Barca’s battle: Pique is right, Barcelona ‘needs change’. But simply sacking managers will not solve club’s deep problems
Barcelona have, in the words of veteran Gerard Pique, hit ‘rock bottom’. Drastic changes are needed to prevent the club losing its status as a European powerhouse, but frequently replacing managers is the tip of a titanic iceberg.
An emotional Pique summed up the atmosphere at Barcelona after his club’s 8-2 humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich in their Champions League quarter final in Estadio Da Luz. Close to tears, the native Catalunian admitted the club at which he began his glittering career 23 years ago had hit “rock bottom”.
“The club needs change and I am not talking about the coach or the players, I am not pointing the finger at anyone,” he said, the emotional impact of Barca’s heaviest-ever European defeat evidently etched in the rugged defender’s voice.
Pique was right. And the club swiftly acted by relieving beleaguered boss Quique Setien of his duties days after the defeat and after only seven months in the job. But sacking their coach is far from a solution to huge cracks in Barca foundations.
Barcelona’s problems run deeper than one man and a one-off freak result. One of Spanish football’s two flagships had been in dire need of navigation, and are in danger of sailing straight into a mutiny if it doesn’t come soon.
Cracks in the foundations of one of European football’s powerhouses of the last decade have been apparent for some time. Their loss of a close Spanish title race last season to fiercest rivals Real Madrid represented a huge dent in Barca pride, especially as the title has been contested only between the country’s two main clubs for the past six seasons.
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Half way through that season and Barca, then the reigning champions, cut ties with manager Ernesto Valverde, the man who had delivered the championship in his first two seasons, including the league and cup double in his first full term.
He was deemed to be at fault for their faltering form. That turned out to be a falsehood.
Setien would be his replacement, but would only last until their Bavarian beating. Sporting director Eric Abidal quickly followed. An incoming Ronald Koeman finally got his shot in the hot seat, the man who scored the winner in Barca’s greatest-ever night to claim their first-ever European Cup in 1992 ironically arrives in the midst of their darkest day in the competition.
Koeman potentially faces a poison chalice and the unfancied but inevitable comparison to the glory of past managers Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola and even Frank Rijkaard. The tragic Tito Vilanova, whose tenure as boss was cruelly cut short by illness and his eventual passing from cancer in 2014, captured the La Liga title in his only season in 2012-13, a measure of the standards by which managers will be judged.
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Koeman inherits a club which has fallen deeply out of love with itself. The talismanic Pique could not put his finger on what needed to be done, no name’s were named, the architect of their downfall unknown, but if there is no one obvious problem, then the likelihood is there are many.
Time will tell whether the former Netherlands manager will be the man to steer the Barca ship in such stormy waters, but three managers in 7 months tells its own story about the club’s situation.
Personnel recruitment woes are something that Barcelona have repeated on the field where the club’s troubles are just as tumultuous. Star arrival at the start of the season Antoine Griezmann has endured a torrid debut year, going as far to occasionally lose his place in an attacking triumvirate alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and having been left out of the starting lineup altogether for the Bayern nightmare.
Wind back the clock to this time two years ago and Antoine Griezmann was the newly coronated boy king. A 27-year-old champion of the world having converted a penalty and been named man of the match in the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow.
In the ensuing presser, and after Paul Pogba and co had invaded Didier Deschamps time with the media with splashes of champagne and jubilant shouts of ‘Vive La France, Vive La Republique’, Griezmann sat calmly behind the famous golden trophy and answered questions in his native French and fluently in Spanish, owing to his education at Real Sociedad’s academy from age 14, about his immediate future.
A €120m ($143m) deal took a year to materialize, but when it did, a return of 15 goals in his 48 appearances means those initial great expectations have been far from met.
Koeman’s first challenge this summer will be the decision whether to keep hold of or offload Griezmann and end his Camp Nou nightmare. Out of favor and aged 29, Griezmann might be wise to take a stock of his next move.
In contrast, the emergence of teenage phenom Ansu Fati, who became the youngest Champions League goalscorer with his group stage goal against eventual Europa League finalists Inter Milan, has been a revelation.
Even surprise bargain buy Martin Braithwaite from La Liga strugglers Leganes has, on occasion, been preferred as part of an attacking three alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez instead of one of the world’s most expensive players.
Messi himself, about whose mercurial ability just about every superlative in just about every language has been used, has worn the look of a man who has grown tired of fighting to keep the team afloat.
The Barca leader and legend’s well-publicised, passive-aggressive war of words with the Barca hierarchy only added to the friction between the club and its greatest ever player and if a change of manager on a revolving door basis hasn’t aided the situation of Barca’s all-time top scorer in the past few months then the root of the problem is yet to be found. An exit for the world’s most famous one-club man is still being touted as likely this summer too.
Barcelona need cataclysmic changes to avoid nose-diving into the doldrums of European football and having star players stripped from their ranks. It’s too early to gauge Koeman’s capabilities to go to battle on Barcelona’s many fronts, but the bigger picture will not be quelled by hasty chops and changes, much more tactful digging into their cracked foundations must be done to find ground to move forward.
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