FC Barcelona: Divine to Decline

FC Barcelona: Divine to Decline

“Gentlemen, if you lose today you will still be the best team in the world, but if you win you will be eternal ”

Josep Guardiola

these were the words of Josep Guardiola to his Barcelona side on the night of the club world cup final in 2009, and eternal they were. The Catalan giants had just beaten Estudiantes by two goals to one and not only won the club world cup but also their 6th silverware of the calendar year completing their famous ‘sextuple’ as fans like to label it and marking a historical achievement that had previously never been accomplished and still hasn’t at the time of writing. The milestone alone is worth its own never-ending praise, but the manner at which it had been achieved is what truly makes that Barcelona side unique.

barca winning the club world cup
Barcelona’s sextuple

Scintillating, direct, creative and deadly are just a few of the adjectives to describe arguably club footballs best-ever side, who blew away all that stood before them for a dominant 4 year period between 2008-12 and doing it all with most of their starting XI being promoted from the youth ranks and club academy “La Masia“.

Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Xavi, Iniesta Busquets, Pedro, and Lionel Messi the core and backbone of that team, and even after a decade later 3 of those players are still key players in the current Barcelona side.

pep guardiola's honors at barca
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona

However, fast-forwarding almost exactly a decade later from that special night in Abu Dhabi and Barca play out a goalless Classico at the Nou Camp, draw 2-2 to Real Sociedad, and get knocked out of the Spanish super cup against Atletico Madrid all in a 1 month period.

Here we look at the Rise, Fall, Rise, and fall again of Barca and how they have evolved and been forced to change their identity and their principles, two things that had previously laid the foundation of their success. To better understand, tackle, and investigate any problem we must run an initial background check and really comprehend how and where it all started.

Tito Vilanova’s demise and the first signs of a Messi dependency era (2012-2014)

When Pep Guardiola announced his departure in 2012 it seemed like there was no better successor than his second in charge Tito Vilanova. The Catalan picked off from where Guardiola left them. In fact Barca had only dropped 2 points at halfway across the season accumulating 55/57 in the first half, a Spanish record.

However it was the European stage where Barca struggled, a shocking 2-0 defeat to AC Milan in the first leg of the Round of 16 signaled warning signs of what was to come and regardless of the 4-0 comeback at the Nou camp thanks to some Leo Messi magic, whispers were spread about the fall of might Barcelona and being half the team they are without their talisman, this was further proved in the quarter-finals at the Nou camp return leg against PSG when the french team was 1-0 up and leading on away goals and an injured Messi was substituted on the half-hour mark with the task of saving his club, a task he would be very familiar with over the next 7 years.

Messi came on and in typical Messi-fashion helped build up Pedro’s equalizer and progress Barca to the semi-finals, the whispers had now become louder and the word Messi dependence was introduced, if there were any doubts about whether is Barca struggling without Messi left then they were casually eliminated thanks to Bayern Munich who inflicted a record 7-0 aggregate defeat to the Catalans.

messi after barcelona lost 7-0 on aggregate to bayern
Barcelona thrashed by Bayern Munich

For many this was the final nail in the coffin to Pep Guardiola’s Barca’s dominance a tragic end to the season was made even worse with the news of manager Tito Vilanova being diagnosed with throat cancer and stepping down for the rest of the season, however, all was not gloomy, Barca managed to finish the season with a record 100 points, Equalling the previous total set my Mourinho’s Madrid side.

Leo Messi had won the Pichichi with 46 goals and what was worrying was that the second on the list was Cesc Fabregas with 11 goals. Injuries to David Villa and disappointing forms of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez meant the Argentine was the main source of goals.

Things got much worse next year as the team finished trophyless under new coach Tata Martino. Leo Messi had just recorded his lowest goal tally in 6 years, new transfer Neymar did not live up to his initial hype and rivals Real Madrid had just won their much-awaited 10th champions league title, Barca’s football was uncreative, slow and the final third was heavily reliant on Messi, was this the end of the famous Barcelona?

barcelona stats from wikipedia
Barcelona scorers

A new look Barca and the birth of MSN, football’s greatest attacking trio! (2014-2017)

In the summer of 2014, Barca had announced they would be sacking Tata Martino after a disappointing season and stick to their roots and hire someone with deep roots to the club.

Up stepped Luis Enrique a man who not only spent 8 years with the club but had experience in the Spanish division as well whilst coaching Celta Vigo. Under Enrique, Barca went through two different metamorphoses, the first coming within the squad.

Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas, and Alex Song were all sold. While Veterans Puyol and Valdes had played their final seasons with the club. In came Claudio Bravo, Ter Stegen, Thomas Varmalean, Jeremy Mathieu, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez. Barca had signed players that they previously would’ve hesitated to.

Initial issues in the first half of the season proved only a short block. It was only against a match against Atletico Madrid at the Nou Camp that really sent out warning signals to the rest of Europe as Enrique showed tactical flexibility and for the first time operated Messi on the right to switch with Suarez in the center, a decision that proved fruitful.

All of them scored and defeated the League champions 3-1, it was the start of a new trio in town, MSN as they were famously dubbed, an answer to rivals Real Madrids BBC, but MSN was different with Neymar and Messi creating magic and running the show outwide there was no better player than Suarez to complement them.


With his unselfishness and ability to draw defenders and create spaces for Messi and Neymar the front 3 were an unstoppable force and Enrique quickly noticed what luxury he had at his disposal, in truth any team would be happy to have just one of them in the team but 3?

Hence Lucho knew he had to function his team around the trio to get the best out of them and make the most use of their attacking prowess. Enrique set up with the traditional 4-3-3 but adopted a system with quick transitions with the aim to get the ball to the front 3 as much and as fast as possible (see figures 3.4 & 3.5) This usually meant building up from the back with the center-backs playing it either to the wide forwards themselves or to the fullbacks who would then give it to the attacking players.

treble winning barca team of luis enrique tactics board
Treble Winning Barca

Possession was rarely recycled through the middle and instead of the midfield players usually had more of a task to sit back and cover for forwards or the adventurous full-backs Alves and Alba, Ivan Rakitic particularly did this role very well to eliminate any defensive burden on the front 3 and allow Messi to link up with Alves on the right.

luis enrique barca set up
Enrique’s Setup
enrique set up tactically
Enrique’s Setup-2

A different approach to what they would do under Pep where they would start from the back, buildup in the center of the pitch, and then move to the final third. However it was effective as shown by Enrique winning 7 trophies in his first 2 years including a second Treble and back to back domestic doubles.

fullbacks in luis enrique's MSN side
MSN fullbacks

However it was in his third and final season where cracks began to show and flaws started being exposed. Barcas midfield 3 that started the Champions League final in Berlin had now all entered their 30s and twilight of their careers.

Their legs were not what they once were and refusal to play through the middle meant gaps opening up in midfield which now cannot be covered as they once were and even though they had just overturned a 4-0 deficit against PSG in the Round of 16 winning 6-1 the club were eventually knocked out by Juventus in the quarter-finals and beaten to the league by Real Madrid.

Barca won the Copa del ray but Enriques stubbornness, Failure in the transfer market and inability to play the way fans wanted, resulted in his sacking. Barca went with traditions yet again hiring former player Ernesto Valverde and fans were hoping he could finally be the one to restore their identity which now felt like it had been long gone.

Club de Amigos and return of the Messi dependency (2017-2020)

Valverde’s tenure started with the departure of Neymar in a world record signing to PSG. With Lucho, Valverde’s transfer signings were not what Barca would expect. Signings of Deulofeu (yes, again), Yerry Mina, Paulinho, Kevin Prince Boateng, Arturo Vidal, were all doubtful and neither played any crucial roles in the Valverde era.

Not to mention the mega-million signings such as Coutinho and Dembele have been disappointments, the latter due to injury issues. Barca under Valverde set up in a 4-3-1-2 switching to a 3-4-1-2 when in possession with the fullbacks pushing up and Busquets dropping deep. Messi played in the hole just behind Suarez and surprisingly Paulinho.

barca in possession
Barca in Possession
barca tactics without possession
Barca without possession

However the main issue yet again was in midfield, the double pivot of Iniesta and Rakitic did not have the legs any more and both lacked the cutting edge to create chances for forwards, hence this is where the first burden fell on Messi as to become the sole creator of his team for the forwards, however with Dembele’s injuries preventing him from replicating Neymar and Luis Suarez not scoring as much the second burden fell to Messi to score for his team as well.

However what Valverde did introduce was high pressure up the pitch with Suarez and Paulinho causing havoc for defenders, and causing turnovers to somewhat make up for the lack of chance creation. This worked well for the first half of the season but Valverde’s failure to bench key players and provide rotation proved his ultimate downfall as words of a “Club de Amigos” started spreading with some players labeled as untouchables regardless of their fatigue or form such as Pique, Suarez, Rakitic, Busquets and others.

Lack of rotation and overdependence on Messi to create and score meant Barca was a timebomb waiting to explode and so they did in their second leg of their Quarterfinal with Roma, blowing a 4-1 lead in the first leg only to lose 3-0 at Rome and as if that bottle job wasn’t enough, Barca did one better next season losing 4-0 to Liverpool in the return leg after winning 3-0 at home.

barcelona after losing to roma and liverpool
Big losses

The two games completely exposing everything wrong with the team, from its squad to its manager’s tactics to its reliance on Messi. Barca never looked so vulnerable and submissive, the once-dominant, fearless and deadly Barcelona were now fragile and truly beaten. Valverde was sacked the following season after a loss to Atletico Madrid in the Spanish super cup.

Valverde’s tenure was a mixed one for Barca fans, they won the Spanish title in both his seasons comfortably albeit one would argue he faced the statistically two weakest Madrid sides of the last decade.

The Quique Setien pandemonium (2020 – Current)

Barca appointment Real Betis coach Quique Setien halfway through the season until the end of the 2019-20 season which unfortunately has been paused indefinitely, thus it is unfair to give a proper judgment on his time as Barca coach so far, a 2-0 Classico loss doesn’t really help his case but there has been a noticeable change in systems from Valverde’s submissive football to trying to achieve more control of a game as Setien tries and replicates Pep Guardiola’s Barca at least in terms of possession and passing

setien stats at barcelona
Setien Barcelona

Final thoughts

I’m no football expert, not even close to one however you don’t have to be an expert to see Barca’s problems in the last decade have one common pattern which eventually always cracks open no matter how much tape the coaches use to cover it.

Their Midfield.

Xavi and Iniesta can never be replaced but the problem is that there has been no effort made to replace them and neither was any planning done to replace them prior to their departures.

Barca’s main problem lies for me is in an Identity confusion crisis, Barca want to play the Barca way but without the Barca players. They want to play the Barca way but without the Barca set up, they want to play the Barca way but without the Barca coaches.

With signings of Arthur and Frenkie De Jong who are both good prospects, it seems as Barca will once again try to maintain their identity and do it the Barca way.

The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it when we have the ball we can’t lose it when that happens, run and get it back, that’s it basically”

Pep Guardiola

Yes Pep that’s it, basically…

Written by: Sarmad Latif