FC Barcelona go into the new Liga Santander football season with the task of regaining the title that Real Madrid took from them in the last campaign, but with the feeling that for the moment at least they are playing catch-up against their main rivals, who have been able to build a stronger squad, while a lack of planning has seen Barca going backwards.
That was made clear in their 1-5 aggregate Supercup defeat to Real Madrid in which Barca can perhaps count themselves lucky the defeat was not heavier, reports Xinhua news agency.
The summer started well as the club wasted no time in naming former Athletic Club Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde as the replacement for Luis Enrique, bringing in a man who had not only played for the club, but who also is known for employing the high-pressure, passing game that has long been Barca’s trademark.
After a positive start and a pre-season win over Real Madrid in Miami, things worsened for Barcelona when Neymar jumped ship, joining Paris Saint Germain in a move worth an incredible €222 million ($260 million).
The sale seemed to take Barca’s Board of Directors totally by surprise, as if they believed the club was too big for one of its star players to ever leave and there is no doubt it has dealt a heavy blow to the collective confidence at the Camp Nou.
Replacements for Neymar will no doubt arrive before the end of August with Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele being lined up to replace him, but it’s now very clearly a seller’s market and Barca can expect to pay anywhere between €260-300 million ($305-$350 million) to buy the pair; more than they would have spent if the shopping had done earlier in the summer.
But the worrying thing for Barca fans is that the Neymar affair is indicative of the lack of forward planning at the club, which has seemingly placed too much faith in the ‘Barca style’ for itself, while neglecting to keep an eye on the players who are its main architects.
Recent seasons have seen Xavi Hernandez, perhaps the most important player in the Barca style, retire to play in Qatar. Dani Alves also left, while Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano are now 33 years old.
None of these players have been adequately replaced (although you could argue Coutinho could step into Iniesta’s boots), meanwhile Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique are going into their 10th season with the Barca first team and Leo Messi has been there even longer.
In short, there has been little turnover in the Barca squad, with players brought in recent seasons. Arda Turan, Andres Gomes, Lucas Digne, Paco Alcacer, Aleix Vidal and others are yet to prove they are good enough on a regular basis (and they have had plenty of chances).
So far Barca’s only incorporations have been right-back Nelson Semedo, Gerard Deuloufeu, who joined AC Milan on loan last season after disappointing at Everton and Paulinho, who joined for €40 million ($46.9 million) from China, but whose last European adventure with Tottenham was a disappointment.
In other seasons the B-team could also be expected to provide new faces, but Rafinha has struggled with injuries, Sergi Samper has been told he can leave, as has Munir. In short the ‘Masia’ youth system is not producing players it did when Busquets, Pique, Messi and Iniesta all came through the ranks.
Maybe Paulinho could surprise the critics and his energy may be useful to a midfield which seems to lack pace. Meanwhile Valverde could bring the best out of Andres Gomes and have Arda working the wings as he did at Atletico Madrid and Coutinho and Dembele rekindle optimism among the fans, but with the new season about to start it looks as if Barca are playing catch up with Madrid.
If things go badly, expect the fans to demand club President, Josep Maria Bartomeu’s resignation, complicating the atmosphere in the Camp Nou and also the future of Valverde, a fine coach and a decent man, who may have joined the club at the wrong time.