The Long Read: Barcelona go through cycles like any other club but success has remained constant
Different managers and players come and go at the Camp Nou but domestic dominance has been achieved the past decade - although their greatest player is targeting more glory in Europe
“This Manchester United is neither very good, nor very bad,” came the assessment from leading Spanish journalist Alfredo Relano.
Two days before the draw, Lionel Messi did a rare post-match interview where he picked out “Liverpool, Manchester City, Juventus and a brave young Ajax team,” as the teams to watch out for in the quarter-final draw.
When Barcelona were drawn with United, their reaction was favourable.
“I was pretty happy and even though it will be a tough game, I think City and Juve are stronger sides,” said lifelong fan Jordi Camps.
But Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde was more circumspect: “Manchester is good in strategy, powerful physically and in good rhythm, even though they lost recent games. Barcelona has never beat Manchester in Old Trafford either. It’s a classic game of European football.”
What will Manchester United face from this Barcelona side which they will play twice in the next six days? United fans know of the brilliance of Messi and the names of the mainstays that have been around for an age – Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique or Jordi Alba – but there have been changes which mean that even their own fans haven't always been convinced by them this season to the point that there was surprise when Valverde signed a contract to stay in charge for next season.
Amazing perhaps, given that they are unbeaten in 19 league games and, closing in on an eighth Spanish title in 10 years, Barca are in a sweet spot right now.
Valverde, a former Barcelona player who also managed at their neighbours Espanyol, is exceptionally good at his job. He was doing well at Athletic Bilbao and stayed there for so long because he enjoyed a close relationship and trust with the club president, but who could turn down a move to Camp Nou?
Unfortunately for the Spaniard, Barcelona's style under him has been considered too pragmatic at times, but criticism has been melting away now the team are looking so strong and beat Real Madrid away twice in a week last month.
Valverde is wise. His lack of ego makes his team stronger. He knows that Messi is the most important man at the club and is quite happy for this to be known as Messi’s team. This matters to Messi, too, whose relationship became strained with two of Valverde's predecessors, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.
Valverde is more popular with his players than the public, who believe he worries more about the opposition than his own team. United players said the same of Jose Mourinho, but not of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Valverde is a fundamentally decent person, a keen photographer away from football. He also knows that whatever fans say about style, he will be sacked if he doesn’t get results. And Europe has proved tricky for Barca in recent seasons.
"This Barca team is practical,” says 1980s right back Pepito Ramos. “It’s not the Cruyff or Guardiola style of Barca. The coach builds on a very good defence and unity in the dressing room.
"I know Valverde, he coached at Espanyol. His passion is photography, but he also happens to be excellent at coaching football teams! I didn’t think this Barca team was at the level to win the Champions League at the start of the season, but I thought that last season and they did win the league and the cup.
"That’s an incredible achievement. Barca also have Messi and with Messi anything can happen.”
The Catalans last won the Champions League in 2015, and while they have reached the last eight for a record 12th consecutive year, they have failed to go any further in the last three seasons, often relying on too few players who have shown signs of fatigue come April.
Barça are spreading the load better this term and Messi has played 1,000 minutes fewer than this time last season.
United and Barca, two of the three biggest clubs in the world alongside Real Madrid, meet more often in pre-season friendlies than competition. This is their first meeting outside a final since 2008, when United went defensive, drew 0-0 away and won 1-0 at home.
They knew Barca were better, but planned in great detail how to beat them. Barca players from that tie define it as the end of the Frank Rijkaard era, but the Dutchman was vital to making Barca play the way we know.
The loan signing of Edgar Davids in 2004 raised eyebrows, but it allowed Barca to recover their classic, Cruyff-inspired style.
Barca still had great players in the early noughties, but they finished fourth in 2001, 2002 and sixth in 2003.
With the exceptional Davids they began to play 4-3-3 and set in motion a train that would culminate in a second European Cup in 2006 against Arsenal. The Gunners felt they should have won that game in Paris.
Barca declined soon after. Ronaldinho, the side’s brilliant Brazilian talisman, became distracted off the field and was allowed to leave for AC Milan in 2008, the year they lost to United, lost 4-1 in the Bernabeu and Rijkaard lost his job.
Pep Guardiola came next, the young B team coach who had suggested to president Joan Laporta that he wasn't brave enough to give him the job. Guardiola, Cruyff’s finest student, continued the 4-3-3 and had seen enough in the B team to feel that Sergio Busquets and Pedro were ready for the first team. Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s friend and assistant, continued the sterling work. Tato Martino had no choice but to.
Luis Enrique, appointed in 2014, started with 4-3-3 but often changed to 3-4-3, with Jordi Alba as much of a one man left wing as Daniel Alves on the right.
Valverde arrived in the summer of 2017 and was immediately confronted with Neymar being sold. Then Paulinho was signed from China. Fans turned against the club president and a Super Cup defeat to Madrid followed.
It was impossible for him to play the front three ‘trident’ since he had lost one, and while Gerard Deulofeu was a star at Wembley for Watford last weekend, he wasn’t in Neymar's class and nor was Munir El Haddadi. Ousame Dembele, signed in haste for a huge €105 million (Dh434.3m) fee, was seriously injured in his first league start at Getafe and ruled out for four months.
Valverde made the team more compact, more workmanlike, playing 4-4-2 with Messi and Suarez up front. He won his first seven league games and his critics became quieter.
Barca didn’t lose a match until the 37th of 38 league games in a campaign which they walked away with 93 points, 14 more than Atletico Madrid in second. They also won another Copa del Rey. Yet Real Madrid’s fourth European Cup in five years overshadowed Barca’s domestic achievements.
With Dembele back, Valverde usually switches to a 4-3-3, but without French winger in the last round against Lyon, went with a 4-4-2.
Dembele is hugely talented, though he needs to keep possession better to fit into Barca’s system. He is popular among players because he is a joker who always smiles, but they think he has the mind and responsibility levels of a wayward teenager.
“If he’s told to be somewhere at five he’ll turn up at six,” a source told us. “He’ll be on his PlayStation. Eric Abidal, the sporting director, tries to control him and bring structure to his life.”
Arturo Vidal was signed to replace Paulinho, who went back to China after a year, to close out physical games Barca were leading. He might feature later against a United side praised by Valverde for their physical strength.
Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic or Brazilian midfielder Arthur are sublimely technical rather than physical. Arthur was charged with filling in where Xavi and Andres Iniesta had played. At first, his teammates told him that he needed to deliver the ball quicker to their feet so that they could attack with pace. His rhythm wasn’t fast enough for a team which moves the ball quicker than any other.
Messi has changed his position slightly. He drops deeper, he prefers the ball vertically. The team is having success, yet there there’s still a feeling among many fans that the football isn’t as pure as it was under Guardiola or Cruyff. There’s still an old school of thought that style and great football triumphs over all, including results.
Barca fans hung onto this when they didn’t win league titles (they won one between 1974-1991, the 1985 title won by Terry Venables). When another Englishman, Bobby Robson, was in charge, fans booed his team after they had beaten Santiago Compostella 6-0 in a league game. Robson was baffled.
Barca fans were baffled recently when the team signed Kevin Prince Boateng, a 32 year old, from Sassulo on loan. He was signed in case Luis Suarez gets injured or exhausted. Suarez has barely scored in European competition in the last three seasons.
Indeed, Barca failed to score in three of their six European away games last season and only managed one in the other three. They are better this season, scoring four at Tottenham Hotspur in October, drawing against Inter Milan 1-1 and winning 2-1 at PSV Eindhoven, but they were held 0-0 by Lyon away in the last-16. Suarez has drawn a blank in Europe, but he is in superb form in the league.
Barca have strength all over. Marc Andre Ter Stegen is considered to be the best goalkeepers in the world by Barcelona fans. He may not be the shot stopper that David de Gea is, but he is excellent outside his box too. In the words of former goalkeeper Victor Valdes: “When you play goalkeeper for Barca you’re an outfield player”.
Gerard Pique, formerly of United, is in fine form at 32 and in Clement Lenglet, signed from Sevilla for this season, he has the perfect foil. The pair are intellectual footballers, on and off the field.
To their left, Jordi Alba may never trouble the gates of Oxbridge but he is a smart footballer, one encouraged to get forward. His link-ups with Messi are so effective that he is an auxiliary attacker. Barca’s best move in Saturday’s 2-0 win against Atletico came when Messi flicked the ball to Alba, who shot against the post.
Sergi Roberto, at right back, is the team’s weak link. The popular Catalan is a midfielder who was asked to play there after Dani Alves moved to Juventus.
In midfield, Rakitic, 31, has played more minutes than any other. The Swiss born and raised Croatian, who speaks six languages, is in his fifth season at Camp Nou and he is more important than ever. He knows his role is running, supporting and creating chances for Messi and closing the space. Rakitic used to score far more goals, but now he provides the bullets for others to shoot.
Not for nothing, Jose Mourinho is a big fan. “Ivan Rakitic is one of the most underrated players in the world," United's former manage said. "He does defensive work on the right hand side to compensate Messi, he runs miles. In ball possession, he’s fantastic, he’s simple, and he’s effective.”
Busquets is getting used to life without Iniesta in front of him. Iniesta, now in Japan, was a game changer who could provide the magic but also change the rhythm of any games.
Iniesta and Busquets came through the famed Masia youth system, but it has stopped producing the same calibre players – in part because the club’s most recent coaches have not come through the youth system themselves as Guardiola and Tito Vilanova did. They need some quick fixes or they will lose their jobs.
Yet Riqui Puig is a prodigiously talented 19-year-old Catalan midfielder, who hasn't got chances yet.
The ideas which saw La Masia become the jewel of youth systems look worn out and many of the coaches, who were not well remunerated, have left Spain for better paid positions elsewhere.
Under the guidance of sporting director Pep Segura, formerly of Liverpool, the playing style of the B team has changed too. It’s now more physical to survive in Spain’s third tier. It’s not Barca.
Barca’s revenues continue to grow and their average home crowds of 72,000 are among the highest in world football. Close to 100,000 will watch the United game next week, but the club’s wages take up 73 per cent of the overall revenue. The club needs to make cutbacks, to sell players – and they will this summer.
This has been a fine season for Barca with another league title on the way and another Copa del Rey final too.
“This cup (the European Cup) is beautiful this season,” said Messi in August. That’s the competition the world’s greatest player wants to win again.
And win it in Madrid, home of Real who have won four of the previous five tournaments but who are out of the competition. The stars are aligning for Barca, but first the small matter of Manchester United and a visit to Old Trafford, a venue they have never won in.
Updated: April 10, 2019 09:55 PM