Barcelona’s 2020-21 pre-season is officially over. With three wins from three games, albeit against sides that are not entirely illustrious opponents, there are reasons for optimism in Catalonia. A new manager, change in formation and youngsters thriving in a high-energy setup certainly brings some much-needed hope after a painful 2019-20 season. Yet, despite all of this, it seems as if not much has changed at the Camp Nou at all.
The summer has been marred by the Lionel Messi saga, which only led to the wastage of time, the most precious commodity in a transfer window affected massively by Covid-19. As a result, Barca have still not secured a deal for Eric Garcia, who is direly needed, despite the rumour mill going berserk about its imminence for weeks on end. The club has instead repeatedly been linked with Memphis Depay, which seems like an unnecessary attempt to make a statement signing for an already filled position on the pitch. Ajax’s Sergino Dest is another transfer target that seems unrealistic now with Bayern Munich in the fray, while reported bids for full-back Max Aarons have been embarrassingly rejected by Championship side Norwich City.
In all of this, it’s difficult to imagine being in Koeman’s shoes. The Barcelona legend has reportedly increased the intensity of training and given a run to some of the youngsters, with Konrad de la Fuente particularly impressing. He has also placed Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho back in their natural positions, with both players thriving in pre-season. Yet, he seems to lack the board’s backing in the market. But on his own accord, Koeman’s defensive choices highlight the all too familiar “playing it safe” approach that has cost Barcelona time and again. Alba, whose form has spiralled downwards season after season, remains the priority choice with Junior Firpo and Juan Miranda hardly getting a look-in. Koeman’s preference for Sergi Roberto and Gerard Pique in defence over Nelson Semedo (strongly rumoured to be departing for Wolves) and Ronald Araujo is frankly baffling. The rather bleak reality is that Barca look set to be left ruing the shambolic financial mismanagement over the last five years for yet another season.
The latest evidence of the club’s frankly unintelligent business is Arturo Vidal’s departure for Inter. Apart from leaving for a ridiculously low fee, the hot-headed Chilean also takes away one of the things he was signed for: his on-field leadership. Even during his worst performances, Vidal was seen marshalling his teammates and shouting at them to stay focused. He embodied minute bits of the vocal leadership Barcelona have desperately needed in the years since Javier Mascherano’s departure.
His exit leaves Koeman with his biggest challenge for this season. Barcelona have a distinct lack of vocal leaders in this side and it is beginning to hurt them in every competition. Take a look at some of Europe’s currently successful top teams. Liverpool have Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson, Real Madrid have Sergio Ramos and Casemiro, Juventus have Cristiano Ronaldo and Giorgio Chiellini. Manchester City enjoyed the kind of silverware that seemed a faraway dream when Vincent Kompany was in the side, while Atletico Madrid’s largest successes came when Diego Godin and Gabi took the field together. On the flipside, look at many of the teams that are struggling in the present. They lack a vocal leader, who is also a proven match-winner.
Barca have plenty of undoubtable quality; on their day, the likes of Messi, Coutinho and Griezmann can win games on their own. But, the captains of the last two seasons - Messi, Pique, Roberto and Sergio Busquets – are not the imposing figures they need to be. Rather, they look to put their heads down and get the job done on the pitch. This is simply not enough for a team that wants to win titles like the Champions League, where emotions run high and the pressure can consume a player in seconds. The stinging losses against Roma and Liverpool are proof that Barcelona struggle with the mental stamina to survive high-pressure games in the UCL. In such cases, a leader with the armband like Carles Puyol or without it like Mascherano, is of paramount importance. Their presence may not guarantee success, but it gives the team a psychological boost because they go out of their way to make sure the players hold their concentration throughout.
The transfer window is still open and there is still a minute possibility that Barca might make a couple of necessary moves. But, it will be of no surprise if they don’t. A brief look at the leaders of the clubs mentioned above will tell you that they are either players who were signed as youngsters or academy graduates, who have been there for several years, or quality players that have been brought in after being convinced by the project in place. At present, Barcelona’s homegrown talent are not vocal despite their apparent command over the dressing room. The arrival of proven leaders also seems far-fetched because of the absence of a substantial football project. The only possibility that remains is for one of the newer and younger signings to grow into the leader the club needs. Ronald Koeman has the unenviable job of piecing it all together, while remaining uncertain about his own future. But if he can identify these individuals and enable them to flourish, it might just do him and the team a world of good.
The problems have been mounting up at the Nou Camp for several years, but the solutions were either quick-fixes, misguided or simply absent. With no men to sound the war-cry and no money in their coffers, Barcelona are paying the price in silence for years of stagnation.