Wednesday, perhaps the greatest sporting news of 2020 hit us all, when a bombshell dropped out of Catalonia: Lionel Messi has requested a transfer from Barcelona.
The Argentinian maestro has asked the club to activate a clause in his contract, which will allow him to leave for free in this transfer window. It comes after a horror season for Barcelona, which saw them finish 2nd in La Liga, knocked out of the Copa Del Rey at the quarter-finals and be destroyed by Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, losing 8-2 in one of the most dramatic games we’ve ever seen. It’s safe to say that it was a horror season for the club.
Despite their dismal play, Messi still had a season to remember, topping La Liga’s goal scoring and assist charts, among every other attacking metric available. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Barcelona could not get it done and endured one of their worst seasons in the club’s history. All of this has no doubt played a part in forcing Messi’s hand, leading to his desire to leave the club at which he’s played since he was a pubescent boy.
We won’t go into details about the legal ramifications surrounding his contract, nor where he will end up once this is all over. Instead, we will look at why Barcelona have somehow now let the GOAT slip from their fingers, when it didn’t seem possible.
Poor Transfer Strategy
This one is perhaps the most obvious, but Barcelona’s transfer strategy over the last three seasons has been nothing short of shambolic. Where once the club would grab the best of the best across the field, usually opting for the superstars or budding superstars, this has long since changed.
Their last Champions League title came in 2014-2015 and it is no coincidence that this was when they last exhibited a proper transfer strategy. The year prior, they brought in Neymar, who was ushered in as the next Ronaldinho and heir apparent to Messi. A great transfer he would prove to be. In the season of their Champions League victory, they signed Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-André ter Stegen most notably, three players who would become crucial to Barcelona’s titles and fortunes in the years since. Suarez formed a devastating partnership with Messi and was on goal scoring form on par with Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Rakitic served as the necessary replacement cog in the midfield for the ageing Xavi and ter Stegen would develop into one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Following this period, it all fell flat.
The transfer woes really became highlighted following the departure of Neymar in 2017 for a world record £198m to PSG, late in the transfer window. Suddenly, their star winger and heir to Messi was taken from them, and they were forced to scramble.
Soon after, they forked out £97m for Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund, expecting him to be the Neymar replacement. His time at Barcelona has been plagued by injury and discipline issues, rarely rendering able to be on the pitch for a consistent run of games.
In 2018, the club rushed out £105m for Phillipe Coutinho from Liverpool, who seemingly looked decent, but never quite fit into Barcelona’s system, his style often leaving them disjointed on the pitch. A year and a half later, he was loaned out to Bayern Munich, where he would ironically score twice in the 8-2 demolition in the Champions League, for his loaned club against his parent club.
At the same time as the Coutinho transfer, Barcelona then threw out £107m for Antoine Griezmann from Atlético Madrid, far too high a price to pay for a player approaching 30, and one that flopped. Griezmann couldn’t mesh with Messi properly, and was forced out to the left wing and out of position, where he wasn’t his best.
Those three players are all Barcelona’s most expensive transfers and have either: rarely played due to injury, been loaned out to win the Champions League elsewhere, or have simply been an expensive clog in the forward third. All three were expected to replace Neymar, but none have been able to replicate the form and chemistry shown by the Brazilian in his time at Barcelona.
This is all without mentioning the transfers of André Gomes, Malcolm and Arturo Vidal, who were either misused, overestimated or just never played. Even the swap deal involving Arthur and Miralem Pjanić makes zero sense, in that they’re swapping a young midfielder in Arthur, for an ageing one in Pjanić.
Frenke de Jong has been their most sensical transfer made since Neymar, but even he hasn’t been used properly on the pitch and hasn’t displayed his form seen at Ajax. Hopefully, for his and their sakes, this will work itself out.
It seems that Barcelona’s transfer policy has been nothing short of shambolic. They’ve opted for ageing and past their prime stars, or players that have ended up being overrated and useless to the club, putting them further in debt. Now they’re stuck with an old and overpaid squad, that is in need of some serious detoxing.
You can have all of the superstars and world class players you want, but it means nothing without great management at the helm. Luis Enrique was the last great manager they had, having left in 2017 (this seems to be when everything fell apart).
His replacement was Ernesto Valverde, whom previously had enjoyed minor successes with Athletic Bilbao, but was not the right man to take on the job. Though he had led Barcelona to the league title twice, this was whilst playing a torrid and pragmatic style of football, that isn’t associated with Barcelona. His title wins were largely down to a lack of competition from Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, rather than Barcelona being dominant.
On the European front – their most coveted front – Valverde oversaw the capitulations to Roma in 2018 and Liverpool in 2019, rather than delivering the prize that was promised. The situation got so dramatic, earlier this past season, he was sacked in January after struggling to fight off Real Madrid for La Liga title. The one thing that he was at least consistently delivering for the club, he could no longer. He had to go.
However, their new managed fared no better. Quique Sétien was brought in with the hopes of restoring the fun, possession style we associate with Barcelona. But, as with Valverde, he was perhaps ill-equipped to manage this club. Minor success at Las Palmas and Real Betis are simply not enough to warrant the Barcelona job, and it showed. Setién was not able to mount a title challenge, ultimately letting Real Madrid run away with it after the restart to the season. That was his first failure.
His next failure came in that 8-2 hounding at the hands of Bayern Munich. There are no words that can describe what happened. Barcelona were outmatched, outplayed and looked like boys playing against men for 90 minutes. It took no longer than a single day for Setién to get the sack, another failed managerial appointment and their second sacking of the season.
Logic at this point would indicate to make a play for a proven manager with some pedigree. Maurizio Sarri was available after his dismissal from Juventus, and while not perfect, was coming off a title win with Juventus and is known for his high energy style of coaching. But the big fish is still undoubtedly Mauricio Pochettino. Barcelona never made a play for him after Valverde, nor does it seem they made a play for him after Setién. The question has to be asked: why not? Poch took Tottenham to heights they’ve never seen, including the Champions League final. Imagine what he could do with Messi and co., and with a team of Barcelona’s size and finances. If he truly was never touted, it’s criminal. He deserved at least a phone call, if one wasn’t made.
Instead, Barcelona went with Ronald Koeman, a former star player for the club. Again, a decent manager with minor successes, but not quite the manager they should be going for. At the very least, he’ll know how to use de Jong and form a solid midfield, but his lacklustre attacking play won’t suffice, nor will his bullying tactics as a manager, as we have seen at Southampton and Everton, much less Barcelona. It’s early, but we feel they’ve got this one wrong.
The above two issues stem from one thing only: having one of the worst boards in all of football. And that all comes from one man, Josep Bartomeu. Bartomeu has been the President of the club since 2014 and has failed in his role. Though he’s delivered successes, this has largely been down to the work done before him, as well as the sheer luck of having Messi on his team, as well as Barcelona being seemingly too big to fail. But all of this has come crashing down.
Appointing the wrong manager time and time again, since Enrique, has been down to Bartomeu’s decisions. Stuffing up the Neymar transfer to PSG, and his subsequent costly and misused replacements, also are down to Bartomeu. The repeated sackings of numerous sporting directors, also Bartomeu. For every ill-advised decision, Bartomeu has been the figure behind them.
It’s been said that if he resigns as President, it may sway Messi to stay. This speaks volumes. It may be a scary sign of player power, but you can even see the reaction of Barcelona fans to their president, to understand how he’s been so damaging to the club. The sooner he relinquishes his control, the better, lest he truly does be the president that let Lionel Messi walk away from Barcelona for free.