A 4-0 defeat at the hands of Paris Saint Germain is most certainly a result that wouldn’t look out of place in the top flight of French football week in, week out. Yet in the UEFA Champions League, such a scoreline is rare and even often unheard of – especially when you think of PSG’s mixed fortunes in the European competition since their mega money takeover back in 2011. For the club’s hierarchy and its supporters, PSG’s most recent 4-0 victory may well prove significant; a symbolic turning point for the club as they look to build on their domestic success in France. Equally for Luis Enrique and his FC Barcelona side that were left shocked at last Wednesday’s outcome, the poignancy of such a defeat could be greater still and an even more significant turning point for the Catalan giants going forward.
Although FC Barcelona’s recent four goal European thrashing by reigning Ligue 1 champions PSG may well be seen in context as somewhat unsurprising given that manager Unai Emery has been able to overcome Barcelona once already this season, their Round of 16 first leg defeat epitomises their season so far. With the hope and optimism of the club’s loyal fans behind them heading into what was always going to be a difficult game for Luis Enrique’s side, Barcelona’s struggles were in full view of the watching world as they succumbed to the sheer quality of Paris Saint Germain and now face an incredibly steep and uphill battle to overcome the four goal deficit on home soil.Taking Barcelona’s domestic games against Atlético Madrid in the Copa del Rey and most notably their recent La Liga fixture against Leganes, despite eventual victories over both sides, their instability and frailties all over the pitch almost proved to be their undoing with late goals in both ties courtesy of the ever-reliable MSN saving Luis Enrique’s and FC Barcelona’s blushes in the short term at least.
So where has it all gone wrong for one of, if not the most dominant force in World Football in the past decade? Likewise is it currently and actually all that catastrophic in Cataluña and as club supporters and the media alike can often do, is such recent cause for concern in any way justifiable?
The clubs progression to both the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League and the final of the Copa del Rey as well as keeping up with both Real Madrid and Sevilla in the La Liga title race may have saved FC Barcelona from the criticism that they have perhaps deserved on occasion during this league campaign. The chances however of such ‘achievements’ saving Luis Enrique’s job next season look slimmer by the day. With his contract up at the end of the season and no firm assurances over his future after a fairly up and down 2016/17, you sense that although the players and the manager himself do not want to publicly admit it, there is however a widespread sense of resignation that a fresh start is needed next season and this could well be spearheaded by a significant change at the top. And as often is the case in modern football, murmurings from those that are seemingly ‘ITK’ or just daily rumours with enough steam repeatedly linking the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Jorge Sampaoli and club legend Ronald Koeman to the Barcelona job this summer can often be all that is needed to derail a club’s season before it’s even over.
Nonetheless whilst Enrique’s position looks more untenable by the game especially as Barcelona continue to struggle, the players on the pitch as well as those such as the manager and backroom staff away from the field of play itself, should also be in the spotlight. What traditionally has always been seen as a well-oiled, fully functioning and highly successful Barcelona team no matter what starting XI they put out has this season simply failed to reach anywhere near the dizzy heights the club has grown accustomed to in the last decade. After Barcelona bettered their total points tally during Luis Enrique’s first 50 games in charge, a record-high now superseding the previous amount set by Pep Guardiola during his first half century of games as Barcelona manager, it looked if anything that Barcelona then had the potential to be a better side than they may have even been under Guardiola as well as Villanova and Martino that followed. With what could be then seen as a plan B led by Luis Suarez at the centre of a three-pronged attack, in games where the Barcelona machine didn’t click as expected most notably in Europe, Barça were able to play on the counter-attack and win games as opposed to merely reigning supreme through dominating football matches and subsequently taking all three points.
As Guardiola fights fire and strives to assert such a style of play at new club Manchester City in the English Premier League, it seemed initially that Barcelona had finally began to move with the times at a tactical level and in many ways had eventually drawn a line firmly under the tiki-taka era of the late noughties. In terms of recruitment too, perhaps somewhat reluctantly but albeit incredibly necessary, Barcelona fans accepted that change was necessary with regards to personnel on the pitch – even if that did mean parting with Carles Puyol and Xavi as both club legends reached an age deemed ‘past-it’ to continue cutting it at the highest level. Likewise cutting their losses on the likes of Pedro, Gerard Deulofeu and Claudio Bravo seemingly paved the way to allow for a new era of young, exciting and talented Barcelona stars. The promotion of exciting youth from within meanwhile through the likes of Denis Suarez and Andre ter Stegen coupled with the club’s wider statement of intent signalled by spending big on promising hot-prospects such as Jasper Cillessen, Samuel Umtiti and exciting Valencia pairing of Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes amongst others did bare fruit initially and looked like a successful claret and blueprint going forward.
Yet with the passing of time however, cracks have certainly started to show and Barcelona have buckled in the full glare of the La Liga spotlight. A group of talented individuals rarely look like ‘més que un club’ anymore with the club’s most talented and reliable individuals failing to reach the level that the club’s and football fans in general are used to. Sergio Busquets has crumbled, Andres Iniesta is at long last showing his age and as a result is gradually adapting his own game because of it and with Andre Gomes literally still finding his feet at the club, Barcelona’s midfield has most definitely become a real cause for concern this season. Likewise due to injuries in defence and the struggle to rotate players in order to keep individuals happy yet at the same time maintaining and ensuring that a certain level of both stability and quality is achieved on the pitch each game, Barcelona have therefore succumbed to underachievement as quickly as their shoots of recovery had begun blossoming.
With things certainly Messi right now, for the ever-reliable Argentine forward Lionel Messi, reaching the top of his game as an individual and living up to his billing as a footballing superstar week in week out is something that for some time, he has excelled in. However in carrying the weight of expectation of an entire both at club and international, this has to be a much more difficult task for the Argentine forward. Against Leganés last Sunday, it was once again Messi who saved the day for Enrique’s side in scoring both goals including a late winner from the penalty spot. Yet for Messi to rescue a point or snatch all three on his own accord every time Barça are struggling is simply too great of an ask even for the coveted, five time Ballon d’Or Victor. And as part of the infamous MSN, Messi may well be one component but for it to operate and work as deadly as we know it can, all three need to be performing on song – not just Messi.
Similarly the absence of Ivan Rakitic in the heart of midfield whilst Andre Gomes settles at the club, alongside that of former mainstay Dani Alves as Sergi Roberto continues to adjust to life as a first-team regular at the right of defence have both been noticeable. Furthermore with the likes of Arda Turan linked heavily with the Chinese Super League towards the end of the 2016 calendar year as well as rumours reporting a potential bid from Manchester City for Ivan Rakitic ahead of a potential move at the end of the season, such transfer speculation will do little to help the team’s performance at present with all eyes seemingly on potential future incomings and outgoings rather than the problems on the pitch. Such examples may serve simply as teething problems and maybe one should expect things to click sometime soon but as the wait goes on, the speculation over Enrique’s long-term future inevitably mounts up as both performances and subsequent results on the pitch increasingly falter.
What does the future therefore hold for both FC Barcelona and current manager Luis Enrique? Clearly you’d expect normality to resume at sooner rather than later but whether things are fully sorted by the end of the current league campaign remains to be seen. Don’t be surprised to see FC Barcelona make further brave decisions this Summer, even if that does mean parting with club legend Luis Enrique for the sake and success of the club going forward. Conversely for all of the rumours linking some of the club’s biggest stars with moves further afield, stability and a sense of togetherness is key going forward so in a similar fashion, do not however be surprised to see transfer speculation to remain as nothing more than just words on a page. Inevitably Barcelona will be back and most likely better than ever before but a return for Luis Enrique next season looks unlikely; the writing’s on the wall and as Barcelona’s run in the title race and UEFA Champions League draw to a close, it looks likely to be more a case of when rather than if a new manager will take over at the club.