Fallen Empire: Barcelona’s sorry plight laid bare in all its misery in Champions League loss – what now for crestfallen Catalans?
As Gerard Pique put it after a 3-0 drubbing by Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona’s current team in the post-Lionel Messi era “is what it is”: a horrendous, goal-shy shell of itself which no longer sits at the table of Europe’s elite.
Those heading along Madrid Avenue – yes, really – and then up Carrer del Comandant Benitez towards Camp Nou before kick-off might have been given the impression that all is well among the Barca fanbase.
On the Travessa de les Corts side street where there is a small park, ultras gathered outside the bars beating drums and bellowing at the top of the lungs, and there seemed to be a buzzing optimism among the near 40,000 – or 40% of the biggest ground in Europe’s capacity – as another campaign on the continent kicked off this time without the club’s greatest ever player.
Remember that last time against this opposition, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner was of little use as they slumped to their worst defeat in modern times that was the 8-2 massacre in Lisbon.
The booing and whistling of the anthem misconstrued as support for the Super League president Joan Laporta still backs alongside his counterparts at Real Madrid, and not UEFA’s ban of brandishing Catalan flags, Ronald Koeman’s men actually got off to a lot better start this time round.
Jokes aside, they’ve started quite well and look very comfortable
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) September 14, 2021
With 20 minutes down, though – a quarter of an hour before Thomas Muller’s opener was deflected by Eric Garcia past Ter Stegen – reality crept in and the disparities started to show.
The stats don’t lie, and by the full-time whistle, a litany of them demonstrated the gulf in quality and class between these two sides.
The 3-0 scoreline is obviously the biggest indicator, but Barca ran 15 kilometers less (124.7 to 109.8) than the visitors, who SPORT reported felt physically superior to their foes pre-match, and both failed to register a single shot on goal while falling to three consecutive home defeats for the first time in competition history.
– 0 goals
– 0 shots on target
– 47% possession
– Sitting back
– Counter-attacking style
Not the same Barcelona. pic.twitter.com/Xa68aLoB1L
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 14, 2021
While Koeman cannot take the blame for what happened in Lisbon, that trio of drubbings have all been on his watch.
Including 3-0 and 4-1 defeats to Juventus and PSG respectively too, this reads as 10-1 on aggregate to elite opposition and indicates that even though the Blaugrana might scrape through a group which also contains Dynamo Kiev and Benfica, another sobering demolition awaits in the knockouts as soon as they meet a heavyweight.
It should go without saying, but it is only by attending a match at the Camp Nou these days and not simply scrolling through the comments section of any post the club makes on social media that one gets a true sense of how Culers feel.
Granted there were whistles and jeers after every Bayern goal, and for players such as Sergi Roberto – who reportedly burst into tears in the locker room at such treatment – believed to be moneygrabbers stalling on new contracts and reducing their salaries.
But the biggest cheers went to the young substitutes. And with Barca finishing the game with a handful of 18-year-olds who didn’t look out of place, and six players in total aged 22 or under, the current outfit may be hopeless on the whole but there is hope for the future.
Biggest noise of the night as Gavi, 17, gets yellow for tactical foul in centre-circle. Followed by chants of “Gavi, Gavi.”
— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) September 14, 2021
Despite him arrogantly saying that if the club has a future it is because of him, however, it shouldn’t be with Koeman and there is a growing contingent who are aware of this as a “Koeman Out” banner was removed from the terraces.
Setting up in a 3-5-2 – perhaps much to the chagrin of Laporta who wants him to honor the hallowed 4-3-3 – and merely hoping for damage control, the Dutchman’s approach was once again wrong from the start.
For all their tiki-taka at intervals, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong were “drowned” in the center of the park while, as ex-Mundo Deportivo scribe Francesc Aguilar put it, new signings Memphis Depay and Luuk de Jong were “isolated up top like two shipwrecks” as the ball failed to reach them.
— Blaugrana Planet (@BlaugranaPlanet) September 14, 2021
Often criticized for failing to adapt in La Liga games when lesser teams equalize or take the lead, Koeman at least didn’t wait too long to make his changes this time.
Yet as has been pointed out, trusting in youth isn’t bringing them on when the game is already lost, but instead giving them more minutes on the whole so that they are gradually ready for such big assignments.
As the deadweight and stop-gap budget signings are phased out while the club gets its ailing finances back on track, La Masia youth academy products such as Gavi, Ansu Fati and Nico Rodriguez are believed capable of getting the club to return to its philosophy.
Under Koeman, sitting on the backfoot at home scared to threaten Manuel Neuer is an insult to the blueprint laid down by Johan Cruyff and honored by Pep Guardiola.
An enranged pundit, Josep Capdevila, demanded that Laporta “rip down” the poster of the legendary number 14 Koeman has in his office, and the fact that a meeting was held with directors past 2am, where Laporta allegedly “exploded” with Koeman, shows they are perhaps already thinking of ringing changes.
❗Laporta exploded in yesterday’s meeting with Koeman. The tension between the two was high.
— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) September 15, 2021
SPORT say on Wednesday afternoon that the coach – a Barca icon for scoring the winning goal in their first UCL triumph against Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992 – has three games to turn things round which will be played from next Monday to Sunday against Granada, Cadiz and Levante.
But even if he pulls through those, slip ups are destined to appear on the horizon.
There is reportedly a cost of €12 million ($14.2 million) to get rid of Koeman, while they still owe €4 million ($4.7 million) to his predecessor Quique Setien.
Perhaps letting him finish the season and offloading players in the January transfer window is a required sacrifice, though, and after that there is really only one man for the job.
🗣️[ @Alfremartinezz🥇] | The FC Barcelona board of directors do not trust Ronald Koeman and ‘have very serious doubts that he will carry out what they want’. There is a possibility of the return of Xavi Hernandez and the club have already made their first contacts with him. pic.twitter.com/fdvkPSBeEr
— BarçaTimes (@BarcaTimes) September 7, 2021
In a move that could replicate how Laporta trusted an untested Guardiola in 2008 before the club entered its most golden era, the Catalans must take a punt on his fellow La Masia pearl Xavi Hernandez to truly rebuild from the ground up on the sporting side of things.
Even if the Bayerns of this world wouldn’t be beaten overnight, Barca would at least be true to the religion and philosophy they have so evidently lost grip of.
By Tom Sanderson at Camp Nou