We have been here before. Most notably when Pep Guardiola left the club in 2012 citing burnout. Then when the midfield metronome Xavi Hernandez moved to Qatar in the summer of 2015.
And on both the occasions the question was pertinent. After all, the 2008-12 Barcelona has a legitimate shot at being regarded as the greatest football team of all time, with Guardiola at the helm and Xavi being the most important cog in a clockwork midfield.
But both the times it wasn’t quite the end. The Catalans still won a treble after Guardiola’s departure and although the midfield mechanics considerably changed after Xavi’s exit, there was still a league title the following season.
But this feels different.
Of youngsters and midfielders
It was symbolic that in Real Madrid’s 5-1 assault of Barcelona over the two legs of the Spanish Super Cup, the one player who shone the brightest was a 21-year-old Marco Asensio, donning the all-white of Madrid and not the blaugrana of the Catalans. He symbolised the passing of the baton from Barcelona to Real Madrid when it comes to the team with best youngsters in world football.
It wasn’t just Asensio either. The midfield of Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Mateo Kovacic, and Isco ran rings around the Catalans in the first leg; there was no respite for the visitors in the second leg either when Isco was rested.
And with these two facts lie the most definitive argument of Barcelona’s dominance in Spanish football being regarded a story of the past.
The two biggest strengths that propelled Barcelona to their most successful era in football have become Real Madrid’s weapons. As the Catalans have made baffling transfer decisions in the years post Guardiola, Los Blancos have increasingly demonstrated prudence in their dealings that indicate Florentino Perez learned his lessons from the failure of Zidanes y Pavons of his first stint as Real Madrid president.
Barcelona’s dominance was built on the strength of their famed La Masia academy that gave them the core of their super-successful team but their cupboards have run dry of late. The failure hasn’t been only of the academy but ineptness at the board level with some of the most promising youngsters being sent on ill-suited loans or sold outright in favour of expensive signings that reeked of not just short-termism, but also a clear lack of playing philosophy that has been the hallmark of the club.
Sergi Samper joined the club at the age of six and had been touted as one of the best young midfielders in Spain, yet at 22, he has just one league appearance for the Barcelona first team against his name. Alex Song and Andre Gomes are two of the questionable signings who were given the game time that Samper deserved. The Catalan is now expected to move out on a permanent deal, having spent the last season on loan at Granada.
Alex Grimaldo was regarded as one of the biggest talents to emerge at Barcelona since Messi but Luis Enrique preferred Adriano and PSG and Roma failure Lucas Digne rather than giving a single minute of first team football to the young left-back before selling him to Benfica.
Marc Bartra was shipped away to Borussia Dortmund in favour of questionable signings Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu. Neither of them are at the club now as Bartra has established himself as first team regular at Dortmund.
And that is just a list of some of the better known names. Compare it to the time when Guardiola gave chance to unknowns like Sergio Busquets, Pedro Rodriguez, Martin Montoya, Isaac Cuenca, Christian Tello and Bojan Krkic amongst others.
Instead of blooding youngsters, the Barcelona board has deemed it fit to bring in the likes of Paco Alcacer, Arda Turan, Gomes, Aleix Vidal and Vermaelen. Let alone being successful at the club they don’t even play the style that suits the Catalan side’s ethos.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have stopped chasing the most expensive player on the market and started building teams for the future. They brought in Kovacic who will never be a starter as long as Modric is fit; Asensio despite having Ronaldo and Gareth Bale as starters on the wings; Theo Hernandez with Marcelo ahead of him; and Dani Ceballos, who has an array of attacking talents to contend with for a first team spot.
Barcelona had a chance at acquiring most of these players but they either found them too expensive or looked the other way. The failure to make decisive moves has given Real Madrid not just a formidable starting eleven but also stellar talent to bring off the bench.
Xavi, after his team’s ignominious exit at the hands of Chelsea from the 2011/12 Champions League, had suggested that there should be more ways to judge the winner of a football game than just goals, insinuating moral victory for Barcelona’s suffocating possession. The idea was laughable but it also highlighted the reverence with which the Catalan maestro held domination of the ball.
It was telling statistic, then, that Barcelona’s possession was 3% less than Real Madrid’s in the second leg of the Super Cup. Alas, Xavi can’t even claim a moral victory over their bitter rivals.
Barcelona’s failure to suitably replenish their midfield following the exit of Xavi and an ageing Andres Iniesta, and with Real Madrid building one of the most gifted midfields with the likes of Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Isco, Kovacic and Ceballos, it will ensure that the victories in the future will be lesser for the Catalans; both the scoresheet and the moral kind.
Is there hope still?
With years of impotent management, the Catalan giants have been shorn of their academy talent. It takes years to train youngsters and instill in them the ethos of the first team. With the management of the club currently in disarray it won’t be anytime soon that Barcelona can rely on quality youngsters to break through.
In such a scenario their best bet is to buy youngsters from elsewhere, but their incompetent management is letting them down there as well, with the less expensive ones being scooped by other outfits and those coming—Denis Suarez, Alen Halilović—struggling for meaningful minutes.
The transfer window is still open and Barcelona may still shell out the reported three figure sums for Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho to strengthen their side. It will be quite an irony that when Real Madrid have moved towards prudence Barcelona are splurging galactic sums; yet another moral victory for Real Madrid.
The hiring of managers not exactly wedded to the Barcelona tradition of playing 4-3-3 isn’t a step in the right direction either, so it appears a steep climb for the Catalans as they chase glory. There is still a lot of talent in the first team but it is impossible to challenge for meaningful trophies without a proper bench.
Sport is nothing without its ability to spring glorious surprises. Who would have predicted Barcelona’s treble after the turmoil in the January of 2015? There could still be a flicker or two from the fading lights of the Blaugrana.
Yet, all signs point to the end of Barcelona’s domination and the rise of a slick and strong Real Madrid.
By the way, you have heard of Paulinho, but do you remember Douglas?
He is still at Barcelona. Not at right-back, but as a perfect metaphor for everything wrong at the club currently.
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