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The Anatomy of Barcelona's Champions League Collapse

ndwuma
By ndwuma | self meida writer
Published 23 days ago - 6 views

Listen to this; you’re not going to believe it. A little over five years ago, Barcelona won the Champions League. To my mind, they were the greatest soccer team to ever do it.

The trophies back that up, a European cup, the Spanish Cup, and La Liga. Plus, over the next five months they’d go on to win the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup. The only feasible thing they didn’t win: the preseason Spanish Supercopa, La Liga’s answer to the Community Shield.

The style backs it up, too: Their plus-89 goal differential is tied for the best margin across Europe’s Big Five leagues since 2009. Per Stats Perform, their plus-66.15 expected-goal differential is only exceeded by themselves, the following season. But two others things in particular made this team so special. They pressed more aggressively and effectively than any team since 2008, allowing just 6.98 passes per defensive action. And they tilted the field until it was almost perpendicular to the Earth, as only Manchester City’s centurions completed a higher percentage of the final-third passes in their matches: 74 to 74.5 percent.


The treble season was also Luis Enrique’s first season with the club; same for Luis Suarez. The club was, hilariously, reported to be in a kind of “crisis” about halfway through the season, and the tension with Enrique, up until he left, came from the team’s departure from its supposed core identity. While this specific iteration was more dominant than any of Pep Guardiola’s legendary sides pick your attribute; goals, chance quality, pressure, territory they were fine with ceding control. Nearly 20 percent of the xG they conceded came from fast breaks; none of the previous sides since 2008 were north of 10. Plus, with Luis Suarez and Neymar now up top alongside Lionel Messi, Enrique encouraged the team to play into space, to embrace direct play, to take on unsettled backlines all by themselves. They still dominated possession, but the way it looked wasn’t quite right to some purists not enough of a connection between the front three and the rest of the team, not enough control of the ball, especially in the middle of the field.

Six years later, they had more of the ball against Bayern Munich, especially in the middle, as they completed 213 passes in that area of the field compared to their opponents 177. But that’s where the dominance ends, and a new kind of history begins. Bayern, you know by now, won 8-2. Per Stats Perform, the xG margin was an absurd 5.64 to 1.04. Bayern took 26 shots, and allowed seven. And although Messi and Co. did complete more passes overall, Bayern completed 66 percent of the balls in the final-third. Barca allowed seven goals for the first time since 1949. They’re the first team ever to allow eight goals in a Champions League knockout match. And they lost by six goals for the first time since 1951.

How did they get here? There’s all kinds of internal politics at a place like Barca, where officials are literally elected into place. For our purposes today, I’m not not interested in the machinations and who pulled the right levers who has the power, who made the decisions, who got screwed, who didn’t. What I wanna know, really, is how perhaps the most dynamic, dominant team in the history of the sport turned into what we saw on Friday: a pathetic, passive, punching bag that got ripped down by the studies.

Barcelona performed at an elite level in Enrique’s second and third seasons, but success in Europe is so contingent on things you cannot control and it’s not easy to beat Real Madrid the one with prime Benzema, Bale, and Ronaldo all together year in and year out. The marriage was always an imperfect one he gave them what they wanted but not in the way they wanted it and Enrique probably required Guardiola levels of success year in and year out to keep things going. But the lifecycle of the modern manager is short, so I don’t think you can blame this on Enrique’s departure. However, the club should have prioritized hiring coaches who emphasized a similar, vertical style of play while also being competent enough in possession play so they could dominate territory. Ernesto Valverde had never coached at a club capable of doing these things, and there is no connecting thread between these three.

Now for the players. One of the amazing things about the success in the 2014-15 season is that it came immediately after the club sold Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, who’d both go on to be two of the best players in the Premier League over the next couple seasons. Suarez was the major arrival from Liverpool, while Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and Ivan Rakitic both arrived for less than $20 million. All three would start in the 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final.

So, you had a 22-year-old Ter Stegen in goal. (All ages referenced are ages at the beginning of the season). Across the backline was 25-year-old Jordi Alba, 30-year-old Javier Mascherano, 27-year-old Gerard Pique, and 31-year-old Dani Alves. In the midfield: 26-year-old Rakitic, 26-year-old Sergio Busquets, and 30-year-old Andres Iniesta. Up top, Suarez was 27, as was Messi, and Neymar was 22. Jeremy Mathieu (30), Xavi (34), and Pedro (27) all featured from the bench. In other words, you had six elite players in their primes, three of the best players of their eras at their positions just past their primes, a 22-year-old who was already a superstar, and one of the best young keepers on the planet. That’s pretty much the perfect profile; a couple hold overs from the previous era, a core peaking at the exact same time, and two young stars who are already good enough for the top level.

If there was one warning sign sitting somewhere within that success, though, it was on the bench. The subs were all veteran players without a better future at the club; no youngsters getting experience who could one day become starters. The unused subs were backup keeper Claudio Bravo, 27-year-old utility wide man Adriano, 21-year-old midfielder Rafinha, and 23-year-old center back Marc Bartra. Presumably, Rafinha could’ve been the internal replacement for Iniesta and Bartra for Mascherano. That, of course, has not happened, as both of those players spent this past season on mid to lower table La Liga teams. 

The club were dealing with a transfer ban the summer after winning the European Cup, but they brought in two players midseason once the ban expired. One was the fullback Aleix Vidal for $18.70 million from Sevilla, the other was 28-year-old Arda Turan for $37.40 million. They both seem like nothing signings; neither player did much of anything for the club; Turan was recently given a two-year suspended prison sentence by Turkish authorities for firing a gun inside a hospital and breaking a pop star’s nose. But they represented two archetypes of players the club hasn’t been able to quit: mid price players who were just never good enough to play for Barcelona and expensive post prime players who don’t fit the team’s style and offered little long term value.

Despite no external upgrades, Barca would win La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in 2015-16. The following summer, the first one in which they could actually sign players in two years, was savvy in theory but fault in practice. The addition of 22 year old Samuel Umtiti for $27.50 million from Lyon was a clear upgrade; Pique needed a new partner and Umtiti was arguably the top center back prospect in Europe. Provided he could stay healthy, half the center of defense would be solved for the next decade. He hasn’t stayed healthy. The other players they added were all the right age, either 22 or 23, but none of them ended up being good enough for Barca; Lucas Digne from PSG ($18.15 million), Paco Alcacer ($33 million), and Andre Gomes ($40.7 million). These weren’t no brainer signings blowing up in their face, either; these were just competent young players who were never clearly Barcelona level players and then never became them. Digne and Gomes play for Everton now, while Alcacer’s on Villarreal. Meanwhile, the first starter from the European champion team, Dani Alves, would leave the club, as he joined Juventus on a free transfer.

In Enrique’s final season, Barca only won the Copa Del Rey, but the team was still fantastic, scoring 116 goals and allowing just 37 in league play. Then, it happened. Paris Saint-Germain broke the mold, activating Neymar’s release clause and more than doubling the previous world transfer record. Barca bought your best players, not the other way around until now. Javier Mascherano would also leave for China that summer for a couple million. So, the heir to Messi was gone while Messi and Suarez were two years older. The economics of all this are wildly inflated, and paying $151.8 million for a player who moved for just $15 million the year before probably should’ve rung some alarm bells, but Barcelona were gonna have to overpay for whoever they replaced Neymar with, and Dembele was the elite wide forward prospect in Europe. He might have been the best non striker attacker in the Bundesliga in his one season with Borussia Dortmund a two footed menace and that was as a 19-year-old. Provided he could stay healthy, he should be in the starting eleven for the next decade. Once again, he hasn’t stayed healthy.

Eventually, the other move to replace Neymar came off in January, as Barca brought in Phillipe Coutinho from Liverpool for $159.50 million. Here’s what I said at the time: Barcelona is getting one of the best creative attacking players in the world, right as he hits his peak. I stand by it, but the club just hasn’t been able to fit him and Messi within the same side. His relationship with the club turned toxic by the end of last season.

Looking back at the Champions League winning team again, the players that most urgently needed replacing were Mascherano, Alves, Iniesta, and suddenly Neymar. Umtiti for Mascherano, Coutinho for Iniesta, Dembele for Neymar all those seemed like three pretty big check marks. Barcelona can sign whoever they want, and well, they probably signed the three best guys they could have. The same summer that Neymar arrived, Barca also added the promising looking right back, Nelson Semedo, from Benfica for $39.27 million. His soul, unfortunately has since been exorcised from his body by Alphonso Davies. They also added 29 year old Paulinho, who had already seemingly checked out in order to cash checks in China, for $44 million. A general rule of thumb, you don’t wanna be buying players who have already moved to China.

Barca won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in Ernesto Valverde’s first season, but that was overshadowed by them blowing a 4-1 lead to Roma in the Champions League quarter finals. Paulinho left a year after joining hint, accounting shenanigans and Alcacer, Digne, Gomes, Vidal, and Yerry Mina (who also joined the previous summer) all departed in different capacities, too. The 31year-old Arturo Vidal was signed from Bayern Munich for $19.80 million, presumably to replace Paulinho in the physical old guy who isn’t as rangy as he used to be but still covers an incredible amount of ground compared to his peers role. The 21year old Arthur arrived from Gremio for $34 million, with eyes on him as a one day replacement for Sergio Busquets at the base of midfield. The 23 year old Clement Lenglet arrived for $39.49 million from Sevilla to provide a more consistent option next to Pique. And 21 year old Malcom, who always seemed like just a much worse version of Dembele and a backup at best, joined from Bordeaux for $45.1 million.

Barca also won La Liga in Ernesto Valverde’s second season, but once again, that was overshadowed by them blowing a 3-0 lead to Liverpool in the Champions League semi finals. Malcolm would leave for Zenit St Petersburg a year after he arrived, at about a million dollar loss, while Coutinho would join Bayern Munich on a $9 million loan. The new heir for Iniesta would then be 22 year old Frenkie De Jong, a potentially paradigm shifting talent who might force Barca into the future by sheer force of forward momentum, who joined from Ajax for $82.50 million. However, perhaps cowed by their two failed massive, high-risk investments in young talent, Barcelona decided to double down on ill-fit, declining big name players, paying $132 million for 28 year old Antonine Griezmann from Atletico. It was obviously misguided from the start, and Griezmann didn’t even make the starting XI against Bayern. De Jong was there, but even he’s struggled this season; his attacking and defensive performance has significantly declined since last year.

Valverde was fired midway through the season, Real Madrid won La Liga, and Valencia won the Copa Del Rey. In terms of team building, the past five years have been an incredible, comprehensive failure. They tried spreading the risk and signing affordable youngsters; almost all of them are already on new teams, and Arthur, who’s on his way to Juventus, is the latest of the discarded building blocks. They tried splashing tons of case on sure-thing talents, but Coutinho, Dembele, and De Jong have barely moved the needle at all for the club. And they tried over-paying for proven veterans, but outside of maybe Arturo Vidal, that money would have been more effective if combined with a combustible flame and used a source of temporary warmth.

And so, despite all that, despite hundreds and hundred of millions of dollars tossed at all of those different kinds of players over just about four full off-seasons, Barcelona were left sending out seven players who started that final five years ago. And that decaying version of a once great team got annihilated by a 16 wheeler that’s been rebuilt on the fly. The one goal scored by a Barcelona player came from a trio of stars, five years worse than used to be; Messi, to Alba, to Suarez. 

Actually, I guess one of Barca’s big signings did score twice and assist another goal on Friday. He just did it for the other team.

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