[Guest post at Sports Inside, the website about football in its cultural contexts by Frederik Müller.]
1. Time to forget Guardiola
Just in case you hadn’t noticed yet, Barça is no longer what it used to be. If you tune into a match on TV nowadays you will notice immediately. Since the most successful coach in the club’s history, Josep Guardiola, left back in 2012, Barcelona has tried, in vain, to extend the winning roll that made the club so popular in the 2008-12 period. Valdés, Puyol (see nº 9) and Abidal are gone. Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué, Pedro, Busquets and – though less noticeable – Messi are paying dearly for that success. Subsequent coaches Vilanova and Martino could vouch for that: Guardiola’s legacy is still hovering over the Camp Nou and makes any attempt to build a strong team look like the work of an amateur. Players, staff, board and fans have been grieving Pep’s loss in silence long enough, so it’s time to get over it.
2. Goodbye, Valdés
Victor Valdés was without any doubt the best goalkeeper in the club’s all-time history. And he’s definitely among the best of his generation. After his departure, Claudio Bravo (Chile) and André Ter Stegen (Germany) have been hired simultaneously to fill that big gap.
At the age of 31, Claudio Bravo has a great deal of experience under his belt. The former Real Sociedad player and the captain of the Chilean national team is a solid player who stands out for one of the most sought-after qualities the ideal FC Barcelona keeper must have: excellent foot abilities. The Chilean is a born leader on and off the pitch and his good start in the first fixtures of La liga 2014-15 have earned him Luis Enrique’s trust in the starting eleven.
Over the last years Ter André Stegen had become one of Germany’s main rising stars. His spectacular style and equally excellent foot skills convinced Barça’s head hunters to make him a solid bet for a long term project. Despite his young age (21), André has made an impression across all levels of the club thanks to his professionalism and down-to-earth attitude at all times. Ter Stegen has only made a few appearances in the starting eleven, and left a good impression in Champions League matches, isolated mistakes aside.
3. Luis Enrique – quo vadis Barça?
Guardiola’s style, which we could define as a cross between a steamroller and a ballet dancer, was just the pinnacle of a long run of exquisite playing style and great success stretching all the way back to the 90’s, when Johan Cruyff lit the fire. His fellow countrymen Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard continued modelling the idea: move into the opponent’s field by playing the ball around all the pitch with quick and short passes. Train the youngsters how to do that from when they’re toddlers, fill the gaps with players from abroad and success is guaranteed. Guardiola stuck to that formula and turned Barcelona into a ruthless winning machine.
That said, the club is perfectly aware that playing beautiful football is not only the way to success, but also its identity. Luis Enrique has a huge challenge ahead: convince his players and the ever-demanding and badly-spoilt-by-Guardiola Camp Nou audience that he’s got a plan. No news in that regard so far.
4. Messi is still the boss
Despite numerous changes in the team as well as institutional turbulence following alleged wrong-doings by the executive board over the last few years (see nº 8), everybody agrees who has to lead Luis Enrique’s crew on the pitch. Failing to claim his first and so-dreamed-of World Cup with Argentina last summer, Leo Messi is the key to bringing Barça back to the top of world football.
By far, the highlight of the summer transfer period at the Camp Nou. The Uruguayan striker is well-known not only for his outstanding technique and powerful shots, but also for his intelligence in his movements around the field. All in all, Luis Suárez seems to be the perfect ingredient to complete a dream forward line alongside Messi and Neymar. The only question that arises is whether he’ll learn how to tame his hot temper, which has turned against him on several occasions throughout his career.
6. The right-back
Summer rumours at the Camp Nou said that Luis Enrique had no spot for Alves for the 2014-15 season. Over the last days prior to writing this post, the right full back has become a major concern among fans at the Camp Nou. Alves’ performance has clearly dwindled over the course of the last years and the worst is that there’s no replacement to step in. Although many would agree that Martín Montoya – a key player when Luis Enrique coached the reserve team – has deserved a chance to prove himself, the latter has inexplicably ostracised him into the stands even behind the new signing Douglas, who in his few appearances thus far has done everything but light up the fans.
7. No signings till 2016?
Back in April this year FC Barcelona was banned from the transfer market until summer 2016 due to infringement of the FIFA regulation on hiring players under 18. Experienced players like Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Busquets, Alves or Piqué are certainly at the end of their careers or at least need a lengthy time out. In other words renewal is a top priority, yet the new arrivals for the 2014-15 season don’t seem to suffice. While the attack line and the goal seem well covered (see nº 2), the defence and midfield show deep structural flaws which (until 2016) can only be fixed by upcoming players from the reserve team. As a matter of fact, the latter’s influence in the post-Guardiola era has been merely testimonial. A ray of light for the young players at La Masia?
8. Bartomeu, on the brink
Regarded as non-legitimately appointed following Sandro Rosell’s abrupt departure in January, the current FC Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu will most certainly not break any Guinness popularity record in the club’s history. The transfer ban (see nº 7), alleged irregularities in Neymar’s signing, unjustified sackings and a dramatic drop in the team’s performance, to name a few, have left Bartomeu and his board between a rock and a hard place. All in all, an increasing sector of the Camp Nou feels the image of the club as a whole has been seriously damaged. The patience of the culers is running out.
His various injuries, the inevitable effects of age (36) and most importantly the feeling he could no longer serve his team at top level pushed Carles Puyol to retire from an extremely successful career both at FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Well-known for his impressive defence skills as well as an unprecedented professionalism, Puyol has set the bar so high that any player stepping into his position will only dream of reaching.
10. Munir, Sandro, Samper, Adama, Ié… – the future?
La Masia is where it all started. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Messi, Busquets… they all became world stars. The star factory knows nothing about the past though: it’s always looking to the future. With a few appearances with the senior team under their belt, the rising stars Munir, Sandro, Samper and Adama seem to have all it takes to join their predecessors in the hall of fame. Yet there’s a key element none of them can do without: full trust and support from their coach. On the one hand, the bad news is that players like Roberto, Rafinha, Montoya are rarely seen on the pitch – not to mention the departed Thiago or Tello. On top of that, Luis Enrique doesn’t seem willing to entrust the making of a new team to players from the reserve team. On the other hand, the transfer ban (see nº 7) may well force Luis Enrique to offer the young players more than just a supporting role.