Barcelona have been written off many times before bouncing back, but the PSG disaster could be the true beginning of the end
The final whistle brought a sense of exhilaration and sheer happiness that many had forgotten long ago in the Parc des Princes stadium. Some fans couldn’t believe it, so they looked up again. There it was. The scoreboard didn’t lie: 4-0, Di Maria, Draxler, Di Maria, Cavani. Slowly, FC Barcelona’s men walked off the pitch with a lumbering feeling above their collective heads.
“What the hell just happened?”
Ultimately, there is a populous segment of fans and analysts who saw such a train-wreck coming, way down the track. Stats for the game are absolutely crushing: ten shots on target for PSG, with a measly one by Barça; six saves by Ter Stegen against a single stop by Trapp. Absolute dominance by the local team, which speaks volumes about PSG’s excellence and also Barça’s lack of attitude and overall laziness.
It was a rough beating for a side that has grown used to outperforming rivals based on the sheer quality of its three forwards, arguably the best frontline worldwide. But Leo Messi went missing, Luis Suarez was unaccounted for and only Neymar Jr. managed to bring some sense of danger on the wing.
All in all, a tough pill to swallow for the team, but even more for its manager: Luis Enrique didn’t take some of the post-game criticism well, and even went toe-to-toe with a journalist in the press zone in a burly rant that surprised everyone present.
A playstyle morphing that preluded The Paris Debacle
It would be unfair to say that Barça has lost its touch but, at the same time, it’s probably the best way to put it. This team is much more straightforward, counter-attacking, fast and A-to-B than earlier versions, especially when compared to that legendary Pep Guardiola roster which dominated and conquered six titles in the same year and, at the same time, nurtured the roots of some beautiful football that had never been seen before.
That side kept control of the game for prolonged periods of time, always in touch with the ball, passing and tilting the play from one side of the pitch to the other, poking at the opposite team, looking for weak spots, taking their time. Midfielders were the stars: Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Touré Yayà, newcomer Sergio Busquets… Only the former and the latter remain, and recent additions (André Gomes comes to mind) aren’t helping too much this season.
Nowadays, 90% of the team’s success heavily relies on Messi’s shoulders, with the occasional help by Suarez or Neymar. The ‘Trident’ hoards absolutely everything: direct plays, set pieces, crosses from the wings.
When things go south, Messi is expected to come into the midfield, recover the ball, dribble past a few players and set everything up, even to the point of finishing the play himself. He often excels at all the above departments, but eventually this resource wears thin.
When that point is reached, Paris happens.
Don’t get me wrong: this FC Barcelona is very able to bounce back from a 4-0 defeat and even move on to the next round. It’s a world class side and Messi knows every trick in the book, after all. But the seeds of fatigue are deeply planted.
Luis Enrique’s uncertain future
How does this team deal with backlash? Luis Enrique, whose contract expires next June, doesn’t seem keen on listening to any criticism even if it’s pondered and constructive. His attitude towards the press has always been off, to the point of defying journalists in press conferences and becoming an all-around gloomy guy.
And that’s a trait than can be tolerated, even admired by some, when the team shines and performs well on the pitch. But eventually, karma catches up fast. And the current trend of results has only managed to push the coach right to the edge, and no one seems to be keen on calming down the (arguably deserved) gutting the team is suffering.
Exhibit A: Luis Enrique’s unbelievable rant after that 4-0 loss at Paris. Instead of humbling up to the fact that his men had been overrun by the opposition, the coach got mad at the journalist for his questioning. “I accept the responsibility, but I would like you to have today’s behavior with me the day we win”, he fumed.
Losing your cool is not the best way of dealing with a tough defeat, indeed. Many fans have become vocal in the need for going back to Barcelona’s roots and try to recover some of that style and flair that made the Blaugranas a worldwide sensation. And they believe that a switch on the bench is absolutely necessary in order to achieve it.
Meanwhile, the coach’s bitterness can be seen as a self-defense mechanism or even a way of motivating his team to an epic comeback in the second leg. Either way, one thing’s clear: Luis Enrique, who began his coaching career looking up to Guardiola’s playbook, is slowly but steadily Mourinhizing himself.