in motion. A 3-0 first-leg defeat to Juventus put the Champions League beyond reach, with a second comeback against one of Europe’s best defences even more unlikely than the first. In the end, the 0-0 draw was merely a formality. Despite winning April’s El Clasico, defeats to Malaga and Deportivo La Coruna in the previous weeks meant a third successive La Liga title was always an uphill battle. So, what lead to losing their Spanish crown and a European humbling?
A major factor which is sometimes glossed over is the transfers in recent years. Replacements for veterans such as Xavi and Dani Alves have failed to fill such massive boots. In fact, recent successes in the transfer market have been few and far between for Barcelona. Valencia arrivals Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes were bought for a combined fee of £55million. The first being a bit-part player all season while the latter has put in several questionable performances, including the PSG drubbing. Other arrivals such as Jasper Cillessen and Lucas Digne have had rare sniffs of first-team action. A glaring miss has been the departure of the evergreen Dani Alves. His bombarding runs and constant energy have cost Barcelona countless assists and no doubt several more goals conceded. Sergi Roberto – centre-mid turned right-back and all round utility player – is, without a doubt, a decent player, but is nowhere near the level of one of Barcelona’s greatest wing-backs.
But it is too simplistic and lazy to say that these signings simply are not good enough. Another reason why they have not adapted is that they are not drilled in the Barcelona way. Such a unique style of play is ingrained in the Barca philosophy, so much so that any player not trained in La Masia takes time to adapt, with many never managing to fit in at all. Signings which fail to understand the philosophy and therefore play with less flair and intricacy may be a reason for this season’s poor performances. Again, referring back to the PSG loss, for example, seven players featured for Barcelona who did not come through La Masia, compared to four who started in the Champions League final-winning team of 2015. It may be a wise idea then, for the next Barcelona manager to dip into the vast pool of youth that La Masia produces.
Another factor must be the man that made the signings himself, Luis Enrique. When managing arguably the world’s biggest football club, with tens, if not hundreds of millions of fans, a couple of traits may come in handy. Charisma, energy and being media-friendly are all plus points when constantly being in the spotlight. Yet, Luis Enrique does not excel in any of those departments. Even the strange genius that is Pep Guardiola had an unmistakable presence and curious attraction. The disconnect with fans and demands of the job, which Enrique himself admitting the latter had a negative effect, both ultimately led to his decision to leave. Any job which forces you into a sabbatical must be a tad draining.
It remains to be seen then, whether the factors which led to Barcelona’s disappointing season will strike again next year. One thing is for sure, good luck to the next manager, they will need it.