It’s nearly impossible to properly diagnose a team like Barcelona after a drubbing like they received this past week at the hands of Paris St. Germain. To any post-Rijkaard Blaugrana side, a heavy loss is a milestone that requires taking a deep breath, followed by even deeper analysis. But Tuesday’s 4-0 defeat to PSG was something different altogether.
Yes, the Catalans’ 7-0 (agg.) Champions League thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in 2013 was a staggering event that resulted in a considerable shake-up at Camp Nou. But this was an all-out collapse to Ligue 1’s second-best club in the Champions League Round of 16. Not only is that the kind of failure that doesn’t happen to “the greatest club in the world,” but it’s proof that they’re not what the moniker says at all; not anymore. So what is actually happening at Barcelona? And who’s to blame?
The “why” here is a difficult question that’s typically impossible to answer. It’s clear that Barcelona have been on a peculiar trajectory ever since Pep Guardiola left the club in 2013. Immediately following his record-shattering 14 title-run, the keys to the claret-and-blue Cadillac were handed over to his assistant and close friend Tito Vilanova, who comfortably mimicked Guardiola’s styling and teachings. During the Tito Era, Barca were changed yet still recognizable. They still won trophies — though not at the same rate — and did so with flair. Due to the sickness that would eventually take his life in April of 2014, Vilanova was only in charge of the first-team for one season. From there, the changes at Camp Nou became more frequent, making Barca less and less recognizable.
Gerardo “Tata” Martino took charge in the summer of 2013. The season was a letdown, maybe not by most clubs’ standards but certainly by Barcelona’s. The team finished second in La Liga, forfeiting their crown to Atletico Madrid, and ultimately going trophyless, a first for the club in six years. The candid Argentine recently referred to his time in Catalunya as “an utter failure,” stating, “we didn’t win and we didn’t play well, either.” Martino’s tenure lasted one season.
In an attempt to recreate the in-house sentiment that emboldened the Guardiola movement, Barcelona ditched Martino in the summer of 2014 for Luis Enrique. Like Pep, Lucho was an ex-Barca player and former B team manager who championed the Catalans’ footballing philosophies. It was a move meant to recapture something lost. And it did, seemingly. Under Enrique, Barcelona purchased stalwarts Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic and regained their place atop La Liga’s hierarchy. In 2015, the Spaniard led Barca to a European and domestic treble, something only ever done before at the club by Guardiola six years earlier.
The understanding by many now is that Lucho’s success with Barca has been too largely aided by the once-in-a-lifetime attacking unit of “MSN” — Messi, Suarez, and Neymar. The belief is basically that Enrique hasn’t really displayed any tactical, systematic, or philosophical genius as a manager, and has instead relied solely on the brilliance of his front-three, foregoing the health of the overall machine. There’s some truth to this, of course. Enrique has often abandoned the tiki-taka-tinted objectives of Barcelona’s footballing methods in favor of more direct paths to victory.
It’s fair to argue either way on this issue, it being mostly subjective: one may believe that winning in the present is the only objective, while another may posit that investment in the proper footballing fundamentals is the only way to sustained glory. Both have been proven many times over through the many narratives that world football history has seen. What can’t be debated is that Barca are now at a point where they’re doing neither. The Barca system is, for all intents and purposes, broken.
Which brings us to the issue of blame. As with anything, all parties hold credit in this department. And as with anything, too, the manager will receive all of it. Nevermind the fact that the PSG loss was a supreme breakdown of individual will and performance. Forget that the greatest footballer in the world had what might be remembered as the worst 90 minutes of his unprecedented career. Those things happened, sure, but they won’t and don’t matter in this court. And maybe they shouldn’t. After all, when a formerly magical group of players collectively fall on their faces, perhaps everyone should take it as the universal sign that the man doing the overseeing has got to go. It sounds harsher than it actually is.
And so Enrique will be leaving Barcelona, maybe this week, maybe after the second-leg visit of PSG in March, or maybe after the final whistle blows on Matchday 38. The date of the departure is uncertain, but the departure isn’t. His team is in complete turmoil, having just been ousted in the last 16 of a competition in which they never fail to reach the semis in. Such is the standard at Barcelona that a loss like this one drastically alters the course of the club.
But this is what’s necessary. In truth, it’s been necessary for quite some time. In the same way Tata was a hopeful patch on the Guardiola void, Lucho has largely been one as well. But this is less about recreating Pep as is it about finding new heroes altogether. It’s fair to say that the last couple of seasons have been a beautiful squeezing of a damp towel: it may have, at times, provided real nourishment, but the supply has always been limited. Barca’s next boss, be it Jorge Sampaoli, Ronald Koeman, or some other flavor of the week, will have the unenviable but inevitable task of reshaping a Barcelona team that still fatally relies on the names Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets.
We’re not in a post-Barca world yet; after all, these are all-time talents we’re talking about. But we’re closer than we’ve ever been, and that’s enough to get the local priest on standby.