A DERBY defeat is bad enough, but a second in less than a week is an indignity: particularly if the team on the losing end is what some observers regard as the best team in the world. Yet that is the reality facing Fútebol Club Barcelona. There are a number of reasons I believe which have contributed to this scenario, some of which are unfortunate, but a number of which could have been avoided.
To start with, I must make two admissions which are likely to startle. I was never the biggest fan of Josep Guardiola as coach at Camp Nou, and I have very little faith in the reign of Sandro Rosell, the current club president. To avoid this piece taking the form of a rambling rant, I will only address what I feel are a few key areas.
The first of these is the most controversial: what Pep got wrong. History will reflect on Guardiola as a truly special coach who made the world look in awe at his work with FC Barcelona and even claim that it was football perfection. This is very much appropriate.
However, for every great win and dominating performance there was a questionable decision or risk which didn’t quite pay off. Despite promotion to the first team, Bojan Krkić left the club in a far less romantic manner than the traditional La Masia success story. Now the Catalan is playing at AC Milan, and the young forward may be justified a wry grin if his current employers do manage to complete the work they started in Milan against the ‘blaugrana’ last week. Bojan was not the atypical silky striker, not every player who graduates from an academy even as illustrious as Barça’s can. Yet Bojan is exactly the kind of antidote they could do with having in their squad as an ailing Davíd Villa, lacklustre Alexís Sanchez and overburdened Lionel Messi all experience an inconvenient drop in form just as they faced a double-header at their seemingly manic arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Yet Bojan, and his predecessor Samuel Eto’o and successor Zlatan Ibrahimovic all fell foul of Pep’s master plan. The title wins would suggest Pep was right, but perhaps these risks are starting to backfire, just at the time when Tito, the tactician under Guardiola, is sadly going through a period of poor health. Courageous though it has been to see Jordi Roura try to ensure continuity while Tito is indisposed, the tools simply are not there to carry on the world-beating football which many have admired.
Another ingenuity which appears to be stuttering somewhat is the concept of taking defensive-midfielders and applying them at centre-half when required. Javier Mascherano, Sergi Busquets and Alexandre Song have all been applied thusly at some point, but when you have youth prospects such as Marc Muniesa waiting patiently in the wings it appears a bizarre concept.
Linked to this are the seemingly political and PR-friendly decisions which the club has made under the leadership of current president Sandro Rosell. As a former executive at sportswear giant Nike, Rosell is no doubt aware of how to make a brand maximise its potential. There are admirable examples of this with the upcoming ‘peace match’ which will see Barcelona field a team against a side made up of Palestinian and Israeli football players in an attempt to improve cohesion and integration amidst the ingoing conflict. There are others which have been unpopular, such as the sponsorship deal with Qatar Foundation, and other which have clearly boosted the brand, such as the homecoming of Francesc Fábregas.
Though the return of Cesc was welcomed enthusiastically by the Barça family, it cost a significant amount of money, and the biggest issue with that is that he was not a sure-fire starter by any means. Yet he is neither young enough to still be considered a hot prospect, nor gifted enough to be seen as a talisman. He is not the replacement for Xavi Hernandez in my view, and is certainly not more effective than his contemporaries in the midfield: he stands in the way of Thiago who has worked his way through the youth ranks and I believe is a better option. Buying success is not the FCB way, so why has it been so common recently for the club to spend vast sums on Henry, Zlatan, Chygrinskiy, Caceres, Cesc and Alexís to name a few.
The worst of these was the decision to sign attacker Keirrison da Souza from Palmeiras and defender Henriques. While the centre-back made cameo appearances in between loan spells at Bayer Leverkusen and Racing Santander among others, he did not play a single full season at Camp Nou. As for Keirrison, he did not even manage to earn a single appearance for his parent club, and is currently seeing out the rest of what was a long-term deal in his native Brasil.
This merely creates a situation where the big-names expect to play while the ‘cantera’ wait for their chances to play. It has the effect of making these young starlets seem not as capable in comparison.
Both Andreu Fontàs and Issac Cuenca have both been loaned out, primarily for first-team football and experience, though when previous youth-turned-senior players such as Marc Crosas were sent elsewhere to continue their development, they did not succeed in breaking into the coveted FC Barcelona first team.
The third aspect which the club should address urgently is caused by something not even world-beaters can prevent, age. Captain Carles Puyol has recovered from two serious leg injuries in recent seasons and his leadership cannot be questioned. Yet both he and Xavi are not getting any younger, and there is no apparent candidates getting enough game time to show they are ready to succeed them. Gerard Pique for all his talent has other commitments, and the aforementioned Muniesa has been unlucky with both bad-timing and injury.
Meanwhile, Victor Valdes has stated his intention not to renew his contract. He made it clear early enough to allow the club time to seal a replacement, yet number-two keeper Pinto is older, and none of Oier, Masip or Banuz appear to have had enough faith put into them to be promoted and eased into the senior team. Which leaves them looking to splash out yet again on a player in a critical position.
On the other hand, it is not all bad news. The security of Puyol, Xavi and Messi all pledging their long-term future will ensure the team stays at least in part, capable of winning titles and challenging the European elite. The hope is that Vilanova will recover and be allowed to continue his plan which was so sadly interrupted, and that perhaps the current crop of home-grown talent which the club markets itself on with pride, will exhibit the brilliance of those that went before them.
To their credit, the squad can still boast the exceptionally talented Andres Iniesta, whom many have regarded as second only to Messi in his class, and the ever-versatile Adriano. They have the effervescent Jordi Alba, who like Cesc, returned home to his boyhood club, and in Thiago, Tello, Dos Santos, Bartra and Montoya have the potential to breed another indigenous Barça super-team. Deulofeu is among a number of Barça B players who would be expected to make the step up to the first team sooner rather than later.
In the short term it appears another Prìmera title is secure, they remain in contention for the Champions League and their nemesis José Mourinho is due to leave in the summer, so the opportunity is there for FCB to block the resurgence of their heated foes. Only time will tell.
Decisions will have to be taken though, however unpopular or unorthodox they may seem at the time, for the long-term prosperity of the club. Best team in the world? Watch this space to see how long that sentiment rings true.
A fan on fitba, NFL and ruggerby league in that order. Dundee exile, based in Perth. A journalist as well apparently.