With Barcelona seemingly at a crossroads as German football begins to dominate Europe, Dave O’ Rourke asks “What next for the Blaugrana?’
Over the past 5 or 6 years FC Barcelona have raised the bar so high for themselves, that it seemed nigh on impossible to maintain and live up to. Yet, year after year they have excelled, producing some mesmerizing football, leaving us gasping for air on more than a few occasions.
The other night however, they were on the end of a mauling by Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, shipping a club record 7 goals over the two legs. Coincidently, Bayern will be the next stop for former player and coach Pep Guardiola.
At the conclusion of the 2011/2012 season, Pep’s untimely decision to vacate the Camp Nou hot seat came as a bit of a shock, but, he was after seeing something. This was something that we outsiders were unable to see.
It was as if Pep had identified the point where he could no longer continue his reign of dominance and saw a change in the masterpiece he had created, like a pristine ice-cream slowly melting under the summer sun.
Had the passion and fire of the previous 4 years been extinguished already? It seemed Pep thought so, and felt a change in management at possibly the greatest club side the world had ever seen, could re-ignite the Blaugrana once again. In the few months prior to his exodus, the club were beaten to the La Liga crown by Mourinho’s Real Madrid, trailing them for much of the season.
In the second leg of the Champions League semi-final of the same season, they failed to break down a very stubborn Chelsea side, who parked the bus and the plane at the Camp Nou. We all know how that match ended, with a certain Mr. Neville having the time of his life in the gantry.
Although comfortably on the verge of another league title this season, it seems crazy to point the finger and suggest there is a crisis of some sort. They have however gone through a bad patch in recent months. It may not just be a blip this time around, but maybe more serious underlying problems exist.
Without question we have seen some of the world’s best players on display thanks to the club’s historic La Masia Academy. It seems year after year; young players of an extremely high-calibre are rattled off the production line, one after another. As hard as it may sound though, not every one of these players will develop like an Iniesta, a Xavi, a Pedro, a Busquets or a Fabregas. Some will just not live up to the standard and this persuades the clubs hierarchy to whip out the cheque book. This brings us on to the other half of the clubs recruitment policy, transfers.
As much of a genius as Guardiola was, there are some identifying factors of his reign that he could not quite put his finger on. It cannot be denied that the pros of this era far outweighed the cons. In fact, the negatives are few and far between, yet when anything goes even the slightest bit pear-shaped, or a fraction off track, questions will be asked. It is almost impossible, even border-line ridiculous to point out any faults or find a weakness when a side play’s such mouth-watering football and have the trophies to back it up.
The team was riding the crest of a wave for the best part of 4 years. They looked unbeatable at times and the style of football was something to behold. But, as we all know, nothing lasts forever.
There were some strange decisions off the field that were painted over and hidden with the emphatic displays on the pitch. Some key players were shipped out and a small rebuilding process was under way, which is the norm for any team looking to press on again the following campaign.
Yaya Toure’s transfer to Man City for £24m didn’t seem all that worrying as they had a ready-made replacement in Sergio Busquets. Yet, it appeared there was too much of a fascination with playing the beautiful game and as a result, some critical functions in the team were lost sight of. In the main, the defence was something which could have been dealt with better.
We can see the type of player Toure has developed into in Manchester. He is a man-mountain, a leader and has a presence on the field that is very difficult to acquire. He’s harder, bigger, faster and stronger than probably any player in English football at the moment, so I would imagine in a less physical La Liga, he was a goliath. He’s someone you would want to go into battle alongside and his loss over the past few years may have certainly hampered the club on the European front.
Other notable transfers over the past few seasons have also raised some question marks. After being scouted for some time, President Joan Laporta sanctioned a €26m cheque to purchase Dmytro Chrgrynskiy from Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk. He was nowhere near good enough for the team and was shipped back home a year later, with FCB losing a cool €10m from the fee they had originally paid out.
David Villa looks to be coming to the end of his stay in Catalonia. An injury blighted campaign last season really hampered his progress, and as a result he has found it hard to find the net. The capture of Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez for €30m in summer 2011 was somewhat of a waist in my opinion. He has certainly shown glimpses of his ability, albeit very rare ones, but far too often he looks out-of-place in the tiki-taka jig-saw puzzle.
Alex Song had one fantastic year at Arsenal before Barca needlessly spent €17m for his services in the summer transfer window. Although a decent player, he looks to be just a very expensive bandage to cover up some of their already gaping defensive wounds. He has played more as a centre-half than a midfielder in his debut season, preventing him replicating the displays he showed in North London.
Looking further back to 2009, what looked a real coup was the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovich. It is easy to see the attraction of a player as talented as he is and on his day he is one of the best in the world. The thing with Zlatan though, is he wants the stage all to himself. I would suspect that knowing he would be living in the shadow of Messi did not go down too well. Apart from this, his off the ball running and work ethic isn’t exactly his strong point, something which really stood out in Barca’s high pressing game. His relationship with Pep deteriorated after only a few months.
He eventually cost Barca €69m in a deal which saw Samuel Eto’o (valued at €20m), go in the opposite direction to Inter in a part exchange. This was a strange one as Eto’o was one of the most potent strikers in world football at the time.
The likes of Keirrison (€16m) and Martin Caceres (€17.8m) are just some of the other high-profile youngsters the club invested heavily in, yet failed to make to grade at the Camp Nou. The latter, however, has proven himself with Juventus in recent seasons.
Xavi and Puyol, who of course have been instrumental in their success over the last 5 years, are pushing towards the end of their respective careers, Puyol in particular. Rumours of a move for Dortmund centre-back Mats Hummels will be welcomed no doubt. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes has also confirmed he will leave in the summer after 11 years at the club.
Barca will have the cash to improve and help reinvigorate the side in the coming months. Boss Tito Villanova will remain in charge I would imagine, and he will look after the little details that have made the team so special. He will ensure any small problems will be ironed out to get the team back doing what they do best.
I think a move for Neymar is on the cards this summer. They lack serious quality in the wide positions and need the strength in depth. It would be a welcome change to have another special player to take some of the attention from Messi as well.
It could prove a lot of money for the Brazilian though, and there is a small dividing line between “insanity” and a “genius move”. Then again it could be the very difference between success and abject failure. Neymar would make them the centre of attention again, and that’s almost as important as winning a trophy.
Sport Is Everything. Dave O’ Rourke.