Too Much and Never Enough: the 2018-19 Season in Review

Not all fan bases are created equal. Let’s start there, before we mention anything else. Some fans are downtrodden, some like to get drunk and rowdy, some are rabidly devoted to smoke bombs. Success ebbs and flows, but fan bases tend to coalesce around a single idea, whether it is merely a stereotype or misunderstood by outsiders. In the United States, for instance, Philadelphia area teams enjoy rabid support from a fan base that is often, shall we say, aggressive. Beşiktaş fans in Istanbul go so far as to take to the water. Russia is known for fighting, especially in Moscow. Barcelona fans, on the other hand, are rapidly forging an identity as part of an entitled group that sees success not as the goal, but as the natural endpoint, an endpoint that it deserves. That Barça’s 2018-19 season ended with a trophy would be enough for most followers of most teams, but not all fan bases are created equal and not all seasons have equal contexts.

This is where outsiders will point fingers at arrogance when the internal reality isn’t that Barça fans are angry that there was just one trophy, but rather that the season wasn’t defined by silverware insomuch as it was by chaos. Not the chaos of howling lunatics or full moon parties, but in the way that physics defines it: behavior so unpredictable as to appear random. What fanbase can accept that yesterday has no bearing on tomorrow? Strangely, the season was both stunningly successful and horribly awful. At the same time.

Exhibit A: Lionel Messi torched defenses throughout the season, racking up 51 goals in 50 matches, including reaching 600 goals for his career by slamming in a fabulous freekick from somewhere in the Pyrenees. He put the sword to Liverpool and the ghosts of Roma 2018; it was electrifying, gratifying, and therapeutic all at once. The aggregate scoreline against Real Madrid was 6-1! The team didn’t lose in the league between November 24 and April 27. 

Exhibit B: [deep breath. You can do this. It’s okay.] Last year I described the Roma debacle as “the wheels came off.” If that’s the case, then this year the wings came off in the second leg at Anfield and the fuselage’s crash landing was pretty much a headfirst plunge into the first circle of Hell. There was no more Triplete and there was no more veneer of civility left to Barça Twitter either. Ernesto Valverde, the author of 2 consecutive La Liga titles, a domestic double, and a potential second consecutive domestic double, was not just on the hot seat, but being thrown into the fire itself by an extremely vocal set of fans. I personally said this on the final whistle of the match at Anfield: 

I stand by that assertion not because a single loss should control what we do as a sporting institution, but because the manner in which we lost an unassailable 3-0 lead was a repeat of last year’s drubbing in Rome and came with almost no convincing counterweights. Yes, the team could have scored at Anfield and changed the math and the momentum dramatically, but it would only have served to reinforce that the conservative-bordering-on-timid approach was the proper one. Evisceration at the hands of a team that knew it had to go for it or perish was just reward for poor squad management towards the end of the season, much as it had been the year before. Where I wondered at the end of 2017-18 if Valverde would learn a lesson from the second leg in Rome, this year I am convinced he will not. You know the old saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, fire the manager.

The team was beginning to convince, as well, until that first Liverpool match, the result of which effectively papered over the reality on the ground. Klopp killed Valverde and should have killed Barça in the first leg but for some dire finishing. The better team over 180 minutes went through and even Lionel Messi’s outrageous brilliance in the first leg couldn’t make up for poor managerial decisions. That the team went on to get blasted off the pitch by Valencia didn’t help matters one bit.

But what of those structural problems, hinted at by previous results and spotlighted by the matches at Anfield and the Villamarin? It wasn’t so much that the team relies on Messi (which it does), but that the team relies on Messi because there are no other options off the bench. Yes, Dembele has been injured for large chunks of the season and Arthur may have been carrying a knock, but moves over the last few years have rendered Barcelona devoid of creative options, even as solid players like Carles Alenya are eased into greater and greater roles. Coutinho jumps to mind, of course, but the true indicator of our poor squad planning is Kevin Prince Boateng.

KPB was a decent-to-good footballer, but he did not show any ability to make a difference on the field when quality was what was required to break deadlocks. The operative word in the previous sentence is the word “was.” Luis Suarez, 32 years old since January, was pushed to his breaking point because he simply could not rest. He was garbage for large chunks of the year, but his absence was obvious against Valencia in the Copa del Rey final when KPB couldn’t even make the bench. Take a moment to consider that, if you haven’t already. Whatever the board was playing at with KPB, they goofed. They took a cheap flyer on a player, which, and I want to be clear about this here, is not a problem in a squad building sense. Look at Henrik Larsson for the greatest example I can think of in modern Barça history. It’s not that KBP didn’t pan out, per se, it’s that it’s that that they took a flyer on a player who didn’t get playing time. As a mid-season acquisition, it seemed like a good idea because he was going to be able to step into the 9 role, earn Suarez some rest, and maybe put a ball or two into the net. Yet Valverde didn’t play him. He got 303 minutes in total. The B team’s Carles Perez was preferred to him, a first team striker, in a cup final.

A one-off miss in the transfer market is one thing. Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer, Phillipe Coutinho. The list goes on. And it is an expensive list; a list that regularly reminds me that it feels like the club is being run by 12 year olds playing the latest FIFA. They set their sights on a target and come hell or high water they’re going to get that player. It seems like it doesn’t matter what kind of tactical approach the manager has, they’re going to slot a player in and claim that talent is always trump.

And yes, it is easy enough to point to the injuries to Dembele and Arthur as harbingers of a bad spring, but once again, squad management reared its head as a culprit for the tough decisions Valverde had to make later. Both were started in a meaningless La Liga match right before the Liverpool second leg. Dembele went off injured after just a few minutes and Arthur was subbed out after 62 minutes. One wonders what they could have done at Anfield, but we were never given the opportunity to find out thanks to baffling decisions from the manager. Remember when the squad dropped a clanger in the penultimate match of the league season in 2017-18? This has become a pattern.

But doom and gloom does obscure a good point: we made it farther in the Champions League this year than we have since 2015, when we won our most recent Triplete. It was 3 years of quarterfinal exits (to Atletico Madrid, Juventus, and Roma) and now we finally made it to the semifinal. It can feel brutal to make it to the cusp of a final and then fall short, but making the semifinal is an improvement. The other side of the argument is that we were handed an easy draw relative to past tournaments: Lyon and Manchester United preceded a tough draw with Liverpool. Again, the structural issues were being papered over by a few good results.

Yet, winning La Liga by 9 points (and a record 19 above Real Madrid!) is a testament to the team’s quality. The Champions League is a devilishly hard competition to win and Real Madrid’s recent spate of success there has caused more than a fair few cules to lose their minds about why we too haven’t gone on a colossal winning streak. First, winning the league is (rightly) seen as more important than winning the Champions League. This is partially because there is less risk in focusing on the league, where a single bad match is unlikely to kill your season, and partially because the domestic league is simply a better competition (and one which Barça is partially at fault for crushing under the weight of disproportionate revenue sharing). Cinderella runs are very unlikely in domestic leagues (making Leicester’s recent championship all the more impressive), whereas the CL set up can encourage them to a degree (see Amsterdam, Ajax). This inherent instability is terrifying for a popularly elected leader whose base is rooted in relatively cheap season tickets and the ability to tout trophy totals.

But (ahem) Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither can a sporting institution replenish and refresh in a matter of a summer. There has to be a direction.

What that direction is, how it takes shape, depends on what the ultimate goal is. Are we building the Guardiola Years Squad again? Are we trying to Kloppify our team? Are we looking to expand our brand first and focus on actual football results second? Do we want to impose our will on matches or sit back and absorb everyone’s best shot? Is this a Messi+10 equation? These are not rhetorical questions, but instead queries that the board and managerial staff should have direct answers to. And perhaps they do, but here is who we have purchased over the last 3 seasons: 

2018-192017-182016-17
MalcomPhilippe CoutinhoAndré Gomes
Clément LengletOusmane DembéléPaco Alcácer
ArthurPaulinhoSamuel Umtiti
 Nélson SemedoLucas Digne
 Gerard DeulofeuJasper Cillessen
 Yerry MinaDenis Suárez
 Marlon 

This is about as scattershot as you can get, but it’s not particularly different from any other snapshot of 3 years in our history. What was different was that in 2017-18, we ran up bills of €339million, a record for us and one that has never been eclipsed even by Real Madrid (the capitaleños have spent €303million at the time of writing, but there are rumors that this will change with a splurge on Pogba or van de Beek or Eriksen or…someone). In that most splurgy of years when they bought Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, Raúl Albiol,  Álvaro Negredo, Esteban Granero, and a €4million traffic cone, Madrid spent a grand total of €261million while getting their all-time leading scorer and their 6th all time leading scorer. Adjusted for inflation, that is about €290million. 10 years on, these look like a series of intelligent investments, whereas if you try to look 10 years down the road for Barça, you’re unlikely to think of anyone other than Dembele from “the class of 2017” still being in the picture or earning anywhere near a profit. Already, only Coutinho, Dembele, and Semedo remain of the original 7 and at least half of the fan base is calling for Coutinho’s head on a platter. The other half is sticking their own head in the sand. Or calling for Rakitic’s blood, because some people are big weirdos. I have thoughts on that which maybe I should expand into a post, but for now can be summed up with this:

Applying similar logic to other facets of the market could help, too: If Xabi Alonso moved to Bayern Munich at 32 years old for €10million, a quarter of what they paid for him 5 years earlier, that is the equivalent of us selling Suarez this season for €20million (since they paid €40million and we paid ~€80million). Not many cules would think we got a good deal, but a 32-year old going for a quarter of his prime value is not actually bad. Angel di Maria arrived in Madrid for €33million and 3 years later moved to Manchester United for €75million and change. A similar return on investment for a certain Croatian midfielder would mean his €18million price tag when he was at Sevilla would rise to €40million today. That would be good business, theoretically.

Paulinho made the club €10million in profit in just one year. Yerry Mina made the club just under €20million profit in a few months. Even Mascherano went out for €5.5million after 8 years on the books. So perhaps there is an underlying logic after all. The counterpoint is obviously that the core of the team is getting older and there are no obvious replacements for several of the players, rotation is poor, salaries have ballooned, and the fan base has almost no confidence that Valverde can inspire his team to anything other than grind-it-out victories despite having a bevy of brilliant stars at his disposal. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe? Let’s call the whole board off.

Pique, Suarez, Rakitic, Messi, Busquets, and Alba are all over 30 now and Alba just signed a 420-year contract extension (I think that’s right). Pique also got an extension through 2022. Alba will be 35 at the end of his contract, same as Pique 2 years earlier. Messi will be 37. Squad age is a legitimate concern. Barça had an average squad age of 29.7 and 29.6 over the last 2 years, but beginning early in the summer Vermaelen and KBP moved on, dropping the average age (with the additions of de Jong, 21, and Griezmann, 28) to 27.0. That sounds dramatic, but Vermaelen only played 767 minutes last season (as a comparison, wildly underused Malcom played 1,067 minutes and KBP played 303 minutes in his half season); they were not useful squad members. What matters is who started the bulk of the games: Pique, Suarez, Rakitic, Messi, Busquets, and Alba, who, as I mentioned, are all over 30. Coutinho too, at 27, played in more matches than anyone, but did so fairly poorly and I’m not sure I know a Barça fan who wants to give him another shot. Valverde has not shown himself particularly willing to risk new players in difficult situations to help them grow, although he improved substantially in that regard last season compared to his first season in charge.

I keep coming back, however, to the same question as always: what are we even doing? Do we have a plan? Messi simply can’t do it all alone for another season. He relies heavily on the runs of others to free up space and give him the ability to outmaneuver his opponents. This works when Suarez is blasting through opposing defenses, but there are few 32/33 year olds who are going to be able to cover the ground necessary. What we’re clearly doing is winning La Liga year-in, year-out, competing for domestic cups (we won 4 in a row, after all), and floundering in the Champions League despite getting monster leads going into the second leg. How does that last part even go with the first 2 parts? There is at least some truth to the idea that we can dominate our domestic league without breaking too much of a sweat because we, along with Real Madrid and increasingly Atletico Madrid, have cornered the market on TV money, but that is not the entire story. We just rolled over Real Madrid by a never-before-seen number of points, ending the year 19 points ahead of our eternal rivals (have I mentioned this?) and 11 points ahead of second-place Atleti. The lowest ranked team, Rayo Vallecano, had 32 points, a number which would have assured them survival in 3 of the last 4 seasons. This suggests greater strength in depth than in years past, something that should not be overlooked.

The story of the 2018-19 season is Anfield. Yes, the team has some bright spots going forward, but there is also the sense that the club has profoundly lost its way: what is it attempting to accomplish on an institutional level? It feels like a bland corporate marketing campaign, all paint splashed Instagram posts (We Color Football!), trite fan content (Can you guess Coutinho’s favorite brand of soap?), and official partners (do we have an official hair gel sponsor? I bet Manchester United does) rather than a club owned by fans, operating to fulfill community-oriented goals and provide support for a foundation with nobel aims. Where is the soul, anymore? Mes que un club? Please. It is nothing but a standard club now. Look no further than our global ambassadors — Rivaldo and Ronaldinho — supporting Jair Bolsonaro.

The 2018-19 season was a good season, objectively, but I am no longer convinced that our club has an identity. I am no long convinced that the club cares about anything other than bottom lines and the self-preservation of the board. We color football, but color me unimpressed. I remain a fan because this club is in my blood now — I have been a member for 12 years now and I look forward to the next 12 — but to paraphrase James Baldwin’s statement on the United States, I love Barça more than any other club, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.