Much Ado About Everything
After coming up short in their attempt to become the first team to repeat as European champions in the Champions League era, while chugging to the finish line in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, two trophies and a record 39 game unbeaten streak served to paper over the cracks of what the 2015–2016 season was for Barcelona. A lack of depth, an aging squad, a midfield bereft of ideas, and a squad with miles on their legs was the downfall of Barcelona’s attempt to match the 2008–2009 seasons sextuple winners and their quest to separate themselves in history as back to back treble winners. Their transfer ban meant that anyone that came to Barcelona, could only be registered and play after the ban was up. So the feeling was, address the lack of depth and also the age in the squad, then the team will be on the fast track to trophies. That’s what we thought.
An exciting preseason in which the team won the Supercopa de España, fresh off of their transfer ban, the board addressed key areas within the team. They bought back Denis Suárez from Villarreal for €3.25m, bought Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, André Gomes, Jasper Cillessen and Paco Alcácer for €25m, €16.5m, €35m, €13m, & €30m (all except Suárez and Umtiti including variables) respectively. Outside of Cillessen, everyone was 22 at the time of their transfer, so it was labeled the “Summer of 22”. Claudio Bravo and Daniel Alves gone, it was assumed that Marc André ter Stegen and Aleix Vidal would now take the reins in their respective positions. With older players like Adriano, Thomas Vermaelen, Douglas, Marc Bartra, Cristian Tello, Martin Montoya, and Alex Song sold to make room; as well as Munir, Sandro, Alen Halilovic, and Sergi Samper being sold to make a name for themselves elsewhere, this team only had one goal: win and win now.
Starting the season with two wins in league play, they faced newly promoted Alaves at home. Coming off of a FIFA international break, Luis Enrique decide to heavily rotate the side in favor of fresh legs for the Champions League match in three days. Alaves came out in a 5–4–1, set up to get compact, defend and hope to poach a goal. Incredibly, they got two, in a 2–1 win over the home side. What we saw from Barcelona that night is what we continue to see through the season; tons of chances, but terrible finishing. It wouldn’t take much longer for the blaugrana to suffer their second loss in league play, coming a little less than a month later in Vigo.
Facing Celta Vigo is no walk in the park for any team in La Liga, Barcelona especially losing the season before, 4–1. It seemed this game would play out differently than last years tilt as Barça had a majority of the possession at the beginning of the match as well as the majority of the chances. At 22’ of the match, however, it was Celta that were first on the board. A terrible giveaway by MAtS on a pass for Sergio Busquets, with a weak challenge from André Gomes, led to an easy goal on the counter from Pione Sisto. Nine minutes later, an interception and clearance from Vigo is headed to the feet of Iago Aspas by Busi, late defending from Pique leads to goal number two. The third goal came quicker than the second, because two minutes after a Jérémy Mathieu own goal now has Celta up three half an hour into the match. For a while it looked like Barça could actually turn it around and rescue a point (or all three) in the second half. A header off of a corner from Gerard Pique and a Neymar penalty, at least had them in it with roughly thirty minutes to go. Another error ended those hopes when ter Stegen gifted Pablo Hernandez a goal attempting to play the ball out of the back. The game ended 4–3 with from anther Pique goal. After drawing with Atlético Madrid two weeks prior, Barça had dropped points in three of seven games and were sitting in fourth.
Come from behind wins at the Mestalla and at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán vs. Valencia and Sevilla are the only reasons why you can’t say the season is a total wash because after the game in Vigo, they have drawn four games, most recently to Villarreal at El Madrigal. For a while it seemed like Barcelona had it figured out, ending 2016 with eight goals in two games, playing wonderful, sumptuous football in the process, but a loss vs. Bilbao in the Copa del Rey to begin 2017 and the aforementioned draw in Vila-real, has turned the return leg against Bilbao into a must win game. Not just for the prospect of winning a trophy, but to maybe even keep their coach.
Luis Enrique came into this season with it being the last year on his contract after signing a one year extension before the 2015–2016 season. With his transfers outside of Umtiti, Denis Suárez and maybe Digne, still struggling to find their place in the team, the ongoing right back problem, the reliance on Messi and Iniesta, and the struggle to figure out how to beat the high press teams have deployed against them, he could walk away from the job at the end of the season. Especially seeing the way the press feel about him and the “#LuchoOut” brigade on social media, he may feel his time is up and it’s time to move on, trophies or no trophies.
The team is struggling to find its identity, the coach may be a lame duck and the board is stalling on key contract extensions, namely, Iniesta, Messi, Rakitić and ter Stegen, helping to create a situation in which transfer rumors thrive and unsettle an already rocky boat. Not to mention That Team in Madrid is still undefeated, quite possibly soon to break their 39 game unbeaten streak Barça set last season and of course That Other Team in Madrid seeming to finally get out of their funk and have started to creep up again. Times are troubling currently and if there is any team that could right the ship its this one, but outside of a few performances and magical moments, not many can 100% say they will. The Culer pessimism is back and no one knows what to make of this team anymore.