We’re living through the golden age of Barcelona soccer and yet another season has ended with fans and players alike in a state of consternation.
Madrid are the champions of Spain again after dominating the league since the restart. The title was Barca’s for the taking, but in the end they defeated themselves.
What’s most frustrating is that we’ve been here before. Barca spends more money than any team in the world. They have the talent to dominate Europe year in and year out. But instead of becoming the greatest soccer dynasty of all time, they have become the world’s greatest underachievers.
With the Champions league set to resume in August there is an opportunity for redemption, but it will take a level of motivation and desire that we haven’t seen in a long time.
Messi and Suarez say the team needs to be self-critical. This is a good place to start as we look ahead to a new season that is right around the corner in September. But in order to do that we need to be honest in identifying what’s working and what needs to change, especially from the people who hold the most power at the club.
Marc-André ter Stegen, also known as Spiderman, has established himself as the best goalkeeper in the world, and the MVP of this Barcelona team.
It’s tempting to look at the La Liga table and see it as being closer than it actually was. Without ter Stegen Madrid would have run away with the title.
He set a personal record this year of going more than 450 minutes without conceding a goal. This included the first five games of the restart where he kept Barca alive with shutouts even when their attacking form was not at its best.
When you consider that he’s playing behind an unreliable defense, and that much of the attacking strategy is predicated upon using the goalkeeper to play out of the back, it must be recognized that his contributions are invaluable.
In addition to ter Stegen, Messi had another standout year winning a record seventh pichichi. More impressive for me, however, was that he also broke the La Liga assist record. Looking to the future this is a good sign. People have asked how his game will evolve as he gets older and I think we have the answer.
Messi will always be able to score goals, and his free kick technique is one area in particular that seems to only get better with time. We now know that even if his goal scoring decreases, 25 this season compared to 36 the year before, he will make up the difference with assists. The most interesting question will be if he ever plays in midfield.
Perhaps the most exciting story line this year though was the resurgence of La Masia.
With Ousmane Dembele once again missing most of the season to injury, a certain 17-year-old kid came out of nowhere to demand a spot on the first team and break records. At the age of 16 Ansu Fati became the second youngest player to ever debut for Barca.
When he scored against Osasuna on August 31st, he became the youngest goalscorer in team history. In December, now 17, he made more history against Inter Milan becoming the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history after scoring the winning goal.
Ansu is here to stay. It’s up to the club to help him develop into one of the best wingers in the world.
With the arrival of new coach Quique Setien, Riqui Puig also got his chance to break into the team.
Riqui’s arrival was highly anticipated and he did not disappoint. He added energy to a team that often looked lethargic. When Frankie de Jong was sidelined with injury Riqui seized the opportunity with a level of motivation that elevated his team-mates as well.
Most encouraging, there seemed to be chemistry between Ansu and Riqui, as the two players who grew up in the academy system linked up and made an impact whenever they featured together. Furthermore, they earned the trust of the senior players which is not an easy thing to do at Barcelona.
Honorable mention for best moment of this season may be Real Madrid messing up their attempt at a Cruyff penalty. It’s fitting that the only players to execute it to perfection are still Messi and Suarez.
The Bad, and the Ugly
It’s bad when you consider that Bartomeu’s best signing this year may have been Martin Braithwaite. That’s not to say he had the biggest impact, but he certainly did deliver the most value at a time when the club desperately needed a forward during the winter transfer window.
The troubling pattern that needs to be addressed is the notion that if you spend the most money in the world you will be the best team in the world.
Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann are not anomalies, they are the rule for new signings at the club. They are without doubt world-class players who proved their worth in helping Liverpool and Atletico Madrid become two of the best teams in the world. It’s not too late for Griezmann, but it was shameful the way Coutinho wasn’t better integrated tactically.
The same has happened with other players because the philosophy is always that there is a “Barca Way,” and that the onus is on the player to figure that out. The truth is there is no Barca way of doing things anymore and it’s not the players’ fault.
Does anyone really see remnants of Cruyff or Guardiola? Absolutely not.
For Guardiola in particular his genius was never in the tiki taka, or any other style of play. Manchester City, for example, plays very differently than his Barcelona teams. That’s because he understands that different players require different systems. His merit as a coach instead comes from the attitude he demands from his players. Even Messi had no choice but to put his ego aside and buy in, something he has done for no coach since.
The other big question for Barcelona is the midfield. To me the only player with a long-term future there is Frankie. What happened with Arthur was bizarre. Maybe Miralem Pjanic will contribute for a few years, but that isn’t a long-term solution.
Another uncomfortable conversation is around how much longer Sergio Busquets realistically has. He was a great player when Barca dominated games through possession, but in the modern game someone faster and more physical may be needed in the holding role.
And what about the full-backs? It can’t be understated how many goals Dani Alves helped produce from the right side. Jordi Alba has been very good, but also may not have much longer. Look at Liverpool and you will understand immediately how critical it is for any team to have dynamic contributions from that position.
Finally, at the top of mind is the question of Lautaro Martinez. In my opinion, a new number 9 is the least of our concerns. For me, Suarez and Griezmann are more than capable, and I don’t think that for the price Martinez will provide the greatest return on investment. The problem there is that they play the same position. Barcelona is better served when only one plays, and then someone faster is deployed on the left wing (Neymar would be the dream, but Ansu and Dembele are also perfect fits there).
More than anything else going into the Champions League and the new La Liga season Barca needs an attitude adjustment. If as Suarez suggested this can come from the players and they find success in August then maybe Setien deserves another season to show what he can do. Otherwise, Barca needs to focus this time on signing the best coach in the world instead of the best player. It could make all the difference.
And Bartomeu this may also be your last chance to get it right.