Are Barcelona heading for summer of upheaval after cup disappointments?
Barcelona concluded the season by suffering a second humbling defeat in the space of a couple of weeks, following up their Champions League capitulation at Liverpool by losing the Copa del Rey final 2-1 against Valencia on Saturday night.
Even though they were comfortable winners of La Liga, finishing 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and a record 19 points in front of arch-rivals Real Madrid, the two cup losses have hit hard and left manager Ernesto Valverde fighting to save his job.
Valverde has never been popular among the more idealist factions of Barca supporters, who believe he is too conservative and cautious to live up to the club’s high-minded expectations of flowing attacking play.
And he did himself no favours with his team selection on Saturday, reacting to the absence of injured forwards Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele by selecting Sergi Roberto – usually a full-back – on the right-hand side of attack.
Barca’s lack of attacking punch and slow midfield allowed Valencia to pick them off at will on the counter-attack, and the half-time changes made by Valverde, introducing Malcom on the wing and Arturo Vidal as an attacking midfielder, were a case of too little, too late.
The team’s problems are by no means limited to the identity of the coach, with many members of an ageing starting XI looking past their best, and the ponderous performances against Liverpool and Valencia bore the look of a team in need of a serious shake-up from top to bottom.
Before Saturday’s cup final defeat, the club had been making strenuous efforts to display a show of unity, to the extent of media-shy skipper Lionel Messi granting his first press conference in more than four years to express his solidarity with Valverde.
But those rather forced attempts to portray a happy camp were smashed to pieces by the loss to Valencia, and a summer of upheaval could lie around the corner – even if Valverde avoids the axe.
One high-profile arrival is expected to be confirmed soon in the form of French World Cup-winner Antoine Griezmann, who has already announced his decision to leave Atletico Madrid and is poised to join Barca despite rejecting them 12 months ago.
Over his five seasons with Atletico, Griezmann has occupied every forward position in both a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, and his flexibility is one of the main reasons the Nou Camp club are prepared to meet the 28-year-old’s 120m euro buyout clause.
The big question is whether Griezmann is intended to partner Messi and Luis Suarez in attack or replace the latter, and in all probability it will be a bit of both.
Suarez enjoyed a decent enough season, scoring 25 goals in all competitions despite playing for lengthy spells with a knee injury which forced him to undergo surgery after the Anfield tie, sidelining him for Saturday’s cup final and jeopardising his place in Uruguay’s squad for the upcoming Copa America.
Not least due to his telepathic understanding and close friendship with Messi, Suarez remains an integral part of Barca’s attack. But he will turn 33 in January and the physical limitations which hampered him this season will surely only become more pronounced, so it’s unrealistic to expect Suarez to be more than an occasional starter and high-class impact sub.
Even if Griezmann signs, therefore, Barca will still seek to sign another centre-forward in the more physical mould of Suarez – somebody capable of unsettling opposition defenders and creating space for Messi.
Two more Uruguayans have been linked: Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo and Cristhian Stuani of freshly relegated Girona, along with Spanish international Rodrigo from Saturday’s cup winners Valencia.
All these moves will require financing, and it is therefore hard to envisage Brazilian misfit Philippe Coutinho staying at the club. The former Liverpool man has rarely looked value for the £105m Barca paid for his services in January 2018, and sporting director Eric Abidal will spend much of the coming weeks attempting to recoup as much of that colossal fee as possible.
De Jong leading midfield (r)evolution
The changes in midfield could be even more dramatic than the forward line, and it’s by no means unreasonable to suggest that none of the starters from the Anfield disintegration will continue to be first-choice selections next season.
Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Vidal are all in their thirties, and like Suarez they could be eased into supplementary roles next season. Rakitic might not even be there at all, with repeated rumours linking the Croatia international with a summer departure to Paris St-Germain, Manchester United or Inter Milan.
Who will replace them? Well, much excitement has already been generated by the capture of Ajax starlet Frenkie de Jong, a sensation during the Dutch team’s march to the Champions League semi-final. De Jong has already agreed to a 75m euro move to the Nou Camp, and Barca are confident the 21-year-old will be the team’s midfield motor for years to come.
The club also boasts a trio of young players who look more than capable of stepping up into enhanced roles. That starts with 22-year-old Brazilian Arthur Melo, who excelled during some stages of this season before fading towards the end of the campaign and being left on the bench for both meetings with Liverpool.
Carles Alena is a home-grown product who took to the senior stage with impressive maturity and versatility during his 27 appearances this season. Most of those, though, were brief outings from the bench and he will have to maintain his progress to become a regular starter.
For many, the most exciting prospect of all is 19-year-old Riqui Puig, who has been burdened with the ‘new Xavi’ label ever since making his first team debut during last summer’s pre-season campaign.
From his low centre of gravity and short stature to his unflustered passing ability and his hometown of Matadepera in the foothills behind Barcelona, there are indeed many similarities between Puig and former skipper Xavi, and the teenager looks ready to break into the big time before too long.
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Valverde – or whoever replaces him. Keeping faith with proven performers like Busquets and Rakitic would be the easy and obvious path to follow, whereas placing more responsibility at the feet of an unproven group of youngsters would be far riskier. In the wake of the Anfield shambles and the cup final loss to Valencia, though, such a bold move is exactly what many fans and media are calling for.
Umtiti out, De Ligt in?
Completing the summer of change is Barca’s back four, which could soon feature another hot prospect from Amsterdam as the club continue their pursuit of precocious teen Matthijs de Ligt, another star of Ajax’s marvellous campaign.
If De Ligt’s services are secured, the door could be shown to Samuel Umtiti. The Frenchman lost his starter status after missing much of the season through injury, and he struggled to find form after regaining fitness. Umtiti remains an outstanding player, but his high salary could tempt Barca to part ways if a good offer is received.
Although he generally had a very good season, the long-serving Gerard Pique is also facing question marks as he approaches his 32nd birthday. The pursuit of De Ligt is part of the club’s ‘succession planning’ as Pique enters the final straight of his playing career, and another decision for next season’s manager, whoever he might be, is which two central defenders will be his first-choice pairing.
Elsewhere in defence, a new left-back is required to cover for and compete with 30-year-old Jordi Alba, with youth team product Marc Cucurella (loaned to Eibar for the past 12 months) among the options.
And if all that isn’t enough, Barca are also in the market for a back-up goalkeeper behind undoubted starter Marc Andre ter Stegen. Jasper Cillessen made almost certainly his last appearance for the club in Saturday’s cup final, with the Dutch international resolved to seek more regular first team football at pastures new.
Messi and Ter Stegen plus nine?
All told, the only sure-fire certainties within Barca’s team for next season are at both ends of the pitch, with Ter Stegen and Messi assured of their places.
Elsewhere, though, everything is up for grabs.
This summer and the start of next season could prove to be the most turbulent period in the club’s recent history with rising young stars and new imports such as Griezmann, De Jong, Alenya, Arthur and De Ligt coming to the fore as the club seeks to banish the nightmare of Anfield without sacrificing domestic dominance.
Or it could prove to be more of the same if old hands Suarez, Rakitic, Busquets and Pique are given the chance to redeem themselves.
First of all, though, club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has to decide whether Valverde should be allowed to lead the process of rejuvenating the team.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s loss he again insisted that Valverde’s position is safe, but his private thoughts may well be very different indeed and the next few days will be anything but a quiet entrance into the post-season for Barcelona.