Despite the current media and pundit narrative, this season isn’t Barcelona’s Waterloo. Yes, the team lost the Copa Del Rey to Real Madrid, crashed out of the Champion’s League, and barring a miracle won’t win the league. However, taking a realistic view of this season, Barca’s results seem appropriate.
Last year the team effectively had two managers as Tito fought his battle with cancer and before that, they lost arguably the best coach of the modern era after a historic four year run. With the hiring of Gerardo Martino this past summer, Barcelona is on its fourth coach in the last three years. This lack of continuity combined with the ineptitude of the board of directors over the past few years (refusing to sign a center back, the signing of Neymar, and the various off field distractions they caused) all but ensured the team’s quality would dip. So Barcelona’s disappointing season should not come as a shock. Having said all that, Gerardo Martino needs to go.
When Martino was hired, he promised two things: one was to rotate the squad more often to ensure the best players were well rested for the big matches and the other was a promise to change the team’s tactics to make them more explosive and less predictable. On both accounts he has failed.
After the way Barcelona finished last season it was clear that the top players were too tired. Therefore, squad rotation seemed like the best remedy. However, Martino’s squad rotation has caused more harm than good. In most of their games this year, Barcelona lacked coherence, consistently, and familiarity—the three things that made them so impressive the last 5 years.
The constant changing of the squad meant that rarely were Barca’s best eleven on the field at the same time. Thus, instead of fluid movement and pin point passes, Barcelona’s tactics become very stagnant and disjointed. At times when they possessed the ball there would be little movement from the other players which ensured they failed to create space and scoring chances.
Other times, Barcelona become like a mid-level Premier League team using long balls and crosses into the box to create scoring opportunities—this despite the fact Barcelona is one of the shortest team in Europe. Not actually playing to their strengths.
The constant rotation of players destroyed Barcelona’s best attribute, their ability to play as a single precise unit with each player knowing or anticipating what each other is about to do. Barca used this familiarity the last few years to create a team that beat opponents not only through their skills but also through their ability to think and play as one.
This year, that no longer existed. Therefore, even when Barcelona fielded their (well-rested) best eleven, the players were a shell of their former selves. The cohesive, intelligent, and decisive team was gone. Instead unfamiliarity forced Barcelona to play at a gear below their top speed and consequently, they constantly looked out of sorts. Needless to say the results were predictably negative.
It is never wrong to try to improve upon a team’s strategy, especially if that team is as successful as Barcelona and its opponents are happy to play their entire team behind the ball. A random long ball or a quick counter can definitely open up new scoring opportunities and create more space by forcing opponents to defend in multiple ways. However, under Martino, Barcelona far too often became dependent on crosses and long balls completely bypassing some of the best skilled and intelligent players in the world.
Furthermore, in big games, Barca looked like a team without a plan. There was no plan to maximize Messi’s ability, no strategy to use Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc in the midfield to control the game and find holes of space, and nothing designed to strengthen a weakened and fragile defense.
Martino was brought in to expand and improve Barca’s tactics, but rarely did Barcelona look more threatening this year than in any of the past five. Yes, the team was hurt by injuries and awful decision making by the board, but throughout the season Martino showed he either couldn’t instill his strategies on the team or that he had no strategies at all. In short, Martino wasn’t able to prepare the team to win.
Barcelona has a lot of work to do this summer. They need to sign new players, they should (need to) have a new presidential election, and they need to re-assure their top players. But first, they need to get rid of Martino. He may be a good person and a good coach, but he is not right for Barcelona.
The quicker he goes, the quicker Barcelona can find a coach who will play to their strengths and find new ways to improve the squad’s tactics (preferably tactics that don’t turn Barcelona into Stoke City). Martino had a tough job after what sadly happened to Tito and it only got harder throughout the season with injuries and off the field distractions. But despite all that, Martino showed that he had little to offer in terms of improving Barcelona. It is time for him to go.