Barcelona have been far from their best post-lockdown and, unless an unexpected miracle happens, they will lose their La Liga crown to a more solid Real Madrid in the next couple of weeks.
While I do accept that some VAR judgements have been puzzling since La Liga restarted, to blame referees and dubious back-handed conspiracies for Barca’s obvious shortcomings does not paint the full picture, and doesn’t help the Catalans’ long-term future either.
If Barcelona fail to win the domestic league title, the finger should be pointed inwards and firmly towards the board, the coaching staff and the players – in that order.
Speaking on The Barcelona Podcast, I have repeatedly argued that the board of directors, lead by Josep Maria Bartomeu, have made a series of disastrous transfer decisions that have resulted in the current squad being less talented, more entitled, stagnant in their ways and, bluntly, not good enough to bring Barca the trophies that supporters of the club expect.
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Quique Setien was appointed as Barcelona’s manager in January. While it was clear the players needed a change from Ernesto Valverde’s downhill dynamics, the board should have pulled the trigger much earlier – six months earlier to be exact, and immediately after the embarrassing debacle against Liverpool at Anfield last summer.
Was Setien the best managerial choice for Barcelona as Valverde’s replacement? Let’s just say that, with both Xavi and Ronald Koeman rejecting Bartomeu’s offers, the former Real Betis manager was the best choice left – his admiration for Johan Cruyff’s legacy and style of play being the strongest point in his favour.
Setien landed at the Camp Nou without a pre-season, having had absolutely no influence in choosing his players and, as a result, facing a much more difficult task than anticipated.
While Setien was a professional player for decades, he didn’t actually play for any truly major clubs in his career. While this wouldn’t normally matter in most clubs around the world, it does at Barca.
Having to change the ways of perennial winners such as Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti or Luis Suarez (whose trophy cabinets already boast World Cups, several Champions Leagues and countless La Liga trophies) is proving far more difficult than anticipated.
As I analysed in the latest The Barcelona Podcast, it is sad to see how the points mentioned above have resulted in the team hitting an invidible wall in terms of performance in the second halves of matches due to alarming exhaustion. Sure, it is understandable, but it is painful to see.
Setien should have rotated the team better since his arrival at the Camp Nou, and the result is hard to watch. The team is dead, especially in second halves. The players seem to turn on survival mode when needed, as if they were in fact aware of their limitations and capable of adapting within games.
I personally can’t fault the players’ pride, which is a positive. Our Barcelona players clearly want to win and run further, but just can’t. The core of the current group have won 8 of the last 11 Ligas and won’t give up the 12th without a fight – and rightly so.
Of course, I do believe that players could have done more, and earlier, to support Setien’s ideals but, at this point, all that can be done is pulling together to fight for common objectives.
In order to counter the team’s obvious physical exhaustion, Setien has been experimenting with different formations in the last three games. Against Valladolid, he returned to the original idea he tried to implement back in January, with two centre-backs (plus Sergi Roberto dropping as a third CB when needed, to help build attacking plays) and two wide full-backs.
I was pleased to see Setien tweaking and still trying to make things better, even though it is not always going to work. The job of a manager is to constantly improve things, and it is a great sign that he is at least trying to get inventive to take more out of his team.
Rather than letting things run its course and play along with the ‘downhill’ feeling around the team, Setien is taking action – which is essential if Barcelona are to have any chance of knocking Napoli out of the Champions League and challenge for the big-eared trophy in August.
Whether Barca have got enough gas left in their tank to become European champions remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: The Blaugranes would have absolutely no chance of success if Setien stuck to the 4-3-3 formation given the multiple injuries that key players are suffering and overall exhaustion (both physical and mental) within his current squad.