Augusto Solari’s cross looped over Marc-Andre ter Stegen, catching him off guard before bouncing off the post straight into Santi Mina’s path for a technical finish. Celta Vigo’s match-winning goal combined with results from Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid ended any faint hope of Barcelona winning the league entering the final matchday. Two points ahead of Sevilla in third place yet firmly in the Champions League, the state of having little to play for while their rivals battle for the league gave room for another round of existential examinations surrounding Ronald Koeman, the club’s billion-dollar debt, and the future of Lionel Messi.
Yet Barcelona had actually topped the table as late as matchday 32. And there was genuine optimism and hope just last month following their win over Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey Final. Messi seemed re-energized, happier, and more engaged on the field. After winning 31 trophies and scoring 600 goals in his Barcelona career, Messi also accomplished something for the first time in winning the cup as club captain. His second goal was among the best of his career. At the risk of overexaggerating, it felt then like the title secured Messi’s future with the side.
Afterwards, his teammates lined up to take pictures with him and the trophy. The title, coinciding with the optimism of Joan Laporta returning as club president in March, supposedly signaled the rise of a new era at Barcelona. But a month later and at the end of this La Liga season, we are back to where we were a year ago, micro-analyzing Messi’s body language for any hints of discontent and frustration.
The reveal of Barcelona’s $1.3 billion debt became an infamous, staggering number, with Laporta recently taking out a $122 million loan to pay players. Arguably needing the initial revenue from the Super League more than any of its twelve founding members, Barcelona continued to search for new streams of revenue including renaming the Nou Camp. Any on-field optimism was immediately hampered by the debt hanging over the club.
“A cycle has come to an end and we are working on a renewal process,” proclaimed Barcelona president Laporta.
The 58-year-old Laporta, who oversaw two Champions League titles in his first stint as Barcelona president from 2003-10, won on the simple platform that Messi respected only him among his candidates. With the Argentine making his professional debut under his watch in 2004, Laporta said that he could convince Messi to stay because “I am the one with the most experience and determination, as well as the most credibility in his eyes.” Messi, of course, has given no public indication either way.
Caught in the middle of unhappy superstars and crushing debt was Koeman. There’s an inevitability surrounding the Dutch manager - or any Barcelona manager - that the role is only biding time until Xavi’s return. Laporta hinted at Koeman’s future in describing their collapse in the league as “incomprehensible.” But dismissing this season is unfair to Koeman, who showed improvements and tactical adjustments to get Barcelona to a place where they could win a trophy and compete for the league late into the season. The side didn’t necessarily take a step back, a small consolation for Koeman’s work this season.
There was two months of hope starting from Barcelona’s 4-1 loss to PSG in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 running through the Copa del Rey title. Koeman shifted his formation to a 5-3-2 that balanced the politics of starting an aging Sergio Busquets, the high-priced Frenkie de Jong, and the future in Pedri all in midfield. He turned around the perception of Griezmann’s transfer, getting a 19-goal, 12-assist season from the French striker. Even Ousmane Dembele appeared in the most games in his four seasons since his own nine figure move to Barcelona. Getting production from $100 million players seems a low bar, but it is something considering Barcelona’s recent output from the transfer market.
If not Xavi, Laporta registered his interest with the Bundesliga school of managers. His links with Julian Nagelsmann, Hansi Flick, and Ralf Rangnick were promising in terms of modernizing the club’s philosophy. Of course, you can never truly get away from the tiki-taka control of Barcelona DNA, but intensity and pressing without the ball doesn’t necessarily take away from possession. Plus, German managers are used to punching up with young sides on a smaller budget. Here, the on-field renewal and off-field debt resolution can go hand in hand.
The initial steps for Laporta’s renewal process are clear, starting with getting rid of big salaried, underperforming players starting with Coutinho, going through Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, and maybe even Griezmann. The combination of those names, and how little they produced, shows how decadence overtook inspiration. There was no energy or imaginative problem-solving brought upon by using the academy, just more and more expensive players to fill roles. When you have a billion-dollar hammer, every problem appears like it can be solved with a nine-figure transfer.
Barcelona ultimately lost the league on April 29, a 2-1 loss to Granada at home in which they went up 1-0 in the first half. Koeman was sent off in the match. Barcelona won just one out of their last five matches after taking the league lead. And that is the moment when sides without a strong foundation crumble. We may conclude years from now that they blew an opportunity, but they were never as close as the table appeared.
So did we actually learn about Barcelona from this past season, or was it one of another wasted loop to only end up in the same position as we were last year?
If time really is a flat circle, there are other historical circularities considering Laporta rebuilding Barcelona. In addition to overseeing Messi’s debut, one of his last decisions before leaving the club his first time in 2010 was appointing an unproven Pep Guardiola as manager. Laporta invokes the memories of that dominant in a propaganda-esque manner. Rafa Marquez is returning to the club as U19 manager this summer. You can move into the future by reconnecting with the past, it seems.
Still, the $1.3 billion number is a cloud that hangs over any analysis, player movement, or coaching hire. All our discussion about 4-3-3 formations, pressing, and Messi are futile in its face, and this summer will be essential in raising funds in a soccer world where most sides have debt issues of their own. But there are pieces that fit together on and off the field; looking to the academy gives the first team cheap alternatives while also returning to the club’s roots. A Bundesliga-style manager will be used to developing young, energetic talent. All beginnings need to start somewhere. A new era of Barcelona was overdue whether it was structured by Laporta, forced by debt, and with or without Messi.