Not so long ago, Barcelona were undoubtedly the team to beat and were one of the best football sides to ever grace the sport.
The Blaugrana won the treble of the La Liga title, the Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League in the 2008-09 season, followed by the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and the Spanish Super Cup.
As a result, Barcelona became the first major football club in Europe to clinch a sextuple. The Catalan giants continued their success by winning yet another Champions League in the 2010-11 season.
The immense success of Barcelona was unique because the first team was primarily made up of homegrown players, trained and moulded by the esteemed La Masia.
The 2008-09 sextuple winning side had 11 La Masia graduates in the 29-man squad. The number of La Masia graduates in the first team rose to 19 and 24 in the next two seasons respectively.
Barcelona became a testimony to the fact that investment in youth and grassroots always pays off in the longer run. The Catalans always had a like-minded approach since the Johan Cruyff-managed years.
While their rivals, Real Madrid would break the bank and buy top players, Barcelona would focus on promoting their academy graduates.
The system brought immense success to the Camp Nou, with Barcelona players even forming the crux of the Spanish national team, which won the two Euros and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012.
However, things have not been the same ever since. Barcelona have failed to win the Champions League in the last four seasons and also missed out on the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey in the present campaign.
The current Barcelona side are looking at a potential trophyless season after 13 years, and the board should get the majority of the blame.
A change in policy
A Catalan nationalist and a member of the Catalan Parliament, Joan Laporta was elected as Barcelona’s president in 2003. Laporta took over a grim Barcelona through a vote of no-confidence against out-going president Enric Reyna.
Barcelona had failed to win a single trophy since the 1998-99 season, while Los Blancos won nine trophies, including two Champions League titles. Laporte appointed Frank Rijkaard as the head coach and pumped millions of Euros in La Masia.
Fueled by Catalan nationalism, he focussed on homegrown talents over buying too many players from other clubs. Rijkaard was a successful bet as the Dutchman guided the team, which was made around Ronaldinho, to a Champions League and two La Liga titles among other honours.
However, the success did not last long, and Barcelona finished trophyless in the 2007-08 season. Joan Laporte then brought in an inexperienced manager in the form of former Barcelona star, Pep Guardiola to fuel some fresh blood into the team.
Guardiola’s tenure at the Camp Nou made Barcelona one of the strongest sides in the world. He won 14 trophies in four years, including two Champions League titles.
However, during Guardiola’s managerial stint in Catalonia, Laporta was removed, with Sandro Rosell succeeding him as Barcelona’s president in 2010.
Rosell’s ideologues were opposite to those of Laporta. He believed in the commercial success of the club and was inclined towards signing top players over promoting homegrown talents.
He removed several coaches in La Masia and replaced them with favourable people. Johan Cruyff resigned in protest due to extreme intervention of the Board in the academy.
Rosell penned the principle sponsorship deal with Qatar Foundation as part of his commercialization of the Blaugranes in 2010. Barcelona used to feature UNICEF as part of their global charity on their kits and did not have a Global Principle Sponsor until then.
Rosell then signed Neymar Jr, but the deal was extremely flawed. The 56-year-old was soon found guilty of tax evasion in an attempt to generate larger revenue from the deal and went to prison after FIFA’s intervention.
Josep Bartomeu, who was the Barcelona vice president during Rosell’s tenure and had a similar mindset, became the president of the club 2014.
Josep Bartomeu – the problem
Josep Bartomeu changed the club membership system at Barcelona. The foreign members lost the right to vote in presidential elections, and only the Catalans were eligible to vote.
This move came into implementation with the prolonged use of media. Catalan media houses like Mundo Deportivo and Catalunya Radio are closely associated with Barcelona.
The media houses started to run stories favouring the board and hid the mismanagements in La Masia, followed by fund appropriation by the club hierarchy.
The propaganda led by the media was done in exchange for exclusive stories from the club. Media has been running stories since 2014, promoting Lionel Messi as the talisman of the club. There have been scores of stories showing Messi as the final deciding factor in Barcelona’s transfer moves.
Headlines like ‘Lionel Messi seals the deal for XXX midfielder from YYY club,’ became a norm. Such stories fed to the Catalan population allowed the board to stay in a favourable position with the Barcelona fans in Catalonia as the club hierarchy plundered La Masia and had a spree of transfer market failures.
Barcelona made some big-money signings by bringing in Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Ivan Rakitic in 2014. The Luis Enrique-led Barcelona side performed and won the treble in the 2014-15 season.
However, the team composition was different from the past two Champions League-winning sides. The focus was on big-money players rather than on La Masia graduates.
Multiple trophy winners such Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Cesc Fabregas, followed by midfield kingpins, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez left in the next three years. However, the board failed to replace the experienced campaigners.
The gap created by Iniesta and Xavi’s departure was the most impactful in Barcelona’s performance at the top.
The likes of Arda Turan, Lucas Digne, Samuel Umtiti, Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Yerry Mina, Paulinho, Ousmane Dembele, Phillipe Coutinho, Jean-Claire Todibo, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jeison Murillo, Malcolm, and Arthur Melo were brought in to fill the void.
However, none of them could replace the duo of Xavi and Iniesta. The lack of man management and like-for-like scouting has resulted in disastrous transfers for the club.
For instance, Ousmane Dembele, who just scored six Bundesliga goals for Borussia Dortmund, was signed for €150 million. Signings like Boateng, Paulinho, and Umtiti also raised a lot of questions on the scouting capabilities of Barcelona.
Decent signings like Phillipe Coutinho, Malcolm, and Arthur have been managed disastrously. Even before they could prove themselves properly, they were forced out of the club.
The situation involving Malcolm was extremely unprofessional. Barcelona edged out AS Roma for his signature, and he was then sold to Zenit Saint Petersburg within a year.
Arthur was thought to be the replacement for Xavi Hernandez, with the Brazilian possessing similar playing style and passing traits to the ex-Spanish international. However, the board messed up his stay at the club and he was often humiliated indirectly by the press.
Arthur was recently sold to Juventus for €10 million, and a 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic with a fat wage bill was signed. Barcelona have now spent €560 million on various signings in the last four years but have failed to form the crux of the team.
Marc Bartra and Paco Alcacer, who proved their mettle at the club, were also sold for reasons incomprehensible to an average football pundit.
Selling young and talented players, who were bought recently, along with academy prospects for older names have been hampering the first team’s performances for a while.
The La Masia mismanagement is a different tale in itself. Josep Bartomeu’s administration brought the La Masia 360 Project. This resulted in a change of coaches which lead to internal conflicts, bad nutrition and focus on risk and data analysis over the Barca DNA.
The newer coaches no longer focus on total football with the tiki-taka style but instead concentrate on winning games using data analysis. The academy residency has also been messed up with audio-visual and analysis rooms turned into offices and staff rooms.
The dormitories which were meant for academy players have been turned into hostels for the youth sides, forcing players from weaker financial situations to pull out from the academy.
The sudden change in policy at La Masia has affected the supply chain, which has also been forcing the board to look for players from other clubs.
The lack of chances to promising academy prospects like Christian Tello, Gerard Deulofeu, Denis Suarez, Munir El Haddadi, Sergi Samper, Carles Alena, Marc Cucurella, Juan Miranda and Carles Perez is frightening even by Barcelona’s new standards.
Most of them are now transferred or loaned out to other clubs in Europe.
The shambolic administration of Bartomeu has been under scrutiny for some time. His arrogance and quest to hold power as long as he is able to, have deterred relationships within the Barcelona board.
Directors of the board like Emili Rousard, Enrique Tombas, Silvio Elias, Josep Pont, Maria Teixidor, and Jordi Calsamiglia resigned due to mismanagement on the part of Bartomeu in April 2020.
The managerial conundrum at Barcelona
The Barcelona board took a lot of time to make a decision on the future of Ernesto Valverde. After two consecutive losses in the UEFA Champions League knock-out stages in dramatic fashion against AS Roma and Liverpool respectively, the board had to make a decision and bring in a new coach.
However, the board delayed the decision and allowed Valverde to continue. The former Athletic Bilbao boss heavily relied on individual performances rather than working on the team as a whole.
His mindset was just to win as many games as possible by allowing Lionel Messi to score. To be fair to Valverde, it did work to some extent. However, a single player cannot drag a whole team all the time.
Messi has been failing to lead the team in crucial games, and the over-dependence on the Argentine has cost Barcelona several important matches.
If Messi fails to step up, the entire Barcelona team look clueless. Valverde also was unable to work on the mindset problem at Barcelona.
After the 0-3 defeat to AS Roma in the Champions League quarter-final second-leg in 2017-18, the team and the fans were never the same. Such defeats change the mentality of the team.
Barcelona did not look mentally ready to score even a single goal at Anfield the following season and lost 4-0. The remnants of the loss at the Stadio Olimpico kept flashing in the minds of the players, and it showed on the pitch.
In contrast to Ernesto Valverde’s approach, his successor, Quique Setien has been working on the team. He has been fielding formations like 4-5-1. 4-3-3. 4-4-2. 4-1-2-3. 4-1-3-2 and 3-5-2.
He has been rotating the squad in almost every game to find a perfect solution for this ageing team. However, too many changes have affected the results of the team and Barcelona ended up conceding the La Liga title race to Real Madrid. They now just have the UEFA Champions League to play for.
Setien has worked brilliantly with youngsters like Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. He has given ample chances to the young academy graduates.
But all is certainly not well with him. Setien seems to have almost no control over his team. He has been accused of being afraid of making brave decisions like benching misfiring veteran players such as Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal.
Reports in Spain suggest that players are ganging up against Quique Setien as they are not happy with his approach.
The power struggle between the manager and the players hit the headlines during the water-break in the game against Atletico Madrid. The Barcelona stars seemed disinterested in listening to Setien’s instructions.
It is always easy to blame one person over the failure of an entire team. The ageing team of Barcelona is also one of the many reasons Setien taking such an approach.
The experienced players do not want to learn new ways to play and perform, they are averse to changes. Barcelona are one of the world’s top teams with the highest wages. Players prefer to stay at the club as long as possible to earn a fat paycheque.
Youngsters need to be promoted to the first team as they are keen to learn and show intent on the pitch. The Barcelona players have to stop playing for themselves and start playing for their manager.
The way forward
Josep Bartomeu, the main man behind the colossal failure of Barcelona in recent years, is set to retire from the presidential office next year, with the next elections due in the summer of 2021.
The club members need to elect someone on the lines of Joan Laporta – a Catalan nationalist, a disciple of Johan Cruyff and a believer in La Masia.
Quique Setien is working on finding a perfect team, and he deserves to continue at the club. If he fails to do well in the Champions League and the misery of results continue early into the next season, Barcelona have to go the ‘son-of-the-soil’ way.
Club legends have pulled Manchester United, Chelsea, and Real Madrid out of misery. Club legends such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Frank Lampard, and Zinedine Zidane are respected by their charges and fans alike.
They do not comply with the management at ease and are known to shift the power battle in the team to their favour. Club legends taking over the managerial role and bringing in young talents are more likely to succeed at Barcelona.
The recent examples of Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola seem to be the way forward for the Catalan side. Someone like Xavi, Carles Puyol, or Ronald Koeman could return the glory days of the Blaugranes.
Also Read: Barcelona: 3 possible replacements for under-fire Quique Setien