Barcelona have been languishing in waking death for years. This is an ostensibly overdramatic way to describe a club that has won four of the last six Ligas, nearly achieving an undefeated season in 2017-18, with a Champions League title in their not at all distant past, but provided you’ve been paying attention to the pitch and the papers rather than their record, you know they’ve grown fat and dyspeptic off unhappy and exhaustingly qualified success. This is the modern Barcelona FC: winning some stuff is not necessarily satisfactory, given their financial advantages, given fan expectations, given Leo Messi’s now alarmingly dwindling prime. They cannot truly fail and so they have no option but to thrive, which they haven’t in a while. Surely relegated Espanyol and terminally midtable EIbar weep for their betters, but they’re barely playing the same sport and Barça aren’t playing theirs nearly as well as they’d like to. The travails of the mega-rich, etc., but it’s not without intrigue.
First: $420 million. That’s how much it cost Barcelona to start their season-ending 8-2 devastation against Bayern Munich with Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele on the bench, and Philippe Countinho playing for the other team. The sporting department’s signings in recent years haven’t all been bad, but the bad ones have been spectacularly so. Dembele has wrapped up his third season in the Catalan capital with no small amount of promise, but he’s struggled to find his place in the squad due to persistent injury. Griezmann, who essentially plays the same position as Messi, had a miserable debut season either marooned on the left wing or miscast as a pure striker. Coutinho joined in January of 2018 and was an immediate catastrophe, to the point that he was loaned to Bayern seven months later, quickly demoted to the Bavarian club’s bench, and didn’t contribute all that much to their white-hot 2020—except notably and humiliatingly, adding a goal and an assist in the meaningless minutes of Barcelona’s demise. He’ll now return to his parent club, because Bayern have no interest in purchasing him permanently. Asked about his predicament after Bayern’s Champions League triumph, Coutinho’s answer was suitably straightforward and hilarious: “I have to go back.” He’ll almost definitely be loaned out again, as if he were a 20-year-old youth product not quite ready to compete at the first team level.
So Barcelona have spent, not just poorly, but worse than any other club in the world, with historic stupidity and aplomb. Dembele was an overpay who made some amount of sense. When he was brought on board, Neymar had slipped out the side door to PSG and Barça wanted to invest in a new left winger. You could do a lot worse than acquiring a Dortmund-trained prodigy with all the talent in the world. The Coutinho and Griezmann deals were shameless and unimaginative name-chasing, snatching up undeniably awesome players who nevertheless filled no need and couldn’t easily fit slot themselves into a defined role within Barcelona’s system. That trio of deals has taken on the dimension of a fable, something Germanically grim about a profligate chipmunk eating its own coin and dying of zinc poisoning.
Barcelona also haven’t been able to find a manager that has satisfied both the fan’s aesthetic sensibilities and the aging squad’s desire not to be coached. It’s admittedly a tricky needle to thread. Luis Enrique was losing his touch—it turns out hit the ball to the front three has its limits as a stratagem—before he exited in the summer of 2017, and though the players more or less liked Ernest Valverde, the Nou Camp never respected him, thought his personality was bland and his tactics too conservative. Quique Setién, brought on in the middle of this past season after Valverde’s time had run out, was an inspired choice on paper and a disaster in practice. If Valverde lacked the charisma to win over supporters, Setién moved absolutely no one. He just couldn’t implement the quite beautiful soccer his Real Betis teams played. (For a while. He was run out of Seville in the end; maybe that was a bad sign.) The players weren’t interested, the passes went sideways, and though the Bayern defeat was particularly humiliating, he had been dead long before that result belched itself down from the heavens.
Now it’s Ronald Koeman in charge, which is fair enough. He wouldn’t have the job had he not scored a legendary goal for the club in the early 90s, but Diego Simeone would have never been given the reins at Atlético Madrid at such an undecorated point of his coaching career had he not been part of their Doblete-winning squad in 1996. Sometimes you can arrive at the right choice for sentimental reasons and Koeman is an established if somewhat uneven quantity. At least at this very early stage, he’s been bold, smartly only taking the job after being assured that board would make an effort to clear the significant amount of deadwood they’ve accumulated.
Here’s the real problem with Barcelona's poor recruitment: they’ve been unable to replace highly salaried guys who are moderately past it. Clément Lenglet was a solid signing two summers ago, but with Samuel Umtiti’s career knocked off course by a knee injury, they could really use someone to usurp a 33-year-old Gerard Piqué. Sergio Busquets, after many seasons of brilliance, looks finished as the team’s first choice holding mid. Ivan Rakitić is going to move on. The same is probably true of Arturo Vidal. Jordi Alba has been on the decline for a while and Luis Suárez, bless him, can hardly run anymore. Miralem Pjanić, brought aboard from Juventus this summer, is already 30 years old and clearly a short term answer in midfield. It’s a very old squad, especially by modern standards—your players have to run more now than they did even in 2015—and it’s begging to be turned over. That project will likely happen over a couple of offseasons and should have started at least a year or two ago. What Koeman seems to understand, that Valverde didn’t push for and Setién didn’t have time to, is the necessity of it, plus the obvious concern: Barcelona can’t retool too aggressively and squander the final, best years of Leo Messi.
It’s a delicate thing, and Messi himself is a delicate person, revealing in his old age a moodiness that journalists have quietly murmured about for years. This isn’t to say Messi’s a jerk, because he’s not, but he’s both demanding and passive-aggressive in the way that star athletes often are, and he’s right to be upset about how Barcelona have wasted his unparalleled talents with squads that haven’t worked or even made much sense.
It’s time here to mention the name of Barça’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, whose shady business exploits and personal flaws could easily fill a novella about a haplessly vain rich dope that would feel, in the savage details of its portrait, a little too on-the-nose. Suffice it to say the guy sucks, and is in some way responsible for pretty much everything the club has done wrong over the past half-decade. He chooses the coaches, the front office staff, finalizes the signings. He—allegedly, but also: c’mon—hires a company to denigrate his own players on social media. An importunate and incompetent prince, Messi rightfully hates his guts. The Argentine’s only got a year left on his contract, or could terminate it immediately, and he’s using that leverage to force Barto to get it together or resign. It’s a staredown, because Barto knows Messi doesn’t want to leave Barcelona, his beloved club and adopted hometown, but the threat will color everything management does until Messi extends his deal. There’s definitely a plausible scenario in which Barça screw this and Messi’s next match is playing for Pep Guardiola in Manchester.
Koeman’s hiring, empowering the new manager to jettison some elders and refresh the squad, is Barto trying to save his own skin and satisfy Messi. It’s a gamble, given that Koeman’s last club job was a single just-okay season at Everton in 2016-17, but due to their institutional mismanagement, everything Barcelona do is trying to make up for past mistakes with a single inspired maneuver. We’ve yet to see the fullness of Koeman’s vision, from the players he’ll bring in to the style he’ll try to establish, but finally, Barça, playing with house money for so long, are in a genuinely dangerous position. Messi’s patience has run out; he’s feeling his age. They don’t need to get everything right, they’re a huge club with a healthy margin for error, but they have to stop tripping over themselves, or they will lose what they can’t replace. Really, they already have, with what Messi’s done and the team hasn’t in recent years. But there’s still time to make good. A precious sliver of time.