How do you evaluate a team when only one game mattered?
Barcelona won La Liga by 11 points. It was the team’s second title in a row, fourth out of the last five, sixth out of the last eight and eighth out of the last 11. Their season was also, by all accounts, an utter failure. For the second straight season the team blew a massive lead halfway through a tie to get unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League.
The fact that the Liverpool team that sent them home this time was significantly better than the Roma side that delivered the blow last year doesn’t really make an extremely bitter pill go down any easier. It’s hard to reconcile sustained dominance and prominent failure into a coherent narrative. One place to start, however, is by recognizing that Barcelona’s overall performance has, in fact, declined. Over the past two seasons, Barcelona’s attack has increasingly become less prominent in order to maintain a, more or less, consistent level of defensive strength.
Of course, when you have Lionel Messi that decline simply means going from stratospheric levels to simply superhuman ones. Barcelona still had the best attack in La Liga, outstripping their closes competitor by 0.21 expected goals per match.
This choice by manager Ernesto Valverde is reasonable. Barcelona’s squad is old. It’s understandable that the club is looking to maximize the last years of a legendary group of players, but for everybody outside of Messi (and arguably Gerard Pique) the cracks are showing.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic both have noticeably less range than they used to. This has meant that Barcelona, in order to maintain their defensive presence, has had to carry a third midfielder who is more attentive to doing the work of an actual midfielder.
Executing that approach led to more Arthur and Arturo Vidal and sometimes, especially in big matches, Sergi Roberto being repurposed as a nominal wide midfielder pinching inside to further protect the center of the pitch. And while that approach worked, it had deleterious knock-on effects. With so much emphasis on protecting the center of the pitch, Barcelona’s midfielders were less able to influence the attack. Virtually nobody playing outside of the attacking three generated any shots.
It also meant that Philippe Coutinho who was acquired 18 months ago to fill the great Andres Iniesta’s shoes, suddenly found himself on a team that didn’t have room to carry the kind of midfielder who thrives on attacking possession. Coutinho might have succeeded as a player who got to control the ball with three attackers moving dynamically in front of him, but since he didn’t have the defensive presence to play alongside the slowing Rakitic and Busquets, he never got the chance.
Instead Coutinho played most of his minutes as part of a front three where Messi dominated all the possession duties. Coutinho does a lot of things well, but most of them involve starting with the ball at his feet. Barcelona desperately needed another attacker who thrived moving ahead of Messi without the ball, and Coutinho is simply not that player. The problem was that Ousmane Dembele never stayed healthy enough to become that player, and Malcom wasn’t trusted enough to even be given the chance. And with Luis Suarez slowing down, Lionel Messi did everything.
None of these decisions are bad.
Having Messi in the side offers and obvious and easy way for a manager to cover for the sins of a squad that was otherwise surprisingly limited. But, it’s also not the way forward. As Suarez and Busquets and Rakitic and even Pique and Jordi Alba get older, those crevasses are only going to get bigger, the gaps will get harder to fill, and eventually even Messi, who is himself aging (one assumes anyway, though at this point even his actual mortality is in question), won’t be able to fill those holes.
The good news is that help is on the way. Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong might as well have been constructed in a lab to fix Barcelona’s midfield shortcomings. He combines elite defensive mobility with excellent ball progression skills. He's already a Barcelona player. Coutinho ultimately failed because he was a mix of progressive passing and final third presence, while de Jong takes the passing that Coutinho would have provided and combines it with defensive presence rather than a focus attacking contributions. Similarly, in attack, the long-rumored Antoine Griezmann move may finally be happening. He’d bring the ability to either spell Suarez or play alongside Suarez and Messi. And even if that deal for the Atletico Madrid want-away doesn’t materialize, the interest indicates a recognition on Barcelona’s part that something needs to be done to better customize the front three, and in a major way.
A starting eleven which just plugs in de Jong and Griezmann puts the talent on the field to fix the major problems. But, just because the talent will be there to solve the problem doesn’t mean the problem will automatically become solved. And that’s where we come to the question of Valverde. From the outside it’s impossible to know whether his managerial decisions over the last two years were pragmatic choices which reflect the limitations of the squad at his disposal, or the reflection of a fundamental conservatism which he’d seek to implement regardless of the tools he has to work with. It’s also unclear if Valverde, even if he were retained, would have the juice behind the scenes to carry out the changes that need to be made. Featuring de Jong (and Arthur and even Carles Aleñà) means, to some degree, marginalizing Busquets and Rakitic.
The same is true of Griezmann (or whoever) in attack. But, if Valverde returns it’s almost certainly in part because he has strong relationships with the very players he’d then need to start phasing out. That’s not an impossible challenge to overcome, it’s the kind of thing the best managers in the world handle regularly, it’s also the kind of hurdle that trips up lesser leaders all the time. It’s unfair to lay two shock Champions League defeats solely at Valverde’s feet, but even after sharing the blame around it still makes sense to ask if he’s the right man for the job going forward. Barcelona have been linked to a whole host of names, including some of the expected ones like Massimiliano Allegri, some ambitious ones like Erik ten Hag and some, idiosyncratic ones like Roberto Martinez.
Given that the way for Barcelona to improve is for the team to play stylistically differently and use different players than they have over the past two seasons it makes sense to kick a lot of tires. Ultimately the story of Barcelona’s season is that of a manager who adopted a strategy that was good enough to cover for the fact that he had an aging team on his hands that was getting worse in notable ways. That approach won the league, but led to failures elsewhere.
It was an approach that made sense, but it won’t make sense for much longer. If Barcelona keep their manager he’s going to have to change his ways next season to get the most out of a new generation of talent, rather than the old one. If Barcelona determine that he won’t or can’t do that then it’s time to hand over the reins to somebody who will.