There are clubs in world football which have a special feeling to them. No, I don’t mean the modern version which descends into an ‘We have more money than you’ argument. There’s no status symbol to be had with that, as any club could be bought by someone richer. It’s about seeing a team produce something special on a weekly basis, leaving you in awe, even making you jealous of their fans. Everything seems to be in place, the perfect club. Barcelona were one of those, were being the key word.
Growing up in England in the 90s meant you witnessed Manchester United dominating the domestic scene. As a northerner it was pretty much a 50/50 split between United and Liverpool fans. One side lauding the present, the others the past. But Ferguson’s team had the money, sure, but they also had a group of youngsters coming through which were special. You felt like it was almost cheating to suddenly inherit five or six academy players who improved their already strong squad. They were the benchmark for the rest to aspire to.
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Yet even that United side paled in comparison to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team. With United you felt they could have off days, underperform, but Barcelona were something else. It’s like pitting Anthony Joshua against Amir Khan. How do you combat someone who has no apparent weaknesses? An exciting young manager coupled with a squad full of experienced internationals, not to mention a never-ending production line of academy starlets. Oh, and Lionel Messi.
The best team in Europe
“They do mesmerise you with the way they pass it,” Sir Alex Ferguson said after his United side lost 3-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final in 2011. “They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”
High praise from one of the greatest managers of all-time. Sir Alex couldn’t find a way to halt the juggernaut. You try to close Xavi down, you leave Andreas Iniesta free. Close them both down and you’re invariably giving Messi far too much space. Try to shut Messi out? Well, it’s approaching 14 years and no one has managed to do it yet. You couldn’t beat that Barcelona team when they were at their best, it was impossible, and instead could only hope that they’d fail to plan for the future.
“Great teams do go in cycles and they’re at the peak of the cycle they’re in at the moment. But how long it lasts – whether they can replace that team at some point – they certainly have the right philosophy, but it’s always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time.” And it appears the way to defeat Barcelona was to do just that, wait until their best players got older and the production line failed to produce superstars.
Living in the present, they forgot about the future
There’s an argument the key members of Barcelona’s elite team couldn’t be replaced. There’s a reason they are placed on a pedestal and revered around the world. Once in a generation – or maybe in a lifetime – players. And when they come through together, or within a few years of each other, it creates something incredible. Yet why didn’t Barcelona plan for the future? They failed to replace Xavi, they don’t have anyone to help out Iniesta. And Messi? Well, the guy who was supposed to take over from him is now in Paris.
Following in the footsteps of someone deemed the best in their position is tough. The bar is raised so high that even success has an aftertaste of failure to it. To simply win trophies isn’t enough, it’s equally about how you win those trophies. The style, the swagger, that aura, it cannot be compromised at any cost. Luis Enrique found this out pretty quickly. The pressure is immense, every defeat or draw turns into a crisis, and it’s a position which quickly takes you from untouchable to untenable in days.
La Masia was the heartbeat of everything Barcelona achieved. While other big teams needed to scour the market for the next big superstar, Barcelona had a conveyor belt of tiki-taka programmed machines. Even if it was just one star every couple of years, it was enough to keep the team fresh and a step ahead of the curve. From young ages these kids knew ‘the Barcelona way’ and were desperate to wear the shirt, follow in the footsteps of their heroes. You can’t buy that preparation or commitment.
La Masia’s production line continued but first team chances didn’t
So where did it all go wrong? Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova worked with the ‘B’ side before moving on to the first team. That connection is invaluable because they’d seen, coached and improved the players knocking on the door of the main squad. When those two left the club it seemed to slam shut the door to the next level. Outsiders came in who only saw the first team squad and wanted to improve it with players from elsewhere, not from within. Suddenly these kids were made to feel as if they weren’t good enough.
When Spain won the World Cup in 2010 their squad contained nine players who came through La Masia. Six of those: Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Pedro started in the final against the Netherlands. After losing in the semi-final Germany coach Joachim Low likened the dominance of Spain to Barcelona. “They are the masters of the game, you can see it in every pass and can hardly be beaten. They are extremely confident and very calm in the way they circulate the ball.”
Thiago Alcantara, Hector Bellerin, Mauro Icardi and Alex Grimaldo all spent time at La Masia but left in order to get first team football. All four of those players would drastically improve the current Barcelona squad yet they didn’t see a clear path to the first team. Marc Bartra is another who moved on after growing frustrated at his lack of opportunities. Sandro Ramirez joined Malaga on a free transfer and did more than his €30m ‘replacement’ Paco Alcacer. Pedro left to join Chelsea but would he be any worse than €34m Arda Turan?
Even Pique and Cesc Fabregas both left as youngsters in order to get a chance before returning to Barcelona.
The academy stars see little hope of making it at the club
The exodus at Barcelona shows no sign of slowing down either. Sergi Samper, at one time the heir to Xavi’s throne, remains in the abyss. In an interview with SPORT earlier this summer he was asked if he expected to stay at the club – he said yes. “I signed a four-year deal and I know the club has faith in me. I’m really looking forward to demonstrating that I can play here, at the club of my life, my home.” He will join Las Palmas on loan instead.
Jordi Mboula, one of the academy’s brightest prospects and star of their UEFA Youth League team, opted to join Monaco instead of staying at Barcelona. Eric Garcia, at 16, felt Manchester City would be a better place for his development and left the club this summer too. Carles Aleña was close to going but signed a new contract. After seeing Paulinho arrive, maybe he’s having second thoughts. They shake your hand then slap you in the face. Why stay if you won’t get a chance?
In the last two years we’ve seen Barcelona re-sign two former La Masia players in Gerard Deulofeu and Denis Suarez but a betting man wouldn’t expect them to stay much longer than this season. Rafinha, if he wasn’t injured, would be another player they’d like to move on. Is he any worse than Andre Gomes though? Would you rather bring in Paulinho or stick with someone who cost the club nothing and came through the academy? There are so many baffling decisions.
If in doubt, check social media
RAC1, a reliable radio station in Catalunya, said Barcelona made a bid for Jean Michael Seri after reading fans opinions on Twitter. Is that what the sporting director, Robert Fernandez, is doing?
Although the depressing part is those fans could probably recruit better than him. And to make matters worse, after speaking to the player and agreeing a fee with Nice, Barcelona pulled out of the deal at the last minute. Unprofessional and irresponsible. But then again, those are two words which are synonymous with this current board.
Apparently if Philippe Coutinho doesn’t end up joining they’ll move for Angel di Maria. Another 29-year-old, injury prone and extremely inconsistent player on huge wages. What a coup!
Messi wants a project, but he’s all they’ve got
It comes as no surprise to see Lionel Messi considering his future at the club. Imagine someone who loves Spain, made Barcelona his home and became a legend at the club, being so concerned at the direction of this team he won’t sign a contract he agreed over a month ago. It isn’t about money but about believing in the club’s project, where they are going and the plan to get there. So far, there’s more reasons not to sign that deal.
Right now, Messi is Barcelona. Without him there’s no project and very little possibilities of future success. Everything runs through him and everyone else looks better because of his vision and movement. If you believe what they say then Messi wants big signings at the club, a sign of intent to overhaul Real Madrid. The club responded by losing Neymar to PSG and putting more time into taking legal action against the Brazilian than finding his replacement.
With a little over a week to go until the transfer window slams shut Barcelona are significantly weaker than they were last season. If only one or two more players come in then the demands placed on Messi will further increase. The apparent plan Barcelona have for Messi is to use him as much as possible, for as long as possible, and not ease the burden on his shoulders. If the Argentine leaves, it’ll be like The Wall falling down in a Game of Thrones. Utter, utter carnage.
Més que un club? Right now, Barcelona barely resemble a club at all.