There is no single answer as to why the first five months of the season haven’t gone well for Barcelona.
If you think it’s because of Lionel Messi’s poor early start (by his own magisterial standards, as Ray Hudson would say), you are correct. If you think it’s because of manager Ronald Koeman’s insistence on the 4-2-3-1, you are also correct. And if you think it’s because of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s final destructive act, giving Luis Suarez away for free to a major rival and completely failing to replace him, you are also correct.
When 2021 began, Barca was languishing in sixth place. Now, a combination of Messi returning to his top form and Koeman finally reverting to a 4-3-3 has resulted in a five-game winning streak, and Barca are now in second.
However, they’re still 10 points behind Atletico Madrid, who have a game in hand, so it cannot be considered a positive season by any means. Defeats to Atletico, Juventus, and great rivals Real Madrid have reinforced that belief, as well as the heartbreaking Supercopa final loss to Athletic Bilbao.
The thing about bad seasons, though, is that there’s always something good to remember them by. In this case, that comes in the form of two excellent youngsters breaking into the first team: Ronald Araujo and Pedri.
Both these players have established themselves as regulars in the starting lineup, and look like they will be playing week in, week out at Barca for the next decade. But how did they get there?
Let’s start with big Ronald. Signed for Barca B from Uruguayan side Boston River (no, not that Boston) in 2018, the 21-year-old turned heads during his entire time in La Masia.
He played as a striker in his youth, so he has the soft touch and vision of a forward, not to mention the ability to score a scissor kick from 15 yards out, but he also has the excellent positioning and tactical awareness of a Gerard Pique.
Simply put, he’s always in the right place to put out fires, and he is a rock at the back. Add to that his impressive physique, tremendous speed, and the fact that he’s unbeatable one-on-one, and you get the perfect center-back.
It cannot be understated just how important he has been, and will be, to Barcelona.
Last season, he was the fourth-choice center-back behind Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti, and maybe not even that, as Sergio Busquets would drop in sometimes as emergency cover. This season, a long-term injury to Pique, a massive dropoff from Lenglet and continued injury woes for Umtiti have left him as the first defender on the team sheet, the undroppable. And he’s earned it.
Granted, he has made one costly mistake, being dispossessed as the last man for Eibar’s equalizer in a 1-1 draw, but his reaction to it spoke more about him than the error itself.
“Today it was my personal mistake, one I can’t afford to make,” Araujo told reporters after the game. “I’m old enough to know how big a responsibility it is to play for Barcelona.”
Clearly, he made good on his word, as he has not put a foot wrong ever since that match. It’s hard to win Player of the Season at Barca with Messi around, but you wouldn’t bet against Araujo.
Only time will tell what sort of career he winds up having at Barcelona, but one thing’s for sure: Araujo has blossomed into an excellent player, one who has the potential to become one of the best defenders in the world. Even when Pique comes back, the Uruguayan is making it harder and harder to take him out of the lineup, and if Koeman knows what’s good for him, he won’t.
He will be in the spotlight when he goes up against Kylian Mbappe in a few weeks’ time, and shutting down the World Cup-winning superstar could be the moment he needs to take his game to the next level.
Speaking of taking your game to the next level, someone who’s really taken this Barca team to the next level is Pedri.
He doesn’t come from the academy, which is strange because he’s tailor-made for Barca. Instead, he was signed from Las Palmas for just €5 million. That move could go down as the steal of the decade.
Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is the fact that he just turned 18. Why? Because he plays with the intelligence of someone who’s 35.
He sees openings that very few others see, attempts passes that very few others attempt and executes plays that very few others execute. His relationship with Messi has been a joy to watch, and it is perhaps what has given new life to this Barca team.
They understand each other so well on the pitch, their movements and runs are in sync, and both look capable of finding each other at any given moment. He says he takes inspiration from Andres Iniesta, and you can see why. No disrespect to Arturo Vidal or Paulinho, but Messi hasn’t played with a player like Pedri in some time.
The eyes of the world were on him when at 17, he completely outclassed Juve’s midfield in an impressive 2-0 win. He just doesn’t feel pressure, and always seems to know what to do at any given moment.
A trio of Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Riqui Puig is every Barca fan’s dream midfield for the future, but with a reinvigorated Sergio Busquets bossing the show lately, that will be put on hold for now.
While his treatment of Puig has been heavily, and understandably, criticized, we must give Koeman credit for sticking with Pedri, and at just 18, making him one of the first names on the team sheet. Just like Araujo, he looks like he’ll be here for a long, long time.
When we look back at this season in Barca history, it could be the year that we went two consecutive seasons trophyless for the first time in many, many years, and it could be the last time we see Messi lace his boots at the Camp Nou.
But with a different set of eyes, it could also be the year that we finally got rid of Bartomeu and (barring some unprecedented situation) got Joan Laporta back at the helm.
It could be the year where against all odds, Messi decided to stay out of his love for the club, even when they held him back. Who knows, with a competent board, he could yet stay past this season, too.
And most importantly, this could be the year where we discovered two emerging generational talents and gave them the opportunity to shine.
Even in the darkest, most difficult situations, we can find light. There can always be a diamond in the rough, and in Pedri and Araujo, we have just found two.