By Darren Walsh
The time has finally arrived. Whoops of joy could be heard last night as scribes from all over the world could finally use FC Barcelona as a sporting punch bag. For years there could only be tributes to their style and the success that it brought, mainly through gritted teeth as watchers prayed for their downfall. Now the real fun begins in a media free-for-all as Barcelona’s strengths have become their weaknesses, and they shall never be contenders again, while Bayern Munich are the greatest team in the world, despite not winning the European Cup yet.
It’s lucky that most football fans are able to look at things in a balanced way, and see through this bullshit. As for the ones who take newspaper articles and gossip as gospel, well, I can’t help them, and if Munich actually go on to dominate European football for a while, they’ll be desperate to denigrate them and find a challenger for them too.
So here’s the real situation. A great team which has set an imperious standard over the last five years has fallen short of this level for a combination of reasons, not because they’ve suddenly become useless. They are a team who have their national league sewn up, while they have also made the last four of Europe’s premiere competition. Almost every team in the world would take these types of problems. They will not fall too far from the top either, mainly due to the set-up of La Liga where they and Real Madrid hoover up the lion’s share of the money.
The problem with Barcelona is that they have gotten lazy, in both style and personnel. Great teams need to evolve, and there are too many players who have served their purpose but yet remained in the squad. Success can cover these mistakes, but failure shall now dictate that changes have to be made. Which players are merely tired from continuous matches, and which ones have nothing left to give?
It starts with the defence. A group that have been minimally challenged in the past have suddenly been asked to do what doesn’t come naturally; defend in their own half of the field and on set pieces. Before this the aggressive closing down style of the team spared them from examination, with little chance of the opposition even getting into position to force a corner or a foul.
It is extremely likely that we will see major changes here, with goalkeeper Victor Valdes admitting that he wants a new challenge, preferably in England. (It seems that he hasn’t realised how different it is to Spain, even with David De Gea’s education on display this season). As for the full backs, while defending will never be the primary part of the job, they have to show more than Dani Alves has this season, who may be moved on, while Jordi Alba will most likely be safe.
The biggest change will have to be made in the centre of defence. There seems to be an arrogance about Barcelona that they don’t need specialists and can use defensive minded midfielders like Javier Mascherano or Alex Song, almost as if the management don’t believe that there are centre backs out there who can pass the ball in the style demanded. Total nonsense. They could have had Jan Vertonghen last summer, who can certainly dribble and pass much better than any of the square holes forced into the slots this season, while also having the added bonus of being able to carry out his defensive duties. With Carles Puyol all but retired, someone will surely be signed, and Dortmund defender Mats Hummels has been mooted as an incoming transfer.
In comparison, the rest of the team does not need quite such renovation. A fit Lionel Messi is vital, of course, but imagine how much better even he could get with players who weren’t cramping his space. The team really could use a player or two that has the ability to go either side of a defender, rather than Pedro, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez repeatedly cutting in from the left side onto their right foot.
It may also be time to consider what is sacrilege among the Nou Camp crowd; the easing out of Xavi from the regular starting eleven. He’s 34 now, with more miles on his clock than most players at that age usually have, due to international commitments almost every summer. Cesc Fabregas is right there ready to assume control, and it’s almost painful to watch him trying to play as a false number nine when he has neither the skills nor the mindset for it, leaving the home fans to jeer him. Play him where he’s best, and he shall be hailed as a hero this time next season.
So there we have it. It’s not exactly a ‘rip it up and start again’ method as demanded by the world’s press, but then it doesn’t have to be. Some shrewd signings in key places married to a deepening of the talent in the first team squad will help things enormously, leaving fresher players ready to carry out the pressing style that has worked so well. We will see Barcelona being buried over the next few days and weeks; just don’t be surprised if after a few tweaks they are celebrating another final appearance this time next year.