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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Barcelona’s leadership problem leaves them short on confidence – and character

Sunday’s 4-1 defeat by Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final confirmed that Barcelona are lagging behind their Clasico rivals in many respects — and dealt another big blow to their already damaged morale.

The mood in the dressing room, especially among the squad’s younger players and academy graduates, was hit hard. And it is a dressing room that has already had the feeling of reaching rock bottom several times this season.

The group fear this latest low will not be their last — that if things don’t change, there will be more days like Sunday. This is what players said in a specially arranged team meeting with their coaching staff held before training on Tuesday, in the build-up to the trip tonight (Thursday) to third-tier Unionistas Salamanca in the Copa del Rey’s last 16.

Barca’s bad dynamic has been gradually creeping towards decline for years — there has certainly been a sense of trauma and anxiety hanging over their failed Champions League campaigns going back to the 2017-18 quarter-final second leg meltdown against Roma.

Stage fright in Europe has already manifested itself this season, with bigger challenges to come when the Champions League’s knockout phase begins next month, and right now you get the impression each opponent on every stage is well aware of their fragility.

This squad, looking through the names and weighing the quality of each individual, should be capable of competing to retain their domestic title. Instead, they are eight points off the top in fourth place (albeit with a game in hand on leaders Girona and Athletic Bilbao in third), and are playing way below their abilities.

Barcelona had two good games to win 5-0 against both Real Betis and, in Europe, Royal Antwerp in the same week in the middle of September. But since then, they have regressed from last season’s La Liga-winning campaign — which was the club’s first in four years.

Barca have stopped controlling the tempo of games, they play anxiously and always seem to leave it to the end to finish matches off. In attack, they look afraid to take the risks their style of play demands. They seem to have forgotten basic concepts that used to define the club’s DNA, such as high pressing, attacking possession and positional play.

Sunday’s Clasico in Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh put this all into perspective; Xavi’s side looked disorganised and disconnected.

These basic failures must be heavily influenced by either a lack of communication or comprehension between the coaching staff and players, but on several occasions already this season we have also seen the more worrying signs of deeper problems relating to confidence and character.

One telling moment came on Sunday: when Fermin Lopez entered the pitch as a substitute, after an hour with Madrid winning 3-1, he was one of the few Barca players who seemed to be playing with anger and blood in his veins. He made one fierce tackle and four Real Madrid players jumped him to protest. None of his team-mates went to help.

There was a similar scene the week before. After a narrow win at fourth-division UD Barbastro, also in the Copa del Rey (Spain’s FA Cup equivalent), one of the home side’s players pushed Xavi following the final whistle. There was no reaction from the Barcelona players. Can you imagine what, say, Carles Puyol might have done in those circumstances?

It feels like this dressing room lacks a leader.

Xavi’s position as manager is under real pressure (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Barca are in a strange moment right now. With the departures of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba last season (following that of Lionel Messi in summer 2021, which even now still feels fresh), the squad were left without the players who had been their figureheads of the past decade.

New names are emerging, such as Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ronald Araujo and Frenkie de Jong.

Of them, Ter Stegen is the most senior, and the one who has experienced the most success with the club. Beyond his decisive saves, the German goalkeeper instils calmness and leadership on the pitch. His absence since November with a back injury has coincided with the team’s worst spell of the season — though that is not to suggest stand-in Inaki Pena has not been up to the task in goal.

Araujo, meanwhile, does not seem to command the authority he did last term. Against Madrid on Sunday, his desperation uncharacteristically got the better of him and led to two yellow cards for fouls on Vinicius Junior. He made mistakes (everybody does sometimes) but it felt like there was something more significant in his lapse. Araujo is a defender who has always shown great personal confidence while being able to transfer it to those around him.

Another player who, despite his youth, embodies the more positive aspects of the team’s soul and character, is Gavi.

When Barca met Madrid at home in La Liga on October 28, he was the player who led them on the pitch, although Ter Stegen was captain. Gavi puts his heart into his football and never gives up trusting that his team can win any game.

But the 19-year-old midfielder suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injury in November and is out until next season. Barca are feeling his absence.

In this context, Xavi’s side are about to face a test that on paper looks easy, but right now feels trickier.

The pitches at Unionistas Salamanca’s third-tier level can be tough to play on, and tonight’s hosts will be especially motivated to test themselves against an elite side and will be going all out for a famous win.

After that weekend defeat to Madrid, Unionistas posted a message on their social media: “We believe.”

In what may be a bad omen for Xavi’s side, just two weeks ago, Unionistas recorded a 2-0 league victory away at Barcelona Atletic — Barca’s reserve team made up mostly of academy players.

Araujo protests after his sending off on Sunday (Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

The blow Barcelona took in the Supercopa final should be the kind that inspires them to come out in their next game and push themselves to their very best, and maybe that’s the way it will be. But the reality is that the players have had very little time to recover emotionally from what happened on Sunday night.

Club president Joan Laporta visited the first-team squad and coaches on Tuesday, making a “motivational” speech to the group. Xavi said he “conveyed to us a message of faith and trust in the staff and players”.

What should have been an easy cup game against a side 51 places below them in the Spanish league system has now turned into another match where this Barca side will be under the microscope.

(Top photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

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