It was the 85th minute of last night’s Champions League tie between Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and the home side were clinging on to what little dignity they had remaining. Finding themselves 3-1 down, they had conceded three away goals and, had fans been allowed in the Camp Nou, would surely have been subject to the kind of widespread whistling that comes hand in hand with discontent at Spain’s biggest clubs.
Ronald Koeman’s side were on the attack, looking for a stroke of inspiration to rejuvenate their hopes going into March 10th’s return leg. Instead, a chain of events were set in motion that epitomise everything wrong with Barcelona at the moment.
A loose ball broke on the edge of the PSG penalty area. Lionel Messi lined up a long range effort, but substitute Julian Draxler nipped in front of him and managed to toe the ball away. Miralem Pjanic darted ten yards up the pitch to confront Draxler, dived in and and allowed Draxler to move the ball on to a teammate. Draxler continued his run, received a return pass and drove half the length of the pitch; he eventually slipped in Kylian Mbappe, who finished stupendously to round off his hat-trick and, effectively, the tie.
While Draxler burst forward, Messi was walking backwards towards the halfway line. When Mbappe fired home, Pjanic (supposedly meant to be Barca’s deepest lying midfielder) wasn’t even in range of the BT Sport cameras. 4-1 was the final score, and what did Koeman do? Smile and hug an opposition player within seconds of the full-time whistle. This could be a new low for Barcelona – and there’s been some serious competition.
So what was this epitomisation? Well, these actions from Messi and Pjanic highlighted a problem which was pinpointed a number of years ago, and has still yet to be effectively addressed; an ageing squad. Messi doesn’t really fall into this category in the way some of his peers do; like Cristiano Ronaldo, his genius is unwavering and he is still among the best players in the world.
Pjanic, however, put his cards on the table for everyone to see. His mobility has severely declined in recent years and so, judging by this ill-timed slide tackle, has his decision making. The attempted tackle was poor in its execution – the Bosnian was a clear second-favourite to win the ball, and backed those odds up as he skidded past the advancing Draxler.
The decision to even go for the tackle in the first place was arguably more worrying, however. Barca were already two goals down, but would have had at least a glimmer of hope heading to Paris. What good did Pjanic think he was doing by diving in so recklessly so high up the pitch? By doing so, he left his defenders woefully exposed and they were punished by PSG’s quality on the counter attack. If Pjanic had remained in his original position, he may have been able to stall the quick break and preserve the scoreline.
A younger Pjanic would surely have decided against this sort of impulse-driven reaction. He’s not the only one who has fallen victim to age, however.
Jordi Alba is 31-years-old, which is hardly the prime age for a darting full back. Gerard Pique, at 34, is still performing admirably but a decline has been noticeable (it is no coincidence he started both last night’s rout and the 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich last season). Sergio Busquets is 32 and his mobility has severely declined; he was easily overrun by PSG’s midfield last night. Messi turns 34 himself in June. The entire spine of Barca’s side have been playing continuously for well over ten years, and their decrease in performance levels have been out there for all to see. Their thrashing last night should have put another nail in their coffin.
There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the club willing to hammer that nail in, however, and that’s down to another factor which has plagued Barca for a while now – an over-reliance on Messi. While stars have come and gone from the Catalan club, the Argentine has remained and performed as well as ever. This seems to have had a negative impact on the rest of the squad’s ability.
In the past when Barca were accused of being too Messi-orientated, these accusations were easily denied. Neymar and Luis Suarez contributed heavily to one of the most feared frontlines in footballing history. Andres Iniesta chipped in with important goals and assists on a regular basis. Supporting strikers such as David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o had starring roles (albeit for varying lengths of time).
Now, however, these accusations are well-founded. When Barca are in trouble, they look to Messi. When they need a goal, they look to Messi. When they need an assist, they look to Messi. It’s an extremely unhealthy coping mechanism, but the main problem is that it usually works. Such is Messi’s alien-like ability, he has pulled more game-winning moments out of the bag than James Bond has pulled Bond girls.
When it doesn’t work, the results are disastrous. Messi scored a penalty last night, but was otherwise quiet. Without his creative influence, Barca struggled to create many chances of note and were shut out by PSG’s well-marshalled back line. Koeman’s system, like many of his predecessors’, cannot function if Messi isn’t involved. Teammates don’t know what to do without a focal point. Koeman doesn’t know what to change tactically. They don’t normally need an alternative because Messi is so consistent.
It’s quite simple; Barca won’t realise they need to change their style until Messi leaves and they’re required to consistently find answers without him. This will lead them to alter their transfer policy, which is as unorganised and disjointed as their defence are.
Some of the club board’s decisions in recent transfer markets have been baffling. Allowing Suarez to join Atletico Madrid for free, who he has subsequently fired clear at the top of La Liga, was borderline insane. Swapping a 23-year-old Arthur for 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic was strange on paper, and has proven to be just that with the midfielder making just five domestic starts this season. Martin Braithwaite has done himself credit, but surely he isn’t Barcelona standard? Ousmane Dembele had just 92 senior appearances under his belt when they splashed £91.5million on him.
The signing of Philippe Coutinho for £139million has benefitted Liverpool more than Barca themselves, and they have now decided to freeze him out of first team action due to an unwillingness to meet a clause that would require them to pay the English club an extra fee.
The reasons behind Barca continually making these strange transfer dealings are beyond many of us, but it is clear they don’t believe they require a major rebuild at the moment. Finances are reportedly under immense strain, but a huge chunk will be freed up if Messi is allowed to leave and his lucrative contract is brought to an end. That will allow whoever is in charge to get the side back on the right track.
Is the man in charge right for the job, though? Ronald Koeman has done very little to convince critics he is the right man to take the club forward. If you go on social media and listen to board members or fans, however, you’ll find a unanimous opinion a large percentage of them seem to share; no other manager would do any better considering Barca’s circumstances.
There are a number of things to consider here. Off-field matters do tend to have some sort of impact on the pitch, but that doesn’t mean they have to. Koeman’s main two jobs should be distracting his players from the mess upstairs and formulating a cohesive tactical plan. He doesn’t appear to have done either of these things.
The Dutchman has switched regularly between 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations this season, finally settling on the latter and beginning to string together stronger (emphasis on the ‘er’) runs of form in a domestic sense. This was the setup he employed last night, however, and Barca were picked apart with ease. Something clearly isn’t right.
Is that really down to Koeman’s hands being tied, however? Is there really no manager out there that could do better with this group of players? If you can look yourself in the eye and say that Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp wouldn’t lead this group of players on a title charge, then I applaud your bravery.
Koeman’s suitability for a role of this size if questionable. He won league titles with Ajax and PSV, but that’s hardly a miracle in the Dutch Eredevisie. He struggled at Valencia and AZ Alkmaar. He was very successful at Southampton, but failed miserably with Everton. He failed to beat Portugal in the 2019 UEFA League Final as Netherlands boss before being appointed at Barca.
Things have been underwhelming to say the least, but Koeman is reportedly being given the benefit of the doubt because he is an ex-player the fans can relate to. Why? What extra qualification does having played for a club get you in the world of football management? Too much leeway these days, apparently. If Koeman hadn’t played for Barcelona in his younger years, he would likely have been sacked by now.
There is a huge to-do list at Barcelona, but ticking off can’t begin until Lionel Messi leaves the club. Only then will the club realise their ageing players are beyond repair. Only then will the hierarchy admit to an over-reliance on the Argentine. Only then will they realise their recruitment policy must improve if they are to compete again. Only then will they realise they require a higher quality of coach.
Letting Messi go clearly won’t be easy for Barca, or even desirable – as shown by last summer’s spat. However, it’s clear that the club must bite the bullet and let go of the best player their side has ever seen.