On the face of things, on the basis of the two trophies they ended up packing away in the cabinet come the end of May, last season was a successful one for Barcelona. The collapse many predicted after the sale of Neymar never really materialised, with new manager Ernesto Valverde meeting the benchmark set for him by successors like Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola. And yet a sense of underlying malaise never shifted.
There were even rumours that Valverde could lose his job after the disastrous Champions League exit to Roma, a watershed moment in Barcelona’s season. The political problems that forced Neymar out of the Camp Nou remain and despite Barca’s success last season, and over the past few years, this is a handicap.
It’s even been evident in the club’s transfer activity this summer. Arthur was signed from Gremio, with Clement Lenglet joining from Sevilla, Malcom very publicly arriving from Bordeaux and Arturo Vidal a surprise capture from Bayern Munich. These are signings of various quality and pedigree, but they have one thing in common – Valverde didn’t ask for them.
Indeed, the Barcelona manager appears to be something of a bystander when it comes to recruitment. This might be in line with the model implemented by many top clubs on the continent, but Barca are currently a club being pulled in a number of different directions at boardroom level. They are not in any position to come up with a coherent transfer strategy, and it shows.
Barcelona signed four players last season, Paulinho, Ousmane Dembele, Yerry Mina and Philippe Coutinho. One has already left the club, with Paulinho returning to the Chinese Super League in a very peculiar, and somewhat suspicious, deal. Another is expected to leave in the coming days, with Mina a target for both Everton and Manchester United. And then there’s Dembele, a player who has been made a scapegoat from the very moment he pitched up at the Camp Nou. He too could leave Barca before the end of the transfer window.
Does this give the impression of a club with a clear and concise vision for the future? Not so long ago, Barcelona boasted the most definable identity of any club in the game. Now, they seem set on being a sort of second tier Galacticos, signing players good enough to catch the eye, but not good enough to improve their starting lineup.
Valverde has still to compensate for the loss of Neymar on the left side, with Barcelona frequently unbalanced last season. He tried Luis Suarez out there, as well as Dembele, Gerard Deulofeu, Sergio Roberto and even Aleix Vidal on the right side in an attempt to find some width. Now, he has Malcom to accommodate as well. The approach to this problem comes across as somewhat scattergun, to say the least.
Some might argue that the likes of Arthur, Lenglet, Malcom and Vidal will provide Valverde with options, depth. This could serve them well in La Liga, where Barca have previously been guilty of tiring towards the end of the campaign. But at Champions League, where the Catalans have fallen short in recent seasons, they require strengthening of their core. This summer’s signings won’t do that.
Last season, the cracks were papered over, helped by the feeble title defence put up by Zinedine Zidane’s faltering Real Madrid. Lionel Messi’s brilliance also helped, with the little Argentinean called upon more than once to dig his side out of a hole. But under the surface there lies a club that has lost its way.
Sevilla take on Barcelona in this weekend’s Spanish Super Copa, the first ever to be played outside Spain. Whoever wins in Morocco on Sunday will get their season off to the perfect start, setting the tone for the whole campaign. But the tone of Barcelona’s campaign might have been set already. They might still be a winning club, but they are a club without direction. Without a vision. Without a plan.
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Also published on Medium.