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Barcelona’s Brand Is Crisis

They could still win La Liga — or their season could fall apart. But for Luis Enrique’s squad, what else is new?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After Barcelona’s 4–0 loss to PSG last week, AS journalist Santi Giménez took the pulse of the club:

Then, after last weekend’s 2–1 win over Leganes, The Guardian’s Sid Lowe summed up Giménez’s latest thoughts:

Those reading Giménez might picture an institution racked by chaos, where there are no clothes, everyone is ill, and the bathroom door is locked. They might think the club remains standing only because its foundation hasn’t finished crumbling, but that if the wind blows hard enough, it’ll all come crashing down. Look at the standings and leaderboards, though, and they’ll see a team that’s scored more goals than anyone in Europe’s top four leagues, a team that’s one point back of first in La Liga.

Since this is Barcelona, all of those things can be true at once.

Usually, when Barcelona loses, it’s because the Gods of Variance got bored. The Blaugrana almost always possess the ball more than their opponents and create more chances. Except, against PSG, they got vacuum-sealed and thrown into a boiling pot of water:

The team is aging, too. Gerard Piqué, Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi, and Andres Iniesta will all be at least 30 come next season. And the midfield fulcrum, Sergio Busquets, will be 29. Earlier this century La Masia, the club’s youth academy, would have plenty of prospects ready to be eased into the team, but the last Barcelona-level player they produced … now plays for Bayern Munich.

Yet, they still have Messi — whether or not he wants to celebrate.

And when a team has Messi, things are, more often than not, going to fall its way. The threat of him leaving is the club’s biggest source of existential dread, but he’s under contract through next season. He’s still the best player in the world: 19 goals in Spain this season, 10 in the Champions League. Messi, though, hasn’t even been Barça’s most productive player in 2016–17: In league play, Suárez is leading Europe in goals-plus-assists with 27. And guess what? Suárez might not even be the second-best attacker on his own team: At 25, Neymar’s the guy Barça asks to "be Messi" when Leo’s not in the lineup.

Plus, the team’s numbers all look pretty good: Per FiveThirtyEight’s new model, Barça have the best attack in the world, and their defense isn’t far behind. They possess the ball at a higher rate than anyone but Bayern Munich, they average more shots on goal than all but two teams in the world, and they’re top 12 in shot suppression. As of last week, expected goals put them as the clear second-best team in the world.

Except, the issue is who’s no. 1: Real Madrid. On balance, Madrid and Barcelona are the only teams that matter. They’ve won five of the past eight Champions League titles, and they’re the two most valuable clubs in the world; almost every top player ends up in Catalonia or the capital. When Barça’s beating Madrid, they’re usually beating everyone else, and vice versa. Take Voltaire and apply him to either side: If Real Madrid didn’t exist, Barcelona would have to invent them.

Since Barcelona has to be better than the other best team in the world, the margin for error is basically invisible to anyone involved with either club. And to complicate things further, each club brings in an added degree of difficulty due to their institutional values and biases: Madrid insists on buying the most popular players in the world and forcing their manager to make it work. Barça, meanwhile, have to win, but they have to play a certain way in order to satisfy those in and around the club. As retired midfield Xavi, the most symbolic figure of the modern version of the club, said: "It’s about playing well and then if you manage to win, even better."

Fans in Catalonia cheer as loudly for 35 consecutive passes as they will for a goal. Barcelona conquered the world with Pep Guardiola’s death-by-passing, winning three domestic titles and two European championships. But then Guardiola left, and the club briefly lost its way, with everything coming to a head in a 7–0 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich in the semifinals of the Champions League in 2013.

A year later came Luis Enrique, a former Barcelona player who, in his first season as manager, won literally everything: the Champions League, La Liga, and the Copa Del Rey. While he was supposed to bring Barça back to their roots, he realized that he had three of the best attackers in the world, and sometimes they could figure out a defense on their own: Don’t prize possession for possession’s sake; get the ball to MSN, and good things will happen. This required less attacking support from the midfield and defense, which made the team less vulnerable to pressing defenses and counterattacks. If they needed to, Barça could still possess the life out of a game with Messi dropping deeper to aid the buildup and Neymar and Suárez stretching the defense, but they no longer had to win by playing one way.

While this flexibility seemed to raise Barcelona’s ceiling and floor from a performance standpoint — 2014–15 Barcelona is the best team I’ve ever seen — it took the slack out of Enrique’s job security. As long as his team was winning everything, it was OK that they weren’t playing like Barcelona was supposed to. Last season, they won La Liga and the Copa Del Rey again. But anything less, and the philosophical fault lines will start an earthquake. Here’s Lowe after the PSG game:

Yet, around this same time in 2015, the club was also supposedly in crisis … only to end up winning all those trophies. When the competition involves two teams that expect to win every game they play, the narrative can change in a weekend — and Madrid just lost to Valencia. They still have a game in hand, but Barcelona heads to Atlético Madrid on Sunday with a chance to change that. Barça-Atlético is one of the three hardest fixtures of the year, but with a win, Enrique’s club will serve up a reminder that they’re not dead yet and will briefly move two points ahead of Madrid, who play at sixth-place Villarreal later that day.

Of course, with a loss, Barcelona’s season will essentially be over, barring an incredible comeback against PSG on March 8. And despite all of his success and the pleas of players like Jordi Alba, who says he stands with his manager "until death," Enrique will be out of a job sooner rather than later. In fact, even if Barcelona manage to win La Liga for the third year in a row — and the FiveThirtyEight model has them as favorites — Enrique might find himself on the street come season’s end. But that’s how it goes in Catalonia: Success and failure are never too far apart.

An earlier version of this story misstated the day of Barcelona’s match at Atlético Madrid; it is Sunday, not Saturday. The story also misspelled Barça’s nickname. They are the Blaugrana, not the Balugrana.