For a while now, I’ve had this feeling: this was not how it was supposed to go for Luis Enrique’s Barça. It’s not just that the team has lost games, or not played as beautifully as it should given the caliber of players at its disposal. It’s not even that Luis Enrique announced he will leave at the end of this season – that seemed likely even before Christmas. It’s that the evolution of this team over three seasons fundamentally has not made sense to me.
What Luis Enrique achieved in 2014-15 has slowly been rewritten by some groups as a flash in the pan, a brief moment where the stars aligned and he seized an opportunity. That analysis does him a great disservice. What Luis Enrique did was historic, not only because of the wins and the trophies, but because it put a reset button on the post-Pep Barça, a renewal of the squad, mentality, and tactical philosophy that was badly needed. I honestly felt this team was set up for a dynasty. Not because he is a perfect manager – his faults are clear and well-discussed – but because Barça had all the building blocks it needed to grow from strength to strength.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that have confused me since May 2015: A team that had a top-3 defense in Europe has spent the last season and a half growing gradually more porous and open. Messi, who seemed to find a new life on the right wing in 14/15, has largely vacated the position, causing structural challenges for the rest of the team from that flank. Despite a host of talented midfielders in the squad, none have really clicked and Barça continues to struggle to dominate the midfield. The two most talented youngsters in the Barça academy both left without ever being an official part of the first team.
So what happened?
Simply put, I think Barcelona’s president, board, and fans have created an environment where short-term winning was the goal, particularly with regards to the youth system, and so nothing more than short-term winning is feasible. Luis Enrique could not build a team for the long-term because each summer he had to make a sensational team better.
Think about it. Lucho has been roundly criticized for the departures of Alejandro Griamldo and Sergi Samper, but the failures don’t lie on the shoulders of an individual, but a system and a culture. Both had a massive leap to make from the third division to La Liga, as a result of years of neglect of the B team. Should Lucho have promoted them, and Barça lost games with them involved, the response would be dire.
The signing of Andre Gomes, the Munir – Paco Alcacer swap – these are moves driven by an insane arms race, a need to raise the bar of a super-team higher each season for fear of being caught by Real Madrid, Bayern, or simply age.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that homegrown players matter: not for a moral victory, but for maintaining continuity and chemistry over time. Arda Turan, Denis Suárez, and Andre Gomes are all extremely talented players – but none have ever really slotted into this team in a natural way. They’re also all attacking midfielders, where the profile Barça really needs, an orchestrator, is rarely found on the transfer market (which is why cules spend their free time these days fawning over Thiago and Marco Verratti).
This is not to say that Samper or Grimaldo would have magically fixed all of Barça’s current issues had they stayed. But, had both been given the resources to grow, both at the B team and on the benches of the first team, this team would have a host of other options in front of it. The 3-4-3 currently being played would be a natural fit for Grimaldo on the left. The defensive CM / Busquets replacement Gomes is currently functioning as could be filled by Samper. If the midfield had more control, Messi could stay out wide more comfortably and keep the team’s positional structure intact.
Of course, the what-ifs go further. Imagine if Barça hadn’t had a transfer ban (which, remind you, came from gross neglect by the board), and hadn’t spent the entire 15/16 season short-handed and exhausted. Imagine if Bartomeu hadn’t been allowed to sign Arda Turan while out of office – and if socis hadn’t reelected him for it. The game goes on and on, but the consistent theme is a total lack of support for the youth system at a systemic level, without which it is extraordinarily difficult to build a long-term successful team.
Even if this season ends in Champions League glory, or a treble, I will be unable to shake the sensation that this team should have been so much more, should have formed an era. Many will argue that such things are simply impossible in modern football, that no team lasts more than 3-4 seasons. Maybe that’s true. But if it is, we are part of the reason why.
If cules genuinely want to be a club unlike others, we need to recognize our own culpability. Recognize that demanding constant success, subjecting a manager to insane scrutiny after every loss or less-than-convincing win, constantly looking for the next shiny object on the transfer market, contributes to this short-term mentality. Recognize that the elections of Rosell and Bartomeu, which now feel like distant past, continue to shape the future of this club every day.
For myself, I will try to stop nit-picking or solving any specific problem in the team in front of me, and recognize that there are larger issues at play beyond any individual’s control. I will always maintain that Luis Enrique was the manager this club needed, and that he deserved better. For the rest of season, and for whichever brave soul chooses to manager this team next, I’m just hoping to enjoy the ride.