During Camp Nou’s (temporary) farewell ceremony on Sunday, several giant jerseys were displayed on the pitch, representing the most successful Barcelona team in each decade of the iconic stadium’s existence.
Unsurprisingly, the kits chosen for the past two decades were from 2009 and 2015, the club’s two treble-winning seasons. The former featured arguably the greatest manager, greatest midfield, greatest player, and greatest team of all time. The latter exhibited the world’s best attacking trident, the famed “MSN”, in its prime. Both were historically dominant seasons that will live long in the memory of any Barca fan.
In their own ways, these two teams marked an era at the club. Pep Guardiola’s 2009 side signified a reliance on producing homegrown superstars that lived and breathed tiki-taka. Winning the Champions League final with seven academy graduates in the starting lineup was an astonishing feat; their opponents, Manchester United, only had one.
Meanwhile, 2015 showed the world how three bona fide superstars could not only play together but also play to each other’s strengths and make each other better, as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez shattered records on their way to another treble. The use of academy products diminished slightly, but Barcelona’s success did not.
Next season, none of the starters from either of these two incredible seasons will be at the club anymore (with the exception of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who was Barca’s cup keeper in 2015). Sergio Busquets, the man who defined a generation of Barcelona footballers’ playstyle and excellence, played his last game on Sunday, and Barca officially lost its last link to that legendary 2009 team. Jordi Alba, whose marauding runs down the left flank and combination play with Messi provided unforgettable memories, also said his goodbyes this week.
With the Camp Nou officially closing for renovations as part of the Espai Barca project as well, a modernization venture that will require at least a year of Xavi’s squad playing away from its longtime home, this is arguably the biggest changing of the guards moment since Ronaldinho assisted a certain 17-year-old’s first goal back in 2005.
Of course, this is not the first time that this “end of an era” trope has been touted. It happened when Xavi left in 2015, after Andres Iniesta’s departure in 2018, and most notably, after Messi’s shock exit in 2021. However, this time, to me at least, it feels different.
After the retirement of Carles Puyol, the club’s most iconic captain, in 2014, instead of simply appointing a new captain, Barcelona named four: Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Busquets, with the hierarchy organized by seniority. Over the years, they began to drop one by one and were replaced by other homegrown, longtime servants of the club.
Eventually, Xavi, Iniesta and Messi were replaced by Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, who made up the four captains alongside Busquets after Messi’s departure. This was also the case at the start of this season, but just one year later, only Roberto remains.
With all due respect to Roberto, who has been a very loyal and important utility player throughout his career, he simply cannot be considered in the same vein as the three legends that departed this year. He was not present in 2009 and was only a bit-part player in 2015, and it is difficult to make the case that he is a legendary figure at the club. Meanwhile, Busquets is one of the best holding midfielders of all time, Pique is likely a top-3 Barca defender, and Alba is their greatest left-back.
The dropoff from Xavi to Iniesta in a leadership role was not that steep. Neither was Iniesta to Messi or Messi to Busquets. All of these players were world-beaters, among the best to ever play the game. The difference between Busquets and Roberto is massive, almost incomparable. He and Alba leave behind the last legacy of 2009, the last concrete link to 2015, and for once, there is nobody of their ilk left to pick up the slack.
Messi’s departure started the rebuild. The man who so often singlehandedly willed an underperforming squad to victory was, and still is, impossible to replace. Barca could no longer rely on the best player in the world, so they had to find other ways to win. In other words, other players had to step up. And up stepped Pedri, Gavi, Alejandro Balde, Ronald Araujo, Frenkie de Jong, etc.
After Xavi’s arrival righted the ship and secured a second-place finish last year, a massive summer overhaul brought Andreas Christensen, Jules Kounde, Raphinha, and the pick of the bunch, Robert Lewandowski. The team that began this season looked virtually unrecognizable compared to what it was before Messi left, but there was still one constant: Busquets.
While Alba and Pique were relegated to reserve roles because of Balde and Christensen, respectively, Busquets started 27 games this season. He was a key contributor to Barcelona’s first title since 2019, and his skill set is unmatchable. Much like with Messi, Xavi will have to work around the void he leaves because replacing him with another player is impossible.
Alba, too, had big moments this season, though, coming up with important goals against Sevilla and Osasuna that helped clinch the league. While Balde appears set to terrorize opposing defences for years to come, he has huge boots to fill in the form of the 34-year-old’s immaculate crossing accuracy and vision.
Next season, the rumored captains will be Roberto, Ter Stegen, Araujo and Lewandowski. This is a far cry from the hierarchical structure of the past, especially given that the latter two have never captained Barca before and Lewandowski has only played one season. With Roberto likely to be a rotation player, Ter Stegen, who represents a bridge between old and new for the club, should occupy the bulk of the captaincy, while the young and hungry Araujo won’t be too far behind.
Of course, this potential “end of an era” narrative could be affected by Messi’s potential return, someone who personifies not only Barcelona but football history. But this move would really have more to do with the sentimental aspect—a fully-deserved “Last Dance” for the man that gave Barca everything—than an objective analysis of what Xavi’s squad needs tactically.
With that said, having the greatest player of all time in the team for a year or two—a player that makes everyone around him better—would only have a positive effect. It wouldn’t signify a return to the Messi-dependent teams of the past, as the 35-year-old seems tailor-made for that fourth midfielder-forward hybrid role that Xavi has introduced. This means that Messi wouldn’t be interrupting any changing of the guards from taking shape if he came home; he’d simply be a world-class addition to an already established system for a few years.
This La Liga title was a total team effort: a much-improved Ter Stegen and his rock-solid backline, led by the dominant powerhouse Araujo, are on the verge of breaking the single-season clean sheet record for the top-five leagues. Pedri, Gavi and De Jong, with the security and calming presence of Busquets behind them, all took massive strides this season in the centre of the park. And up top, Pichichi winner Lewandowski was able to count on the tremendous service of Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele, with Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati also contributing some important goals here and there.
We were able to see a team overcome its demons—losing its best player, a very precarious financial situation, successive Champions League humiliations (to name a few)—and parade a major trophy at the Camp Nou after several years. This was critical in order to prove to the world, and perhaps themselves, that they could win without their ace, and that for all its recent failures, Barcelona would rise again.
Xavi’s squad this season was even more special given the duality of veteran maturity and youthful passion. There was no player between the ages of 27 and 31 in the team, partially because Barca moved away from La Masia during Josep Maria Bartomeu’s disastrous reign as president; Roberto was the only homegrown player from his “graduating class” to remain consistently in the squad.
Next season, between the Masia products and new signings, there are set to be no more than four or five players over 28 years of age. Expect Araujo, Pedri, De Jong and others to take on larger leadership roles; they’re ready, and more are coming.
Now, with Busquets and Alba’s impending departures, Barca sheds its last “old guard” connections, and having won its first title without Messi, largely due to the performances of players whose stories with the club are just beginning, we are firmly witnessing a new era of Futbol Club Barcelona.