Ernesto Valverde tried to put the criticism down to high demands and snap reactions but Barcelona’s malaise, underlined by a goalless draw at home to Slavia Prague on Tuesday, will be laid at the feet of their coach.
After losing 3-1 at Levante in La Liga on Saturday, Barca produced a performance that offered few assurances and even less encouragement this will be the year they, and Lionel Messi, win the Champions League again.
Messi hit the crossbar but was unable to deliver the goal at a restless Camp Nou that might have papered over the cracks and, at least, quietened the whistles at the finish.
Gerard Pique and Valverde both pointed to the tables in the team’s defence, with Barcelona sitting top of La Liga and first in Group F, still more than likely to go through, although with first place now up for grabs.
If they fail to win at home to Borussia Dortmund later this month, it could well be that Barca, Dortmund and Inter Milan are all within three points of each other going into the final round, when Valverde’s side are away at the San Siro.
And in the league, they lead, but not with conviction. Level on points with Real Madrid, Barcelona are only one ahead of Sevilla in fifth, albeit having played a game less due to last month’s postponed Clasico.
“In football today, and in a team like ours, it’s all about winning,” said Valverde. “And if it can be emphatic, even better. It is never enough.
“At the start of the season, it’s not about winning one title, it’s about winning three or four. So the frustration when you don’t win a game is high.”
When Valverde arrived in 2017, he took over a team in crisis, stunned by the departure of Neymar and stung by consecutive defeats to Real Madrid in the Super Cup.
He brought stability and calm, and the team, steadied by his belief in discipline and hard work, won the league. A year later, they did it again, this time by 11 points.
But while initially some of the aesthetics, and players, remained, Barcelona’s sense of identity fizzled. The reliance on Messi has grown heavier while success in Spain no longer excuses failure in Europe, particularly the kind seen against Roma and Liverpool.
“Barcelona have a history of fantasic collective play and then on top of that Messi made the difference,” Arsene Wenger told beinSports on Tuesday night.
“Today it looks like they wait for Messi to do something and the strength of the team-play has gone. It looks like they have lost their charisma.”
Without the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Valverde may not be able to replicate the style of Pep Guardiola but he has Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Frenkie de Jong. The feeling is the style should be better than this.
“I would ask for patience,” said Pique. “We are not playing at the level we expect. The results are not bad, but they could be better. We have to improve.”
But without a sense of direction, supporters are also less eager to wait.
“Pique asks for patience and we have it,” wrote Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday. “But that doesn’t mean continuing while wearing a blindfold.”
Valverde’s contract ends next summer and although it contains an option to extend for another year, there might be an opportunity for an amicable conclusion.
Erik ten Hag, Xavi and Ronald Koeman could be possible successors.
To stay longer, Valverde will likely have to win the Champions League but crash out early or fall away in La Liga, and he could go sooner too.
“Three days ago we were enjoying a winning streak and now everything has unravelled in a flash,” said Valverde. “If you can fall into a hole in three days, in three days you can also climb out of it.”
But the whistles on Tuesday suggest the dip goes deeper. Barcelona need fixing and Valverde knows time is running out.