As I reflect back on the 2016/2017 Fútbol Club Barcelona season, I find myself not angry, but disappointed. I have not felt this frustrated with the team since the 2011/2012 season. That season, we were coming off of a La Liga/UEFA Champions League double and were the reigning FIFA Club World Cup winners. A tame transfer season in which we bought Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas looked to be the reinforcements needed for us to take our team over the top to avoid any slips as we would attempt to defend our title and be the first team to win back-to-back titles in the Champions League era. Of course, history would deny us that and we came in second in one of our more lackluster La Liga campaigns and our highly decorated coach, Pep Guardiola would call it quits at the end of the year. Just five years later, history repeats itself.
A summer that was dubbed “The Summer of 22” in which six players were bought, five of which aged 22, it seemed that they were the right mix of youth and talent to bring quality depth to the team. After the 2015/2016 season in which Xavi left, Lionel Messi got injured, and the focus of play shifted from the right side of the pitch to the left side, the Barcelona hierarchy felt it was best to acquiesce to Daniel Alves’ wishes to leave the club and to start building towards the future. Things seemed to click at first with human Swiss Army knife, Sergi Roberto plugging in on the right. The preseason was a successful one, but even the 4–0 drubbing from Liverpool gave us a glimpse of what would be in store for us. Even though the team soundly beat Sevilla to win the Supercopa de España, after a couple high flying matches, the wheels began to come off.
Only three games into the season, we got an idea of what the team would be. Our first loss of the season came against the newly promoted Basque side, Alavés, at home no less. A game in which Luis Enrique heavily rotated to give players who were called up for FIFA World Cup qualifying matches a bit of rest. He also had to ease Neymar back into the side after the Olympics while hamstrung by Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s early season injury. Starting four of our new transfers with the two from the transfer ban; the game was a mess of misplaced passes, untimely runs, lax defending, and selfishness. Late substitutions from Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez couldn’t save us, and the only goal we could manage came from a Jérémy Matthieu set piece header. A shock defeat wasn’t going to sink our season, it was how we responded to the defeat, as well as how we would attempt to fix the problems that appeared.
Not even a month later, we lost our second match of the season. At Celta Vigo. What’s becoming tradition is our yearly calamitous trip to Balaídos. With an injured Lionel Messi, Arda would continue his place as the winger on the left, Neymar would be the winger on the right with all of the offense running through him. We were doing well at first, creating a lovely chance around the 12th minute, but we were soon figured out. With a midfield of André Gomes and Rafinha covering for an out of form Sergio Busquets, it was easy for Celta Vigo to pounce on the first misplaced pass and score. Miscommunication between MatS and Busquets, lead to an easy turnover goal for Pioné Sisto. Only eight minutes later, another turnover, this time in their box, we were taken apart on the counter. A long ball over the top bypasses all but two Barcelona players. Only Busquets and Gerard Pique were still back, all Iago Aspas had to do was run at Pique and slot the ball past MatS on the far side.
We still weren’t done because only two minutes later was the third. Another Celta counterattack was headed straight for our goal, Pique attempted to snuff it out but the ball only found the feet of Daniel Wass. His pass cut through our defense and unluckily, found the feet of a lunging Jérémy Mathieu. In the second half, we were able to find two goals from a Pique header and a Neymar penalty, but a mistake from MatS playing the ball out from the back, got Celta their fourth goal. Even with Pique’s second goal on the night, we couldn’t salvage a point. With the loss to Alavés and a draw to Atlético Madrid, we were fourth in the league after seven games. Not bad, but not good for our standards. Had it not been for a last minute Messi penalty at the Mestalla, we would have suffered another early season draw. A recurring theme of this season was Messi saving us. Whether it be at the Ramón Sánchez Pízjuan, Anoeta, Benito Villamarín, or even at home against Leganés. It was clear the team were devoid of ideas.
After Messi’s injury in early 2015, when we started on our 39-game unbeaten streak, it seemed we had finally broken free of our “Messidependencia” for good, but what we were seeing was the beginnings of an imbalance in the team. As the focus of play shifted from right to left, once Messi came back, he began to drift inward to get more ball touches from Neymar and Iniesta, the teams new focal points after Messi and Alves. With that, Luis Enrique also began to play with more fluidity, letting the MSN roam freely up the pitch, and as the plan was to get the ball to the trident, the midfield was bypassed in favor of wing play. Fast forward to this season, Messi’s connection with Alves no longer, a midfielder at right back and his competition in the doghouse, meant more often than not Messi was up top alone as Ivan Rakitić and Sergi Roberto struggled with defensive duties.
The ball would find its way over to the left side of the pitch and it was easy for teams to figure this out. Contain Neymar and Messi in midfield, snuff out long ball passes, and high press in midfield. It was a recipe for an upset. No where was this more evident than in what was dubbed the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre”. A 4–0 trashing at the hands of Unai Emery’s PSG (which I’ve written about on my Medium here for The New Ultras), a game in which I still struggle to understand and come to terms with even after the 6–1 return leg. Especially because it was on display again not even two months later in Turin at Juventus. It was jarring because after finding success with the 3–4–3, a normal 4–3–3 was employed because we were now dealing with an emotional Jordi Alba, who felt he wasn’t getting enough playing time and a knackered Sergi Roberto who was the only right back after Aleix Vidal’s injury.
We were soon swiftly eliminated from the Champions League. It would have been a lifeline for us to focus on the league, but a hangover loss from the second PSG leg at Riazor to Deportivo La. Coruña and a “WTF happened here?” loss at La Rosaleda to Malága (which I’ve also written about on my Medium here for The New Ultras), meant that even with a win in El Clásico, all Real Madrid had to do was win out and the league was theirs. Of course, if Barcelona were going to make it a title race, they’d make it look sexy. A thrilling, last second, 2–3 win at the Santiago Bernabéu was beautiful for all but two weeks as reality set in that this year wasn’t our year. Unfortunately, we were only able to send off Lucho with just the Copa Del Rey. Which is a shame because he deserved more than that but, it’s the only thing we were able to win this season outside of the Supercopa.
What makes this season worse, is the fact that not only are Madrid having unprecedented success, but the fact that many of the instruments of their success (Modrić, Isco, Kroos & Asensio) were keen to play for us, but we turned them down for other players (Cesc, Neymar, Rakitić & Douglas). Now we’re here, facing many of the problems they would’ve solved, with a new coach who doesn’t have the answers and a sporting director ready to spend money on the wrong players again. While I’ll always be thankful for the PSG remuntada and the Clásico win, this season, was a season to forget.