Barcelona are in the midst of a crisis. With reports of €1.2 billion debt (€730m owed short-term); no president, sporting director or even a board to take decisions; star player Lionel Messi‘s future still unresolved despite his contract running out in the summer; and sitting 10 points behind La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid, it’s been a chaotic 12 months for the Catalans. Yet among the doom and gloom, there’s a feeling that the tide is slowly turning on the pitch.
While the league title already seems out of reach, there is some cause for optimism. Barca sit third in La Liga despite a run of poor results and are still in the Copa del Rey and Champions League, which compares well to their supposedly crisis-free arch-rivals Real Madrid, who are only three points ahead of them in second place and who suffered an embarrassing defeat to third-tier Alcoyano in the Copa.
While the 3-0 home defeat at the hands of Juventus in the final Champions League group match didn’t instill any great confidence for the forthcoming last-16 games against Paris Saint-Germain, the signs are that manager Ronald Koeman — a rather unpopular appointment — has begun to steady the ship.
The Dutchman deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s conducted himself and emerged as the leading presence during a traumatic period for the club, especially as few believed that he would succeed. He’s stood firm, justified his decisions logically and never tried to blame a defeat on the club’s wider predicament. But how does he continue to take the club forward amid such financial uncertainty?
While many coaches would find excuses in the lack of new signings, Koeman accepted there was no chance of a game-changing new addition in January once the presidential elections were delayed until March; instead, he set to work on making the most of what he’s got.
He’s managed to kickstart faltering stars such as Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele (and, to a certain extent, Frenkie de Jong, though the midfielder is still only 23), while maintaining an open demeanour in news conferences.
“My position is known: we lack people, but the economic situation of the club is an influence,” he said last week. “I think we all think the same. If no one arrives, I accept it and we continue the same, but if we want more we must sign.”
If money were no object, Koeman would surely be happy with reported €100m moves for Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland or Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, but it is an object. In their current financial predicament, it’s free transfers or loans only, with sources telling ESPN that Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum is high on Koeman’s wishlist, while he has been continually linked with a move for Lyon winger Memphis Depay too.
The Dutch pair are available for nothing in the summer, while sources said the club also have a long-standing interest in Manchester City defender Eric Garcia, who began his career at Camp Nou and is refusing to sign a new contract before it expires in 2021. But Garcia, as a natural replacement for veteran centre-back Gerard Pique is perhaps the only one needed.
The club have faced criticism over recent years for producing fewer new talents from their famed La Masia academy, and though such a golden age as that which produced Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets is hard to maintain, many feel that they’ve sacrificed bringing through promising youngsters in favour of buying in big names. With over €980m spent in the four years from 2016-2020 on such players as Philippe Coutinho (€145m), Griezmann (€120m), Dembele (€105m) and Malcom (€40m), Barca are turning back to youth, with encouraging results.
Youth making a mark on the first team
Since arriving in the job, Koeman has launched a fleet of exciting youngsters who are in the process of establishing themselves in the first team. Though not being La Masia products, Ronald Araujo and Pedri have stood out as two emerging stars.
Araujo arrived from Uruguayan side Boston River in 2018 and the 21-year-old’s progress as a central defender — despite still not being Pique-esque in possession — has been encouraging. He has won an impressive 80%+ of defensive and aerial challenges since his promotion from the B team this year. Meanwhile, 18-year-old winger Pedri, who signed from Las Palmas for €5m over the summer, has seamlessly adjusted to life at Camp Nou to the point where he’s now a first-team regular.
Oscar Mingueza, 21, another young centre-back (and proper La Masia product), has also enjoyed a recent run in the first team, while Ricard “Riqui” Puig — a much-heralded 21-year-old from the academy — scored his first senior league goal for Barcelona at the weekend. The latter, an elegant and sublimely talented central midfielder, looks of such pedigree that there have been calls for him to get even more playing time (perhaps at the expense of underperforming stars like Miralem Pjanic and Coutinho.)
The jewel in the crown is clearly Ansu Fati, undoubtedly the club’s No. 1 prodigy and best bet as a long-term Messi replacement. Sadly, a meniscus injury will keep him out for another couple of months but the 18-year-old forward, already a full Spain international, has shown himself to be fully at ease in senior football, reproducing the dazzling performances that made him a star at youth level.
It hasn’t all worked perfectly, as the two relatively expensive summer signings, U.S. right-back Sergino Dest (20, who signed from Ajax for €21m), and winger Francisco Trincao (21, who arrived from Braga for €31m), have yet to find the level of consistency to justify their transfer fees despite showing some promise.
In a turbulent season, Koeman is guiding Barcelona through a transition phase that might well be looked back upon in the years to come as the start of a much-needed, successful rebuild. Big names may not be arriving, but the supporters can take heart from the fact that the production line of La Masia will keep on delivering.
USMNT U-20 & Barcelona ‘B’ player Konrad de la Fuente describes how he felt meeting Lionel Messi.
Who will step up next from La Masia?
A box-to-box midfielder who made his first-team debut in the Copa del Rey win last week; he was taken off midway through the second half after an assured performance. The Guinea-born 18-year-old is technically gifted, tactically smart and happy to mix it both on the ground and in the air. A precise passer of the ball, though his casual style sometimes can make him seem overly confident in his own ability, Moriba has the potential to become a top level No. 8 or even a holding midfielder.
Konrad de la Fuentes
Though yet to appear in a senior league game, the American forward, 19, is one of the La Masia graduates who’s been given the most encouraging signals by the first-team coaching staff. Early on, Koeman watched the unpredictable, quick and tricky winger by letting him train with the first-team in preseason and giving him minutes in friendlies. A few late substitute appearances in the Champions League and a full cap for the USMNT against Wales in November is a fine return from a first half year at senior level for one of biggest clubs in the world.
One of the outstanding members of Barcelona’s 2018 UEFA Youth Cup winning side, the left-footed winger has seen his development hampered by recurring injuries. Apart from two late cameos for the first team, Collado has mainly featured in the B team. Able to play on either wing, though sometimes somewhat over reliant on his favoured left foot, it’s hard to find a player with a silkier touch and, when in form, someone more apt at side-stepping and running in circles around opponents. Now finally injury-free and with a few impressive months in the B side behind him, the 21-year-old might make the step up.
The first from the promising 2004 crop who is being given playing time for the B team, the attacking midfielder or floating forward is probably still some way off appearing for the first team, but his sheer raw talent makes him stand out. Being left-footed the 16-year-old prefers to pick up the ball on the right, yet his ability to cause havoc with his change of pace, ability to leave defenders for dead and powerful shot makes him a threat from anywhere in the last third.