Opinion

Five immediate, drastic changes Barcelona need to solve crisis

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FC Barcelona are facing their worst crisis in over a decade. Here are five changes that need to happen.

1. President Josep Bartomeu must resign along with the entire board and elections must be held

The way Barcelona’s structure operates is that the members (Socios) vote for a board of directors every six years.

The last election was in 2015, one month after Barcelona had won a historic treble.

Bartomeu, who at the time won 54.6% of the 47,270 votes, no longer has the mandate he once had.

Since that election, the team has recorded multiple embarrassing failures in the UEFA Champions League, has been usurped by Real Madrid in La Liga and has failed to bring through any player from the famous youth academy - despite those players finding success elsewhere - into the starting XI.

This board became obsessed with becoming as financially strong as Real Madrid. And, to their credit, they did generate record revenue - but look at how they have spent that money. Huge transfer fees on players that do not solve their problems on the pitch.

This is a problem that Manchester United fans would know well. Great at generating income, but extremely poor at using that income.

Barcelona have had miserable Champions League failures under multiple coaches. Luis Enrique against Juventus in 2017, Ernesto Valverde against Roma in 2018 and Liverpool in 2019, and now Quique Setien in 2020.

While all those coaches had their flaws, the fact that this board has failed to correctly identify the problems, never mind find adequate solutions, is unacceptable.

All FC Barcelona problems can be traced back to the mismanagement of the board.

If Bartomeu resigns, then Jordi Cardoner the vice-president would take over. He is of this same regime and has contributed to the problems. There is no evidence, nor would there be any trust from the players or supporters, that he can turn this ship around.

The only way to trigger elections prior to the scheduled date of June 21, 2021 is for the entire board to resign.

As Gerard Pique said after the 8-2: “We cannot afford to compete like this because it's not the first, the second or the third time that something like this has happened.”

"This is very painful but I hope it serves some purpose... We all need to reflect deeply, the club needs lots of changes, I'm not talking about the coach, players - I don't want to point the finger at anyone but the club needs changes on a structural level.”

Barcelona needs to desperately find that synergy that they had in 2009-2011 between the youth system, the technical committee in charge of signings and the head coach. 

This can only be achieved by a fresh leadership, who understand that on-field success, combined with careful and intelligent management, will lead to financial success - not the other way around.

2. Lionel Messi’s burden needs to be relieved

Lionel Messi is 33 years old. He is not the explosive dribbling machine he once was. He has slightly declined from his peak (2009-2019).

He is still the most decisive player in the world.

A declining Lionel Messi, in a team that is ageing and lacking in both fluidity and intensity, still managed 31 goals and 26 assists in 44 matches.

He scored more goals than anyone in La Liga and recorded more assists.

If this was any other player, having a season of 31 goals and 26 assists, the football world would be going mad with praise. Every top club would be after this player.

For context, Kevin De Bruyne who is at the peak of his powers playing in a much more functional Manchester City side managed 23 assists and 16 goals in 48 matches.

We have become so accustomed to Messi’s greatness that we have started to lose sight of reality. Messi is still a player that any team in the world would want, and any coach would want.

However, Barcelona have become overly reliant on Messi to the point they are suffocating him.

This is the same thing that happened with Argentina. Every attack must go through him, his unbelievably talented teammates inexplicably unable to create chances without him.

Some of it is psychological, some of it is tactical.

But the defence that he has come up against has caught on; limit the space around Messi when he receives the ball and you can limit his effectiveness.

Note, they cannot stop him - they can limit him. They can also, crucially, limit the number of times he receives the ball, and where he receives the ball.

This season Messi has had to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball. This is obviously bad for two reasons.

One, if Messi is further away from goal he is less likely to be able to shoot or assist. Two, when Messi loses the ball, he shows very little effectiveness in the transition from the team attacking to defending. The closer he is to his own goal when he loses the ball the more dangerous it is for Barcelona.

For this reason, Messi needs to be closer to goal as he gets older. He does not have the pace to go past multiple players repeatedly, but he still can create separation between himself and his marker for a shot or an assist better than anyone in the world. 

If you look at the peak of Messi when it comes to goals and assists (2011-12 and 2014-15) there were crucial players around him that created space for him.

In 2011-12, Messi had a whopping, utterly ridiculous, actually feels stupid to even type it; 73 goals and 35 assists in 60 matches.

Messi played 55 of those matches through the middle in the centre-forward/false 9 role.

In this system, Messi was free to move where he felt he could be most effective.

But the key to it was everyone else moving to create space for Messi to be effective and to create separate problems for the opposition independent of Messi.

The wide players would stretch the defence. When Messi dropped in between the lines, either a wide attacker like David Villa, Pedro or Alexis Sanchez would make a diagonal run in behind to occupy the centre-backs who would leave Messi free.

Midfielders like Andres Iniesta, Xavi and especially Cesc Fabregas would make runs in behind the defence when Messi stepped into midfield.

The only midfielder who has done that with any regularity in the past two years is Ivan Rakitic. It is one of the reasons Rakitic continued to start regularly for Barcelona.

Rakitic is 32 years old now. He is less energetic and effective than he once was, and also has the ability to make some poor errors in possession.

Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta played a particularly crucial role in creating space for Messi.

Alves would have the ability to stretch the opposition defence on the right-side when a team sat back, often overlapping and getting in behind. Vitally, Alves also had the ability to come inside and be an outlet for when the central midfielders were pressed.

Currently, Barcelona have Nelson Semedo, who has the pace of Alves, but has not shown the ability to come inside and combine with the midfielders. He also has shown very little relationship with Messi, as opposed to Alves.

Andres Iniesta had the ability to create space both with and without the ball. Iniesta would often take up positions in between the opposition lines of the defence and midfield. In between the centre-back and the right-full back.

Through just his positioning Iniesta would ask questions of the defence that they could not answer.

When he did receive the ball he had an incredible ability to draw in multiple defenders and at the very last possible moment slip the ball to a teammate who was now in space.

Barcelona do not have this player anymore. This type of player is vital for Messi to be at his most effective.

Arturo Vidal is not that player. He does not have the technical capabilities nor the positional awareness.

Frenkie de Jong plays in a deeper role and is not comfortable in doing this.

Riqui Puig might be the closest thing to this player that Barcelona currently has but does not yet seem mature enough to take on this type of burden. He has played 13 senior games.

The older Messi gets the more he requires the team around him to be better. The more he needs the wide players to stretch the defence, the more he needs players running in behind to create options for him to pass to but also to create space between the opposition defence and midfield. The more he needs the team to threaten from other areas so he doesn’t always have three players around him.

In 2014-15, Messi had Alves and Iniesta, but he now also had Luis Suarez and Neymar.

With these two he formed a formidable trident that no defence could keep quiet. In fact, very few teams could even commit players forward because of the threat of MSN, enabling Barca to constantly control matches.

Messi would often drop deep into midfield to become a number 10, while Neymar stretched the defence wide and Suarez kept the centre-backs occupied.

Suarez does not offer the same threat in behind that he once did. He also does not offer the same amount of pressing that he used to.

Neymar is gone, but should he return this would definitely relieve some of the burden Messi faces in creating chances. He would definitely occupy more defenders and open more space for Messi. But he would, most likely, also fail to press the opposition sufficiently.

Now you would have two players who are a liability in the defensive transition. Neymar is unlikely to return this season for a multitude of reasons - mainly financial.

With the current squad, Barcelona’s best option is, in my opinion, playing Ansu Fati wide on the left, Ousmane Dembele wide on the right, and Leo Messi as a false 9 in front of Antoine Griezmann.

This is risky because Messi has shown very little relationship and understanding with Griezmann this season.

Griezmann never really made sense for Barcelona at the time, but with the financial realities that Barcelona have - and the additional hit that the pandemic will bring - the club must make the most of what they have.

Griezmann is the player who can run in behind when Messi needs him to, he can also press from the front to create opportunities for Messi in the transition while the other two players offer speed in behind and will stretch the defence.

Griezmann has always worked best as a second striker, usually with a reference point like Diego Costa or Olivier Giroud. Messi is a very different type of player. But this is the most likely way I can see this combination working.

Dembele’s fitness is also a key issue, he played the full 90 minutes just eight times in three seasons. He cost €105 million (A$173m).

In theory, if Dembele is fit he can stretch the defence out wide, has the pace in behind to cause defensive lines to drop deeper and is a threat to shoot with either foot.

Fati is similar but seems to be even more adept at coming inside and combining with Messi. His dribbling will also create space for Messi.

New signings Trincao and Pedri could also offer options on the wings. However, we are yet to see how they will adapt to the level of Barcelona.

3. A midfielder is needed to complement de Jong

Frenkie de Jong is an incredibly talented 23-year-old midfielder who Barcelona should base their midfield around.

De Jong shone at Ajax in a double pivot with Lasse Schone and Donny van de Beek higher up to form a midfield triangle.

With his national team, de Jong has been most successful playing in the same triangle, but with Atalanta’s Marten de Roon in the Schone role and Liverpool’s Georgino Wijnaldum in the van de Beek role.

De Jong likes to get on the ball and dictate the tempo of his team. Schone and de Roon provide the balance for him to do that, while Wijnaldum and van de Beek provide the reference point that creates the space for him to operate.

When de Jong takes the ball forward, his pivot partner can cover the space.

Barcelona do not have this player. Busquets is too reliantant on himself having the ball, he was never the most mobile player and he has also seen a decline.

Busquets has also never looked completely comfortable in a double pivot.

In one of de Jong’s best matches of the season, against Napoli at home in the Champions League, Rakitic started in this deeper position. Rakitic, as discussed earlier, doesn’t have the mobility nor the consistency for this to be a long-term solution.

That player may be Miralem Pjanic who will arrive from Juventus, but he is also possession-dominant and it’s hard to see how he will complement the Dutchman.

Napoli’s Fabin Ruiz is someone who has been touted and could be a good option for Barca.

To get the best out of de Jong, and given the money spent that should be one of the club’s main aims, they need to find the midfielder that will complement his skill set.

4. A coach with the confidence to make big decisions and give youth a viable pathway to the first team

This will be Barcelona’s greatest immediate challenge.

When Guardiola took over in 2008, the first thing he said was that he wanted to get rid of Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o.

At the time, these were - alongside Messi and Thierry Henry - the three biggest names at the club.

It was a huge call from the rookie coach, and carried great risk if the early results weren’t good.

He also insisted on promoting Pedro and Sergio Busquets from the B team.

Similar big calls need to be made. The team need to upgrade on the following players or at least have good alternatives for; Luis Suarez, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha, Carles Alena, Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets, Phillippe Coutinho, Nelson Semedo, Jordi Alba, Junior Firpo, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba.

This will cause tension in the dressing room. But it is necessary for the club’s immediate future.

Obviously not all these players will leave, and the ones that stay must be prepared to spend more time on the bench. The coach must have the personality to make these big decisions. Setien did not. Valverde did not - although it was less necessary for him to do so.

The only players who are guaranteed starters next season; Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Clement Lenglet, de Jong, Messi.

The difficulty is Barcelona are in a position where they are not able to sign many players without selling players, due to both financial constraints and the shortened transfer window.

Even when Guardiola took over he welcomed important signings like Alves, Pique and Seydou Keita. In 2011, he added a vital cog in David Villa.

Should Ronald Koeman come in, who is the favourite at this stage, it’s unlikely that he will have the coaching attributes for a re-build.

Koeman, who took over at Valencia in 2007, coached legendary Spanish goalkeeper Santiago Canizares.

“When Koeman arrived in Valencia I asked a friend of mine who saw all the Ajax matches and told me that he was able to take advantage of a project that is already rolling and give them continuity but that he was unable to create a new project. He defined it perfectly," Canizares said.

Koeman’s last club job was at Everton for the 2016-17 season.

"At Everton he has signed several important players in which they have spent a lot of money and once again has not been able to create a project ... he is not a coach who knows how to create a project, hopefully he will learn.”

This is not the type of coach Barcelona need right now.

Maurico Pochettino potentially has the character needed, but he would have the increased pressure of being the former coach and player of local rivals Espanyol. He also is no guarantee of success. No coach is.

Pochettino also was known to give youth a pathway at Tottenham. Which is important.

Erik ten Hag played a style with Ajax that Barca fans would like to see replicated and he too utilised youth team products, but like Setien he may lack the gravitas needed to have an effect on the squad.

Barcelona’s youth system is still producing, they’re just moving on for other opportunities. Thiago at Bayern Munich, Dani Olmo at RB Leipzig, Adama Traore at Wolves, Eric Garcia at Manchester City, Andre Onana at Ajax, Hector Bellerin at Arsenal, Takefusa Kubo now at Villarreal, Alejandro Grimaldo at Benfica.

Barcelona cannot afford to keep letting these players leave for often no fee.

Both long term and short term the club must make more of that youth system.

5. New full-backs must come in

Barcelona have underestimated how important the role of full-backs has become in modern football.

Which is stunning given Dani Alves revolutionised what a full back could do while at Sevilla and Barcelona.

Liverpool have Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson who create an incredible amount of chances, both by crossing from deep and by joining the attacks on the overlap.

Real Madrid had Marcelo for their run of three straight Champions League wins, he was able to join the attack both on the overlap and the underlap. He also had the ability to come inside and combine with the midfielders.

Jordi Alba once had this, but he has declined, and also lacks the stamina to get up and back.

Nelson Semedo has the speed and stamina, but his defensive abilities and decision making are in question.

The right-back position is extra vital to Barcelona because that is the side that Messi is usually on.

It has increased defensive responsibility, because Messi rarely tracks all the way back, but also increased attacking responsibility because when Messi steps inside the full-back must overlap to create the width needed to stretch the defence.

There is a reason Barcelona’s Champions League failures started to come after Alves left.

Who could they sign in these positions? At left-back their best realistic options are probably Valencia’s Jose Gaya, Benfica’s (and former Barca youth product) Alex Grimaldo, Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro or Watford’s Pervis Estupiñán.

Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira, Ajax’s Sergino Dest and Real Betis’ Emerson are also possible options for Barcelona.

It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade, if at all, any of these three would be on Semedo.

But the most successful teams in Europe have started to view full-backs as vital to the construction of their attacks. Barcelona must find world-class options for those positions.