2013 was supposed to a year of revolution at Barcelona. With the now late Tito Vilanova unable to continue, the club were going to appoint a manager for the first time outside the Barcelona philosophy since Rijkaard sat twiddling thumbs in the dugout.
In came Tata Martino, and Neymar and the season began well with a record-equalling start. Almost. Barcelona were on the verge of a new record for consecutive matches won by a new headcoach till they inexplicably capitulated at Ajax. A few days later came another defeat and murmurs of discontent in the terraces started taking more voice.
Barcelona, as put not so eloquently by Gerard Pique are ‘slaves’ to a certain style of play. The brand of possession-based domination, passing the ball around, whether sideways, backwards or forwards to grind teams into an absolutely tired mush and then taking advantage is the Barca way. But it’s been nearly six years since Pep Guardiola was first introduced to his playing squad. Six years on and his tiki-taka influence remains on players who know only one way to play. Pique was clearly sick of it. And so are most neutrals. Even the writer here admits at times it is cumbersome to watch the passing when simply playing a chipped pass or hitting in an early cross might seem more prudent. But be as that may, a Barcelona in full flight are still a magnificent team to watch.
The problem with that, it would seem, is since Guardiola’s all conquering side of 2009-10, the opposition has worked out how to stop the passing juggernaut from spraying the ball around till it ends up in the net. Teams now sit back against Barca, and hit them, and often times, extremely hard on the counter-attack. The defence and its problems are one too many to name. Javier Mascherano and Alex Song have been made to deputize for an ideal pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique for most of this season, along with appearances by Marc Bartra, Adriano and even Busquets at the center-back position. The quality of a back four is often times what champion sides are built on – just ask current Madrid incumbent Carlo Ancelotti and he will say that the backline at AC Milan were the reason, along with the guile of Kaka and Shevchenko that he won all he did in his coaching tenure at San Siro.
However, to lay the blame solely on the backline as in previous seasons when the team have underachieved, is a bit too harsh. For his part, Mascherano has had a season far better than any he has had previously, as Pique declines into a Shakira-humping galoot who would make Luca Toni look like Raheem Sterling if they ever came face to face. Marc Bartra has not been afforded the opportunities he deserves, Puyol has spent more time in the stands than any Cule has attended matches this year and Alex Song wouldn’t even make the B-team at Atletico Madrid. And with Puyol hanging up his boots at the end of the campaign and moving on, it seems the defensive issues are there to stay.
The backline has been appalling but what is more so is the attitude of Andoni Zubizaretta, the transfer mogul occupying the role at the club. His desire to sign attacker after attacker while ignoring the most glaring issue has seen the club spend over €150m on Neymar and Alexis Sanchez alone. As for the summer arrival of Neymar for a claimed fee of €53m, that was all cockamamie and we knew it the moment he arrived, smiling at the Camp Nou crowd. A massive folly by Sandro Rosell and company, who employed underhand tactics, evaded taxes and are now standing the risk of being prosecuted by the Spanish courts. The incident involving an alleged payment of €40m to Neymar’s parents, and other miscellaneous expenses mean Neymar is probably more expensive than Gareth Bale is. For an unproven young Brazilian (sure he has flair and persona and is a sellable commodity but he’s no Beckham) to come in for such a mammoth fee would have been harsh. So Barca tried a cover up, but lo and behold Jordi Cases filed a case against the board and they were exposed so badly the president of the club had to step down. Barcelona went into shock, not the club, the entire city and the cules for the first time in years felt a twinge of all too familiar decline. After Rosell leaving before he could be thrown out and jailed thereafter, the idea of any Barca fan proudly saying ‘Mes Que En Club’ seemed alien. Those who did sang themselves hoarse.
Speaking of taxes and fraud, Lionel Messi, often times perceived to be the quiet, humble, unassuming Argentine has seen his ego balloon and then deflate altogether too quickly. Messi was also summoned by courts for tax evasion in relation to his father and the company that represents the Argentine. Coming off the back of a scarcely believable 90 plus goal season, the Argentine toiled for Barca and Argentina at the fag end of last season and was injured. Add to that the fact that Guardiola and Vilanova, who had formulated a specific diet and training regimen for Messi were now gone, the player went AWOL at the critical time of the campaign when most teams make or break themselves. Messi had a recurrence of his injury and was out for longer this time. Photos of him hosting a barbeque for Barca players in his backyard making their way to social media were the least of his problems as he, for the first time since Guardiola took him aside and told him he was the chosen one – saw himself sidelined as another took his place. The team, arguably rallied and performed admirably with Messi injured. Neymar, Alexis and Pedro produced goals and even Fabregas and Iniesta chipped in. But when he was back, to fit all of the aforementioned into a team and keep some balance is a job not even the best coach could tackle successfully. When fit, he is a starter guaranteed, and when not, the team looks lost against top quality opposition. The Messidependecia that Martino and Neymar were brought in to try and ease was in fact made all the more apparent when he returned. Played on the wing to accommodate Neymar and Fabregas, Messi covered less mileage in the tie against Atletico at the Calderon than Jose Pinto.
Coming to the matter of goalkeeper, Pinto has never been a man for any occasion except the Copa Del Ray – and with Valdes in his last season at Camp Nou, he was doing brilliantly, arguably his best ever – till he tore his ACL and probably an icon at the hallowed halls in Barca will never be seen on the pitch again. A send-off, a proper one with a trophy haul, would’ve been nice. Instead Valdes left Barca to a stunned silence at the Camp Nou on a stretcher. Xavi and Puyol, both rested for this match were shown wincing and shaking their heads in the stands – knowing their compatriot may never re-appear for his boyhood club. An able deputy was required and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marc Andre Ter-Stegen is headed to Catalunya as a replacement to the baldie who has been infuriating and brilliant in the course of his nearly 16 years at Barca.
Moving on from these points, we come to the criminal oversight of Tata Martino in some areas. In his first few matches the team played a more emboldened and a slightly more direct approach. Perhaps he didn’t like it, perhaps someone gently touched his shoulder and whispered ‘this is not the Barca way’, but whatever the reason suddenly Martino abandoned what he knew best for what worked for seasons before. Not giving Fabregas more involvement as Xavi’s legs tire, not holding onto Thiago and shunting out Alexis Sanchez from his amazing run of form because Messi returned were errors committed by Martino and the backroom staff he inherited.
Even the youth team wasn’t spared scrutiny as FIFA imposed and subsequently suspended a transfer ban on the first team due to irregularities in the transfers of players under the age of 18 from various European clubs.
Lastly and perhaps more damaging then all the things that have caused Barca hurt this season is the death of Tito Vilanova. Struggling with cancer over the last two seasons and forced to step down from his position, Tito lost his battle. While an ex-coach who came through the ranks and won a record-equalling La Liga title passing away is a difficult moment for everyone in the fraternity, it was even more so for Barca. The players, especially those in the team now such as Pique, Fabregas, Messi, Jordi Alba looked at Tito as a father figure during his time with the youth ranks. They arguably felt the pinch, as Busquets showed during a tribute to his former boss by bawling before kick-off.
Overall, Barcelona’s season has been a shambles. A promising start withered out into the worst season since Rijkaard has left and its time for a massive inquest and a change in strategy and direction at the Camp Nou. Failing which this fall from grace won’t be a blip, but the prickling trend for years to come.