5 changes Barcelona need to make next season
The parallels between the conclusion of the 2017-18 and the 2018-19 seasons will provide nightmares for Barcelona fans for years to come.
2018, a loss to AS Roma in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals cast a dark shadow over what had been a stellar season domestically. The Blaugrana had won La Liga – and would go on to win the Copa del Rey – at a canter but the 3-0 loss in Rome spoilt the mood.
What followed a season later was even worse. Nursing a 3-0 lead against Liverpool from the UCL semifinal first leg, Barca were disgraceful at Anfield, losing 4-0. The consolation of the Copa del Rey was also absent as they were beaten 2-1 in the final by Valencia.
Calls for the sack of manager Ernesto Valverde have gone unheeded by the club’s management, well aware of the paucity of “big-name” coaches in the market.
Meanwhile, it became very clear that the title win was due not only to the team’s quality but also down to the troubles of the opposition, especially the Madrid teams; Atletico and Real.
Changes (some of which are way overdue) will be expected in this close season. Here are five of the most pressing:
#5 Reduce the average age of the squad
With an average age of 27.6, this shouldn’t be much of a problem for the team. However, it becomes a problem when a lot of football is played by a majority of the team’s elder statesmen.
Of the 14 players who made 40+ appearances in all competitions last season, 7 were aged 30 and more (Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi).
This over-reliance on the older players affected the team’s play as in certain games where speed was needed (the second leg against Liverpool for instance), it was lacking.
The aforementioned seven players have been amongst the team’s best players in a long time and whenever they went off the boil collectively, the team suffered as a whole.
Valverde deserves a large portion of the blame for this as he often failed to pick teams that would utilize these older players effectively alongside their younger colleagues.
The likes of Frenkie de Jong, Arthur, Malcolm, Carles Alena and Ousmane Dembele (when fit) will need to be given game time to allow the older heads to function more effectively.
#4 Restructure La Masia and the B team
One of the pet peeves that Culés have had against the Sandro Rosell-Josep Bartomeu presidencies has been the apparent decline in the quality/quantity of players coming from the academy/youth team to the senior side.
The quality of graduates from the club’s famed academy seems to have gotten worse as the team has now prioritized foreign signings even for the youth setup over local Catalan and Spanish talent.
Moussa Wague and Jean-Claire Todibo are just the latest examples of young foreign talent that are being groomed for the first team above the local players.
There is clearly a lack of emerging talent from the academy good enough for the main team, and its sporting and economic costs do not bode well for the club.
Carles Alena and Riqui Puig look like the latest graduates that may play a part in the first team long-term but at this stage, it is too early to say this.
Things have gotten so bad that Barcelona B now plays in the Segunda B (third division) after relegation from the Segunda two seasons ago (it finished 8th last season).
Restructuring of La Masia is needed to secure the club’s future as it cannot continue to burn money the way it has been doing.
#3 Reduce dependence on Messi
Messi-dependencia is a reality even if the player/manager denies it. It is not an exaggeration to say that a large chunk of the credit for Barcelona’s season should go to the Argentine maestro.
In 50 games this season, Lionel Messi got 51 goals and 19 assists, numbers that are the envy of the cream of world football. However, at certain times, the strain of being both creator and scorer has weighed him down and this, in turn, has affected the team’s productivity.
Ousmane Dembele (injuries), Malcom (untrusted by Valverde), and the disappointing Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez failed to aid Messi in adding value to the team.
The Uruguayan striker got 21 goals in La Liga but it should have been much more given the plethora of chances he was presented with. It was worse in the UCL as he only got 1 goal in 10 appearances (Dembele got 3 in 8 games).
With news that Antoine Griezmann could be on his way to Barcelona, the burden for goalscoring/assists should reduce from Messi’s shoulders.
The Argentine will be a year older by the time the 2019/20 season ends so it would make sense for the team to be structured in a way that gets the best out of him while gradually reducing the dependence on him.
#2 Avoid the transfer mistakes of the recent past
It needs to be said; Barcelona’s transfers have been abysmal over the last couple of seasons. Josep Bartomeu and his technical team; Eric Abidal (technical secretary), Jordi Mestre (director of football) and Jose Segura (general manager of footballing) have not done the best job in terms of player recruitment.
The €222m earned from the sale of Neymar to PSG was badly spent and no amount of whitewashing can change that.
In its desperation to show off as a still-big club following the Se Queda fiasco and the bloody nose PSG gave to it, the board showed ineptitude in signing Philippe Coutinho for an initial £105m (rising to £140m with add-ons) and Ousmane Dembele for £135.5m.
The French winger has only impressed in fits and starts as injury issues have hampered his game time. The same cannot be said for Coutinho who has been a massive disappointment since arriving from Liverpool.
The arrival of Arturo Vidal last season was another head-scratcher as the club already had Arthur, Busquets, Alena, and Rakitic in the same position.
The idea of Griezmann for a rumoured £105m does not sit well given that his best position is currently occupied by Messi.
The club will need to be far smarter in the market if they are to avoid making the same mistakes as before.
#1 For the love of God, play with pace
The Pep-Guardiola era is one that Barcelona fans will never forget due to the quality of football as well as the many trophies won.
One of the hallmarks of that era was the quickness of play; one-two touch passing, closing down early and harrying opponents off the ball.
A younger Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Pedro, Dani Alves and more meant that the team could, given the speed in its ranks, pass quickly to turn defence into attack.
This has been lost under the Valverde era as the team sits back more these days to soak up pressure while the buildup is often slow and ponderous.
The 55-year-old tactician’s refusal to integrate Malcolm into the team last season was stupefying as it was clear to even the most casual observer that his speed would be vital for the attack given the constant injuries of Dembele.
Play needs to be sped up to ensure that the team is not overwhelmed in the way it was by teams like Liverpool and Real Betis last season.
Wing-play has always been an essential part of the Barca DNA and Valverde would do well to make sure this works next season.