The White Handkerchiefs Are Out in Barcelona

They wave for Setién, but he is not the only target of their anger…

Featured Image by flo_mendez from Pixabay

The white handkerchief: a symbolic staple of Spanish society. Waiving a white handkerchief is used as an expression of great emotion. Joy, anger, admiration, sadness, the emotion expressed can vary by the scenario.

In the world of Spanish football, they can also have varied meanings, but quite often it is used as a sign of frustration, anger, or to symbolize a demand for change. For example, Real Madrid fans expressed their frustration with their team by waiving white handkerchiefs during Los Blancos’ 2-1 loss to Levante in October 2018, a sign of the fans demanding the resignation of then manager Julen Lopetegui. It is often seen as a sign that things have reached a boiling point and that immediate change is about to happen.

Now, there were no fans in the stands of the match on Friday, and the match was in Lisbon instead of Catalonia, but the effect remains the same.

Barcelona 2, Bayern Munich 8.

We have reached the breaking point in Catalonia. We are at the nadir, rock bottom, the point where change is needed and unavoidable. The club’s first season without winning a single trophy since 2007-08. Whether they be virtual, waiving from home, or whatever witty tag line you want to attach to it, the white handkerchiefs are waiving.

Bayern’s 8-2 win over Barcelona on Friday took many people by complete surprise. Even those who predicted a simple Bayern win did not predict the rout that ensued at the Estádio da Luz that evening. It was comprehensive for Bayern and calamitously embarrassing for Barcelona. For those who have read this blog or listened to my ramblings about football for a while, Bayern being this good is already broken news. I have long believed Bayern were among the best teams in Europe and should rightfully be considered favorites for the Champions League this season and next. Are they perfect? Not at all, and even in an 8-2 drubbing, there were still signs of trouble for the Bavarians that could be exploited by future opponents. However, this is more the story of Barcelona, of a storied football club that has reached rock bottom, finally realizing the scope of what needs to be reformed for them to return to the top.

Manager Quique Setién will likely bear a large brunt of the criticism for this embarrassment, just as Ernesto Valverde did for Barça’s previous European embarrassments, but there is seemingly now a realization that the meaningful change needing to take place at the club may start with the manager, but it does not end there. This in no way takes blame away from Setién; he most definitely got it wrong against Bayern, tactically and in team selection. Their weird 4-4-2 left them with a midfield that was unable to counteract Bayern’s three man midfield, and the central midfield pairing of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong were passengers, unable to stop Leon Goretzka and Thiago Alcântara from running the show in the middle of the park. They did not have any pace up front to take advantage of Bayern playing an extremely high defensive line, and they also over relied on their fullbacks to provide width in attack, leaving considerable space for the Bayern wingers and fullbacks to attack. They also seemed hell-bent on playing out from the back, playing directly into Bayern’s high press and losing the ball in dangerous areas more often than not while also not taking advantage of opportunities to play long passes over the top of Bayern’s high defensive line. When Barcelona got opportunities to run at the Bayern defense, they looked threatening, but due to the aforementioned issues, those opportunities were few and far between. All of this was readily apparent to many outside viewers by about the half hour mark in the first half, yet Setién did nothing about it. Barcelona made only two substitutions the whole match, with the first one not coming until the beginning of the second half. The pace and attacking dynamism of Ansu Fati was not introduced until the 70th minute, and the energetic Riqui Puig, who could have livened up the Blaugrana midfield, was an unused substitute. He did not change their instruction to play out from the back, even after several very nervy and uncomfortable moments from goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen and the back four trying to deal with the Bayern high press. Setién did a poor job managing the tactics, player selection, and formation of Barcelona in this match. He failed in every regard, but his failure is not the only one.

We have now reached the point where the Barcelona hierarchy must take full responsibility for the current state of the club. President Josep Maria Bartomeu has been under significant pressure this season, with the Antoine Griezmann saga and difficulties in sacking and replacing Ernesto Valverde being public black marks on his tenure this year. The political battle within the club this year has been significant, with there being a club presidential election next year. Bartomeu even went as far as to hire a PR firm to conduct a social media smear campaign against former players and others who were critical of his presidency in a wild move to try and help his reelection bid. The drama on the inside has been significant, but examining the club from the outside in, there is no way to justify Bartomeu staying. Sporting-wise, the club has declined under Bartomeu’s leadership. Since Luis Enrique left the club in 2017, they have seemingly been unable to find and back a manager to replace him. More damningly, the player recruitment and development strategy has been a significant failure. Under Bartomeu’s leadership, they have chopped and changed directors of football seemingly at will, with current director Eric Abidal likely being on the chopping block after only two years in the position. Under Bartomeu, they have spent nearly a billion Euros on transfers and, apart from the three initial signings of Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitić, and Marc-André ter Stegen, it is hard to pick out one player that has unequivocally worked out. The €222 million they got for Neymar was panic-spent, with ideal replacements Dembélé, Coutinho, and Griezmann so far not working out. They have now reached a position where they are still reliant on the 33-year-old Gerard Piqué, the 32-year-old Sergio Busquets, the 33-year-old Suárez, and, most damningly so, quite over-reliant on a 32-year-old Lionel Messi. Not only has nearly a billion Euros of spending arguably made the team worse, but it has put Barcelona in a precarious financial situation where they must sell players, likely at a loss compared to what they paid for them, in order to balance the books and undo the financial damage caused. The infamous Arthur-Miralem Pjanić swap deal was even more about financial balancing rather than sporting improvement. The financial situation at the club is that dire.

Youth development from Barcelona’s famed La Masia Academy has also stunted, and while the issues began before Bartomeu, they have only worsened since. He inherited an academy that violated FIFA’s rules regarding signing youth players, which led to the club losing the likes of André Onana, Takefusa Kubo, and Ian Carlo Poveda. While Bartomeu may not have had much control over that, the lack of sporting direction and long-term developmental vision from the hierarchy of the club, likely due to him sacking several directors of football, led to an exodus of youth talent. Eric García, Dani Olmo, Álex Grimaldo, Mateu Morey, Xavi Simons, and Pablo Moreno were among the notable talents to leave Catalonia due to lack of first team chances or lack of developmental trust in the system, and those first three especially are shining in greener pastures since leaving. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig have played a role in the first team this season, but one could argue that their role should be expanded if they want any hope of a smooth transition from the older generation to the new one. Meanwhile, Carles Aleñá has found finding first team opportunities quite difficult, and they have sold the once promising Carles Pérez to Roma after very few first team opportunities. Youth development, while not as financially crucial for a club as big as Barcelona, has been a lifeline for the continuation of the club as a world footballing power. La Masia is renowned for being arguably the best developmental academy in the world, building the backbone of the successful Barcelona teams of the 2000s and 2010s. Poor management of the system has stunted the development of the club and led to them missing out on several very prominent young stars, being forced to spend heavily to try (and in this case fail) to keep the team at a high level.

There are issues at Barcelona, and simply hiring a new manager will not change them. There needs to be significant reform from the top down, and the buck stops on the desk of Bartomeu. He is up for election next year, but following the embarrassment against Bayern, I would anticipate the elections would be pushed forward to begin the necessary changes much sooner. It is likely that Bartomeu himself will not stand for reelection after this, but some sort of continuation candidate will go in his stead. The direction of one of the biggest sporting institutions in the world is at stake, and a reform candidate’s success might be necessary. They work with another added ticking time bomb: Messi’s contract with the club runs out in 2021. There has been very little indication that he wants to renew, and he has gone so far as to halt all negotiations with the club over a new deal. It is incredibly apparent to everyone watching just how reliant Barcelona have been on Messi the last few seasons. If he is not performing well, Barcelona are not able to function. If the club are not able to right the ship quickly and convince Messi to stay for a little while longer, or if they are not able to properly prepare for the post-Messi era, then things could get a whole lot worse.

Enough is enough, Barcelona. The white handkerchiefs are waiving. Change is needed, and it cannot wait any longer.

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