Barcelona’s disintegration and the decadence that can befall a superclub | Jonathan Wilson

Barcelona’s disintegration and the decadence that can befall a superclub | Jonathan Wilson


arcelona cannot say they were not warned. Since 2017, their exits from the Champions League have been becoming increasingly embarrassing. Humiliation has followed humiliation. Perhaps finally now, after their 8-2 humbling against Bayern, their worst defeat since 1946, a performance that became shameful in its ineptitude, action will be taken.

Occasionally matches take place that are the meeting of two historical trends. Here, on the one hand, there was the tactical dominance of Germany, the high line and the hard press, the slick muscularity, the rapid exchanges of a well-structured attack, that have become increasingly familiar at the highest level.

And there, fatted on success, was the decadence that can befall a superclub. Spain until very recently had been very obviously the leading league in Europe. Sevilla may yet become the 10th Spanish winners of the Europa League in 17 years, but there will not be an eighth Spanish Champions League winner in 12 years. In three days, all three of La Liga’s remaining sides have exited in ways that raise questions of the Spanish game as a whole. Real Madrid seemed baffled to face a Manchester City team who pressed them. Atlético looked exhausted, unable to raise themselves after RB Leipzig had retaken the lead.

But whatever suggestions of decadence were apparent in their defeats, whatever unfamiliarity at being challenged, was magnified a thousand times in Barça: 4-0 against Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 (miraculously overturned); 3-0 against Juventus in 2017; 3-0 against Roma in 2018; 4-0 against Liverpool in 2019. All of them caused by an ageing midfield becoming overstretched by the insistence on trying to play a pressing game a superannuated forward line renders impossible. (And yet in that time they won two league titles; the danger signs have been there not just for Barça but for La Liga).

Five years ago, Pep Guardiola took his Bayern to Camp Nou for the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. Seemingly working on the logic that Barça were unused to teams pressing them, he played a recklessly high line that did intermittently rattle Barça. But it also left the MSN front line with acres to exploit, forcing him to change midway through the first half when the score was implausibly still 0-0 – although it could have been pretty much anything in Barça’s favour. Shattered by their early exertions, Bayern conceded three late goals.

In Lisbon too, Bayern pressed high. Here too there was a weird sense of abandon in the early stages. Barça got in behind them three times in the first quarter of an hour, scored once and hit the post. But this time Barça, devastated by the press, found themselves 4-1 down after 31 minutes – and it could have been worse. In a 26-minute spell, Bayern had 13 shots.

The end now surely looms for Quique Setién at Barcelona.

This was a disintegration of a major side on a level that hadn’t been seen since the World Cup semi-final in 2014 (then, too, Thomas Müller scored twice while Manuel Neuer and Jérôme Boateng were also on the winning side, with Hansi Flick guiding matters from the bench, albeit as an assistant rather than the head coach). But 2014 was about the explosion of a hysterical team inflated beyond bursting point on nationalism and sentimentality; Barça’s disintegration is structural, the result of years of failure of leadership partially disguised by an economic structure that means the wealthy can keep making terrible decisions without facing any real consequences.

It’s the 2015 semi-final that is the more relevant comparison. Four Bayern players – Neuer, Boateng, Müller and Robert Lewandowski – played in both games, while David Alaba missed out in 2015 with an ankle injury. But six Barça players remain – plus Ivan Rakitić, who was mercifully left on the bench on Friday. None of those Bayern outfielders are over 31, and they are surrounded by much younger talent; at 31 Jordi Alba is the youngest of Barça’s outfield survivors. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and Gérard Piqué are still the core of their squad.

Gerard Piqué during the 8-2 shellacking.

Yet money has been spent. This isn’t the case of the tap being turned off. Since that 2015 semi-final, Barça have spent £875m, of which the main beneficiaries have been Liverpool. Their three most expensive signings, the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-most expensive signings in the history of football, were all at the Estádio da Luz on Friday. Antoine Griezmann came on at half-time and completed eight passes in his 45 minutes. Ousmane Dembélé never got off the bench. Philippe Coutinho did make an impact, a 16-minute cameo bringing two goals and an assist, but unfortunately he was playing for Bayern having been loaned out to reduce the wage bill.

“We were not the club that we represent,” the Barça president Josep Maria Bartomeu said on Friday night, but that’s not true. This was precisely what Barcelona have been for four years. This is the potential fate of all superclubs, that the abundance of talent their vast resources can accrue insulate them from the reality as they swat aside most domestic opposition, only for their incoherence and complacency to be exposed when they finally meet a decent opponent.

The 8-2 is a scoreline unusual enough to resonate. It should be a terrible example for everybody: this is what happens if you buy without a plan, if you sack managers on a whim, if you let ageing players run the dressing-room. Barça need a complete rebuild, to tear it all down and start again. And that’s perhaps the worst aspect for Barça: after ignoring countless previous warning, there’s no guarantee even this one will be heeded.