I think…maybe…let us talk about it…
So, is Barcelona in crisis? Sort of.
I previously wrote a few articles about the developing issues at Barcelona. Their collapse in the Champions League against Bayern Munich last season spelled the end of the disastrous presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu and really shone a light on just how far the club have fallen over the last few seasons. Things were going horrendously wrong, and it looked as though a former football giant was on the brink of collapse as they were entering a very crucial year in the club’s history. Club legend Ronald Koeman was hired in the summer, tasked with taking control of a runaway train.
Yes, their start to the season was horrendous. It sure did look like this would be the disaster final season that would drive Messi away. Koeman looked in over his head, the older players in the team looked completely over the hill, and poor decisions in the transfer window were making them regret ditching Luis Suárez, who has been phenomenal this season for Atlético Madrid. On top of this, the club is in staggering debt, Bartomeu’s presidency left the club in tatters, and club offices were even raided by Catalan authorities pursuing information on a defamation case now infamously known as “Barçagate”. And yes, the greatest player in their club’s history and arguably one of the three or four greatest players in the history of football was in the final year of his contract with no guarantees he would sign a new one.
That sure does sound like a crisis to me. But for those who have not paid attention to matters on the pitch, things are not exactly going poorly anymore. That horrendous start to the season has been reversed.
Barcelona are currently on a 16 match unbeaten run in the league, which dates back to a 1-0 win over Levante on December 13th. They are also in the Final of the Copa del Rey after completing a phenomenal aggregate comeback against Sevilla in the Semifinals. They are currently second in the league table and firmly in the title race despite starting the season outside of the top four. Yes, they are out of the Champions League, but they at least gave a good account of themselves in the second leg against PSG after a disastrous first leg performance. The only major blemishes on Ronald Koeman’s record over the last two and a half months were the first leg defeats to PSG in the Champions League and Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, as well as a Supercopa de España Final defeat to Athletic Bilbao. Obviously the standards of Barcelona mean this is still not a great season, but it is a far cry from the on-pitch crisis that they were in at the start of the season. It is very much within the realm of possibility that Barça could end the season with a league and cup double.
Now, all of this is largely due to Lionel Messi. He is one of the best players ever, after all, and even at 33 years of age he is still phenomenal. He is currently the league’s leading scorer with 21 goals in just 25 games, and he has added 7 assists to be the league’s joint-second highest assister. Barça have scored 61 goals in the league this season, meaning Messi is responsible for a little less than half of them. He is actually incredible. He is at the center of seemingly everything Barcelona does, and it would still be fairly disastrous if he were to leave the club in the summer.
But, should he leave in the summer (and even if he does not), Barcelona’s rebuild is already showing signs of progress, and the Catalan giants are seemingly developing a young core to build around for the future. Everyone knows about Ansu Fati at this point, and he has shown at times this season that the hype is warranted, and he is not alone. Pedri, the 18 year old dynamic Spanish creative midfielder signed from Las Palmas in 2019 and sent on loan for a season, has probably been the best player under the age of 20 in La Liga this season, and he is among the best players under the age of 20 in Europe at the moment. Riqui Puig, despite not having the full confidence of Koeman upon the Dutchman’s arrival, has continued to show how talented he is. They have found a pleasant surprise in Ronald Araújo, a 20 year old Uruguayan center back promoted to the first team due to injury issues. Despite his age and relative inexperience, he more than held his own when thrown into the deep end. Ilax Moriba has come up from La Masia and demonstrated himself to be another incredible talent, and Óscar Mingueza has also come from La Masia and held his own when Barça faced a defensive injury crisis. Add this on top of the 23 year old Frenkie de Jong, having his best season in Catalonia, and the 20 year old Sergiño Dest, having a strong first season for the Blaugrana, and you have a fairly exciting group of players to build the team around. Even when throwing in Ousmane Dembélé, who is still only 23 and can get his career back on track, and the 21 year old Francisco Trincão, a bright talent with a high potential despite a tough start to life in Catalonia, and you really start to get excited for the future of this team.
I mean, look back at some of those names and take it in. De Jong is bursting into a star in front of our eyes. Fati, Pedri, Moriba, Dest, and Puig all have the potential to be incredibly good, with Pedri and Fati in particular being lined up to be the next world-class attacking talents wearing a Barcelona shirt. Mingueza and Araújo can at least be very useful squad players, and Dembélé can still get his career back on track. If Barça’s faith in Moriba and Mingueza is a sign that they are regaining their trust and belief in their academy, then their future is that much more secure. This obviously does not mean that they would be able to seamlessly transition into a post-Messi era. Should Messi leave at the end of the season, it will still be rough. Losing a player of that level will always be a brutal transition. However, it should be comforting for Barcelona fans knowing that the future of this club is fairly secure. Unlike Real Madrid, who are still largely relying on the core of players that started their Champions League dominance a few years ago, Barça are seeing the future of their club play important roles and produce in the team right now.
And this brings us to what could be the most important change of the last year: in the board room. Bartomeu is out, and replacing him is Joan Laporta, who was president of the club from 2003 to 2010. Laporta is largely well-supported and serves as an image of the better times, as his presidency is often associated with the bright times of the late 2000s, including four league titles, two Champions League triumphs, the famous sextuple in 2009, and the beginning of the Pep Guardiola era. His previous tenure began similarly to this tenure, inheriting a club with aging talent and significant debt. He was previously able to save the club from the mounting debt by working with then-manager Frank Rijkaard to move on the aging talent and build around a new core, which included young starlets brought to Catalonia like Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, as well as a core of home-grown talent including Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta. Oh, and also this young Argentinian kid named Lionel Messi. He would not be president for the peak of this core’s success in the early 2010s, but the foundation he laid set up a decade of Barcelona success.
Seems to be a similar situation, right? Laporta inherits a club dealing with significant financial debt and an aging team, but the young core to build around is already there. Obviously, his previous tenure was not without difficulties, and this one will not be, but it should be reassuring knowing there is a competent leader at the highest level in the club.
So, is there any bad? Are we all just overreacting? Well, again, sort of. I do think the whole “collapse of Barcelona” talk is overblown, and their future is fairly well secured at the moment, especially if they begin trusting their academy again. However, the debt is still a significant issue, and this is paired with quite a few aging or poor-performing senior players that will be very hard to sell. Miralem Pjanić, Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Piqué will be difficult to earn a transfer fee for, and having to wait for their contracts to expire only prolongs the rebuilding process. The jury is still out regarding the success of the “Antoine Griezmann experiment”, and it could end up being a similarly expensive mistake to the Coutinho move. Because of this, it might be difficult for Barcelona to immediately make a big splash in the transfer market. Moves for Erling Håland or Lautaro Martínez, for instance, are probably out of the question in the short term. Should Messi leave, that would alleviate some of the financial concerns due to the gargantuan wage that Messi makes, but it obviously makes the team much worse.
This financial issue, paired with a potential Messi departure, means that things will likely become worse before they become better. There will be some struggle, and this is why Barcelona are not fully “fine”. This struggle leaves plenty of room for things to go horridly wrong and to knock the club off of their rebuilding path, and it is up to Laporta, Koeman, and whoever is responsible for leading the club to maintain a logical and orderly rebuild and not do what Bartomeu and previous leaders did when Neymar left. Panicking or making rash decisions will not work here. Things are going moderately well when it comes to building Barça’s next generation, and there is no reason to deviate from what appears to be working.
And there is the final concern: the unknown. Things seem to be going well now, but will it continue that way? Koeman seems to be the right guy for the job now, but are we really sure that he will work out? If he does not, will they pick the right successor? Will these young players all end up working out? Fallen giants like Milan seemed to have figured it out multiple times before realizing they were false dawns. Because of this, it will be hard to say Barcelona are fully “fine” until they build a successful team without Lionel Messi in it. That is the hardest part of supporting a rebuilding club; things can seemingly be going very well but can go wrong at any instance, and once things begin to go wrong, the rash and errant, ultimately destructive decisions begin to be made.
My view is I think Barcelona are fine-ish. I think Pedri and Fati and De Jong and others will be stars and form the future backbone for the club. I think Koeman is at least doing well enough to earn the trust of the board, even if their long-term goal is to bring Xavi in as manager. I think Joan Laporta at least has the background and familiarity with the sporting vision and internal politics of the club to get things back on track. I am concerned about the debt and think that it will hold them back for a few years, but as long as they do not panic and do something dumb, they will emerge from the other side ready and able to build a team that can contend for league and European honors.
Or I could be completely wrong about all of this. There is always a good chance of that.
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