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Messi, managers and mayhem: How Barçelona’s title bid fell apart

A look at where it all went wrong

Real Valladolid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The season is over. Barça have given up their Liga bragging rights. 2019/20 was tumultuous, to say the least. A far cry from the placidity of the previous campaigns. The team looked incoherent and utterly erratic at worst, while looking passable at best. Even with the dismissal of Ernesto Valverde, nothing changed. And it really couldn’t. Quique Setién is no magician, and he cannot make the systemic deficiencies within the squad go away.

This season felt like the culmination of every bad decision the board has made over the years. Every transfer blunder, every “short-term” deal came to haunt Barça. Bartomeu and co truly couldn’t run away from time anymore. It just caught up.

After a horrid start to the season, the team was constantly bailed out by Messi, who was performing at an astronomically high level. In fact, early on, Messi was nearly doubling his xG output. He was scoring from low quality locations and was converting free-kick after free-kick. With every Messi-dependencia win, however, it felt as if the implosion was near. Barça never looked like league leaders this season, and they certainly didn’t play like defending champions. League titles are usually built on sturdy backlines, and Barça’s defence was anything but.

Messi’s overperformance under Valverde is evident.

Ever since Matchday 1, Barça were shambolic at the back, even more so than in 2018/19. There was rarely a moment where Barça looked comfortable in their own half, with counterattack after counterattack. Valverde’s usage of a an asymmetrical defensive shape didn’t help either. It left Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet with too much to do and exposed the full-backs too easily.

Moreover, Valverde’s attacking solutions were too easily dismantled this season. Whatever novelty there was in 18/19 slowly faded away. Messi-dependencia slowly evolved into worsening open-play. Barça struggled to create anything of substance, and most chances often came against the run of play. It wasn’t pretty.

Even the decision to sack Valverde was erratic. If there was a time to sack him, it was the summer. A mid-season dismissal would, and did, upset the team dynamic. Moreover, it put Setién in an impossible position. Without a pre-season, he was just unable to stamp his authority on the team and it’s playstyle. In a dressing room with big egos, it was entirely impossible for a subtle Cantabrian coach to impose his ideals.


In truth, Setién’s appointment felt like another attempt by the board to externalise the blame for their own failures. Hiring a Cruyffista was a surefire way to deflect blame, and in doing so, let the underlying disease fester (which it did).

Tough times lie ahead for Barça. There is no denying that. These issues are beyond saving by Messi. Yet, while Bartomeu remains in charge, Barça will continue to use their financial might to reap short term benefits and maintain their status as an “elite club”. However, everyone knows it’s a facade at this point.

Hopefully the socios do too. 2021 is a year of reckoning for the institution that is FC Barcelona, and what it wants to be.

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