Messi, Barcelona and a Neymar-less loss of identity

Date published: Wednesday 5th February 2020 8:55

Lionel Messi Barcelona

The ‘Valverde Out’ campaign among a section of Barcelona fans may have achieved its aims, but it’s pretty clear that the problems at Barcelona run far deeper than the manager.

The running of the club has bordered on shambolic in recent times, and the last few weeks have thrown up several examples of the ineptitude of the current regime.

The decision to sack Ernesto Valverde may prove to have been the correct one, but the timing was bizarre to say the least. Why not sack him after the Anfield capitulation in May, or at the end of last season? It was odd for the club suits to have backed him for so long, only to dismiss him after defeat in the Supercopa de España, midway through the January transfer window with the club top of the league.

You could almost understand it if they had the perfect managerial candidate waiting in the wings ready to take over. Instead they publicly courted Xavi, only to be knocked back, before reportedly turning their attention to Ronald Koeman and Thierry Henry and being met with similar responses. Eventually they landed on the out-of-work ex-Betis boss Quique Setién – a fine manager to be sure, but far from first choice.

The ham-fisted handling of the managerial change was followed by an equally bungled attempt to sign a striker. The long-term injury to Luis Suárez meant Barça needed to dip into the transfer market to sign a short-term replacement, preferably one who could become the Uruguayan’s successor in the longer term. They were linked with every striker and his dog – most notably Rodrigo Moreno of Valencia, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Richarlison of Everton – amongst many others.

So who did they sign in the end? No-one, that’s who. Actually that’s not quite true – they did agree a deal to sign Portuguese forward Francisco Trincão in the summer – but a striker is needed now, particularly with a busy domestic and European schedule on the horizon.

Once their prime targets were taken off the table, Barcelona were perhaps understandably reluctant to sign an inferior striker after last year’s failed Kevin-Prince Boateng venture, but surely there would have been someone reasonably competent available to do the job. Willian José and Wissam Ben Yedder were mentioned, and either could have been viable options.

Setién had been talking up the return of Ousmane Dembélé from injury as the answer to their striker shortage, but the Frenchman has now picked up a hamstring tear in training and will be out for the rest of the season. As a result, they only have three forwards available – Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi and Ansu Fati. Ideally, with Messi’s advancing years, they would like the option of resting him occasionally, but that will no longer be possible. Fati is just 17 years old and won’t be able to play every game. The decision not to sign a striker – and indeed the decision to send winger Carles Pérez out on loan to Roma – seems baffling to say the least.

Now, on top of all this, public divisions have emerged between the players and the board. Technical Director Eric Abidal gave an interview to Barcelona-based paper Sport on Tuesday saying that a lack of effort from the players was a contributing factor in Valverde’s demise, to which Messi –the club captain and a former team-mate of Abidal – responded on behalf of the players in pretty strong terms.

The Argentine posted on Instagram saying that Abidal should talk about individuals rather than tar all the players with the same brush, and said that those in charge at the club had to take their share of responsibility too,

For the usually taciturn Messi to speak out so frankly shows that something is not right behind the scenes. This comes in the wake of reports of a falling-out between the players and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu over his promise to bring Neymar back to the club. The playing staff are said to believe that his attempts to re-sign the popular Brazilian were half-hearted at best, and doomed to failure from the start.

The presidential elections are due to take place next summer, and a change of president may well be on the cards. As it stands, the club’s socis are likely to favour regime change, with many feeling that the club has lost its way under Bartomeu. They have spent a lot of money, but despite domestic dominance they have had to watch mortal enemies Real Madrid pick up three Champions League titles since they last won the top prize. There is a feeling that with their vast outlay has come a loss of identity – the Masia-dominated squad is a thing of the past, and the Cruyffist, Més Que Un Club era seems to be getting further and further away.

Víctor Font is the favourite to unseat Bartomeu at the upcoming elections, and he is likely to bring close ally Xavi with him, which will surely be a popular move among the players and fans.

In the meantime, Barcelona need to focus their efforts on overhauling Real Madrid to retain their title, and seeking the elusive Champions League crown. This would be difficult enough, but with the players arguing with the board and a shortage of fit strikers, it will be a significantly tougher task.

Dan Bridges

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