The Futbol Club Barcelona has dominated European football, winning 4 Champions League this past 10 years, more than any other club. The Catalan club is a regular among the football elite accumulating 7 semi-finals between the 2005/2006 and 2014/2015 seasons (9 editions). The club, particularly under Pep Guardiola coaching period (2007-2012), was known for its teamwork quality allowing the team to crush most of the concurrence during the period, notably due to its star players: Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets …
F.C Barcelona decline?
Today’s European elimination is worrying for the F.C Barcelona. The club was not able to come back from the 3-0 humiliation in Turin, with a poor 0-0 yesterday in the Nou Camp.
The club went through two major debacles this season in this European nights, it was used to dominate easily, against Paris Saint-Germain (4-0) and the Juventus Turin (3-0). If, the miracle held in the Camp Nou, on April 8th, 2017, with a stunning comeback (6-1), the past defeat and elimination against the Juventus remained Europe that this Barcelona team was weak defensively, the famous Barcelona midfield exploding against the intensity of their opponent teams. The “Tiki-taka” football tactic is still helping Barcelona to be one of the best team in Europe, but it seems that this may not be efficient anymore in the most important, and competitive games in Europe.
This would be the 3rd time since Pep Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, the club didn’t achieve to reach the semi-finals, and two years in a row. After the former Blaugrana captain departure, criticism rose stating the club were losing its attacking capabilities and domination in the UEFA Champions League. These critics were particularly raised after the 2013 semi-finals humiliation against the Bayern Munich (4-0 / 3-0 / 7-0 overall). They were quite silenced after Barcelona brought Brazilian star Neymar, Jr. and the best Premier League player L. Suarez. The two players impacted positively the club sharpening the Barcelona attack, more fluent, intense, based on a more direct approach with Luis Enrique management.
This change notifies the will of not rely too much on the midfield tactics, with seemed to not work anymore. Therefore, the tactics emphasised on the attack potential, which was very successful. The club got covered in glory again during the 2014/2015, winning “el Triplete“, Champions League, Liga and the Copa del Rey, even realising the achievement of qualifying for each Champions League round of the first leg, crushing the opposition teams.
Since then, Barcelona has been eliminated in the quarter final by the Atletico Madrid (2015-2016) resurrecting former critics against the weakening tactic system. The club could not see the semi-finals this year again, twice in two years, the first time since 2004.
Lowering team quality?
The Guardiola system success was mainly based on the midfield trio: Iniesta – Xavi – Busquets. Xavi has already left the club, Iniesta alternates injuries and ageing. Also, Leo Messi strategic change, from the deadly finisher under Guardiola to a more playmaker role inside the teamwork. The issue is when the competition is intensive, the Argentinian talisman doesn’t achieve to show up and demonstrate his talent. Messi disappeared against Atletico in Champions League last year, and again against PSG and Juventus this season.
Also, if Barcelona has been criticised for keeping an “ageing” Dani Alves, the lack of replacement with the only options of poor-performer A.Vidal and a Sergi Roberto far less talented than its former Brazilian teammate. This departure weakened Barcelona right side and harmed the overall defensive and offensive stability, Leo Messi, Rakitic, and S. Busquets lacking a vital offensive and defensive support. This lack of stability was proven during PSG and Juventus games, where the ageing and slow midfield was backup by a disorganised defence.
The overall pressing tactic considered that strikers and midfielders were the first to defend. That allowed to defence to contain to the playmaking role. The two performances considered here really represents a risk for the club dominance, when an elite, ultra-dominating midfield, can explode, preventing the striker trio Messi-Neymar-Suarez from getting into any goalscoring opportunities.
The MSN is outstanding, only when the midfield is good. Therefore, how the club can respond to ageing star players and eventual departure of Iniesta, Busquets (or even Messi ?). The club hasn’t responded in quality to Xavi and Alves departure. With only those two, and an Iniesta performing as good as from Guardiola era; the Juventus game may have been very different.
Barcelona’s performance against PSG, 6-1 victory, the first time that any team has recovered from a 4-0 lead deficit, was misleading considering the real team value. This achievement (or miracle) can mainly be explained by the PSG frailty, also the players fear to enter the crowded Nou Camp. Barcelona’s performance, if miraculous, didn’t convince on the team playmaking quality. But after the game, it was thinking legitimately that Barcelona was capable of everything: “if one team could do this exploit, it would be Barcelona”.
Despite the media and popular uproar afterwards the performance, Juventus game showed that the PSG away game was not just an accident, but some deeper collective issues pictured the risk Barcelona face to totally lose its European domination in the next few years. In the next 5 years, the club will eventually see Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Mascherano departure, core players of Barcelona team. The issue for Barcelona is huge. If the club will always be able to attract new good players, it sounds difficult though to replace qualitatively these “star players” and still remain a European leading strength. How replacing Messi or Iniesta? It sounds almost impossible.
Throwback at other club supremacy ended this past decade
The English football ruling in the European football has progressively diminished this past few year. The English teams dominated Europe during the period 2005-2008, with 6 English teams in the Champions League final in 5 editions. Also, the 2008 English final between Chelsea and Manchester United, and the 2007/2008/2009 semi-finals with 3 English teams (Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal), representing an amazing dominance performance. For three years in a row, 3/4 of the European elite were English.
Manchester United was with Barcelona, the UCL most impressive team, playing the final in 2008, 2009 and 2011; winning the title in Moscow in 2008 against Chelsea.
Following Sir Alex Ferguson departure in 2013, combined with stars retirement departures (Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Van Der Sar, Vidic), or lowering performances from ageing players (Wayne Rooney), and also C. Ronaldo sold to Real Madrid (2011); lead to a major decrease in the teamplay quality.
Since the UCL final defeat against Barcelona in 2011, the Mancunian team got to the quarterfinals only once (in 2013 against Bayern Munich), even failing to qualify for the UCL round of 16. Over the last 6 editions, the club has not seen the UCL round of 16, 4 times; which demonstrate clearly how Manchester United became an ordinary club in European “football circus”.
Also, since Chelsea won the competition in 2012, only two teams succeeded to be among the semi-finalists (Chelsea and Manchester City), proving the weakening of the English football European competitiveness.
The English football has lost its dominance for the benefit of today’s Spanish (and German) domination.
The Milan A.C also represents the European football elite, with 7 Champions League titles. The club had been praised for an extraordinary team quality and a great history. Since the European cup got rebranded the UEFA Champions League in 1992, the Italian club won 3 titles (1994-2003-2007), also losing 3 finals (1993-1995-2005).
Again, since the last title in 2007, legends retirement departures such as Maldini, Nesta, Seedorf, Gattuso, Inzaghi; and Kaka’s transfer to Real Madrid, lead to weakening the club status. Ibrahimovic and ageing Ronaldinho was not enough to fulfil the former defensive and midfield quality. A bad management led the club to reach the UCL quarter-final, only one, in 10 editions! Moreover, the A.C Milan has been absent from any European tournament since 2014, due to the lack of team quality. This represents a lot, considering that Milan has always been seen as a legendary club, and is now relegated to a relative anonymity among the European sphere.
It may be too soon to tell if Barcelona is following the same downward spiral as Manchester United, and the A.C Milan. The main common character between the Italian and English club is the retirement of its main players, who led the club to a legendary status (through UCL title wins). The retirement of these legends is very difficult to replace. Therefore, when the great core players structure goes away, the club competitiveness is harmed, leading it to lose entirely its control and dominance on the European football.
That’s why Messi, Iniesta, Busquets transfers or departures could seriously impact the Blaugrana, preventing them from being at the top of European football. Could Neymar, Jr. become the main attacking leader? How to create a new midfield after Xavi and Iniesta retirement? Is the legendary “Tiki-taka” tactics still efficient in the UCL?
We will see in the following years if Barcelona achieves its sportive transition, or follow the Manchester United and A.C Milan sportive decline.