Football Club Barcelona endured a trying 2016/17 campaign: they failed to defend their La Liga title, crashed out miserably in the Champions League, saw many of their flaws in midfield exposed, and as a result, relied overly on the brilliance of MSN (Messi, Suarez, and Neymar) to carry them to victory. The only soothing points were the capture of the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup, both of which will do little to ease the long-term restlessness that has been steadily growing inside La Blaugrana’s fanbase.
However, a lack of short-term success doesn’t necessarily hint at any fundamental problems; in fact, it is more likely than not that a sports team will experience more failure than success. Additionally, the difference between winning and losing can come down to key tactical decisions, injuries, or moments of individual brilliance. There’s no inherent need to panic because your team lost two trophies.
Indeed, that is often the reason that many sides fall short of success, leading to unnecessary overhauls and overreactions. Using this logic to peer at the surface of Barcelona’s situation, it seems like things are ok. The Catalans lost the league by a mere three points and their thrashing vs. Juventus happened on a day when Luis Enrique’s tactical set-up was poor and Messi had his worst game ever [Edit: I mixed up Messi's PSG performance with his Juventus performance, the former of which I consider his worst game ever].
But peer even a little closer, and obvious fault lines appear, signifying an impending disaster of an unsure magnitude. The truth is, Barca’s failure in 2016/17 is only the symptom of a much larger problem of managerial incompetence that starts from the very top. La Blaugrana’s board has been setting this team up for failure for a very long time and we are finally starting to see the results.
The current midfield issue is an excellent example of how incompetence originating years ago has affected the fortunes of the squad in place today. Going all the way back to 2013, Barcelona had a chance to secure their midfield future in the form Thiago Alcantara - a La Masia graduate who had all the qualities to replace Xavi.
With the maestro declining, everything was primed for Thiago to take his place... except... Thiago wanted to leave.
The player who grew up as a Barcelona player and had a brother in the same academy wanted to leave, because the people in charge of the club had failed to give him minutes. In a complicated contract situation, Thiago signed a deal from 2011-2013, requiring that he feature in at least 30 minutes of 60% of Barcelona’s games, or else his release clause would drop from a sizable €90m to a pitiful €18m. Amazingly, Barcelona failed to live up to this condition and therefore communicated a lack of seriousness about Thiago’s future. Displeased, the brightest young midfielder in Spain left on the cheap to join Pep Guardiola at Bayern.
Fast forward to today, and Carlo Ancelotti has reaped the rewards of this transfer, while Barcelona have struggled with the subpar Andre Gomes as a fixture in their midfield. But even after selling Thiago, Barcelona had years to remedy the situation. It was their decision to sit on their hands until Xavi retired and Iniesta faded, only to spend €35 million (which could rise to €70 million due to add-ons) for Gomes; a good but not great midfielder who clearly doesn’t fit the playing philosophy of the club. They did sign Rakitic in the interim, but considering that he turned 29 in March, it is obvious that he is little more than a stopgap option.
And yet, there’s still time for things to be fixed. Barcelona are only one year removed from success and have all the prestige in the world to lure almost any talent to their shores. So who have they gone out and tried to buy in this transfer window?
Ummm.... What the fuck?
Naby freakin’ Keita has been linked with Liverpool and is rumored to be considering his options this summer, and Barcelona go for the average joe who flopped at Tottenham and is unlikely to be a proper tactical fit even if he possessed greater quality.
In case you are unaware, Keita is 22 years old, and is as close to a complete midfielder as possible: he defends like a proper ball-winner, dribbles like a winger, and creates like an attacking midfielder. He’s the perfect Barcelona signing: diminutive in stature, but possessing sufficient steel to compliment his excellent array of technical skills.
While there is still plenty of time in the transfer market to pursue him, Barcelona’s confirmed go at Paulinho signifies their amateurish transfer strategy and complete lack of a squad building strategy.
If you need further evidence, look only as far as Sergi Roberto, a natural central midfielder, who currently plays as a right back in Barcelona’s starting eleven. I say again, Sergi Roberto, a central midfielder, is the current replacement for Daniel Alves, the greatest right back in Barcelona’s history.
But to be fair, quality fullbacks are hard to come by and it’s entirely possible that no right back was available last summer. So why then, was Dani Alves allowed to leave?
Because Barca’s board made Alves feel undervalued, causing him to force an exit in search of greener pastures.
I have to say that I didn’t feel as comfortable any more at Barça. Things changed at a club level, and as time went on, I always seemed to be the one in the firing line. “Dani’s the one who has to go,” they’d say. I just got tired of it. I decided to head off in a new direction and find happiness somewhere else.
This head-scratching level of incompetence in regards to La Blaugrana’s squad management is only surpassed by their utter lack of financial know-how.
Barcelona’s Wage Structure as of January 2017
|PLAYER||AGE||WEEKLY WAGE||CONTRACT LEFT|
|PLAYER||AGE||WEEKLY WAGE||CONTRACT LEFT|
|Lionel Messi||29||£365,000 after tax||2 Years (2018)|
|Neymar (new deal)||24||£289,000||5 Years (2021)|
|Luis Suárez (new deal)||29||£240,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Andrés Iniesta||32||£165,000||2 Years (2018)|
|Sergio Busquets||28||£140,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Gerard Piqué||29||£130,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Javier Mascherano||32||£130,000||2 Years (2018)|
|Paco Alcacer (New signing)||22||£90,000||5 Years (2021)|
|Jordi Alba||27||£90,000||4 Years (2020)|
|Jérémy Mathieu||32||£90,000||2 Years (2018)|
|Arda Turan||29||£85,000||4 Years (2020)|
|André Gomes (new signing)||23||£80,000||5 years (2021)|
|Ivan Rakitic||28||£75,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Sergi Roberto||24||£70,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Marc-André ter Stegen||24||£60,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Alex Vidal||26||£60,000||4 Years (2020)|
|Jasper Cillessen (New signing)||27||£55,000||5 Years (2021)|
|Lucas Digne (new signing)||23||£55,500||5 Years (2021)|
|Denis Suarez (new signing)||22||£40,000||4 Years (2020)|
|Samuel Umtiti (new signing)||22||£40,000||5 Years (2021)|
|Rafinha||23||£37,500||4 Year (2020)|
|Douglas (loaned-out)||26||£35,000||3 Years (2019)|
|Jordi Masip||27||£15,500||1 Years (2017)|
|Sergi Samper (loaned-out)||21||£10,000||3 years (2019)|
If there’s one excuse Barcelona has for not replenishing their squad with the necessary talent, it’s that their mishandling of their wage structure has made it increasingly difficult for them to dish out high salaries to quality players.
What’s particularly important to notice in the above table, is the high wages given to bit-part players. Mathieu barely made 15 appearances across La Liga and the Champions League, yet he is being paid £90,000 per week. Paco Alcacer, who was only ever going to be a substitute, makes the same amount, while Arda Turan makes only £5,000 less.
Real Madrid’s Wage Structure as of May 2017
|Player||Weekly Wage||Contract Until|
|Player||Weekly Wage||Contract Until|
|Cristiano Ronaldo||£365,000 (After Tax)||(5 Years) 2021|
|Gareth Bale||£350,000||(6 Years) 2022|
|Luka Modric||£180,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Sergio Ramos||£160,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Toni Kroos||£156,000||(6 Years) 2022|
|Karim Benzema||£150,000||(3 Years) 2019|
|James Rodriguez||£120,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Pepe||£110,000||(1 Year) 2017|
|Marcelo||£80,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Alvaro Morata||£80,000||(5 Years) 2021|
|Fabio Coentrao||£80,000||(3 Years) 2019|
|Raphael Varane||£80,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Isco||£60,000||(2 Years) 2018|
|Mateo Kovacic||£60,000||(5 Years) 2021|
|Danilo Luiz da Silva||£60,000||(5 Years) 2021|
|Nacho Fernandez||£60,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Keylor Navas||£55,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Casemiro||£45,000||(5 Years) 2021|
|Daniel Carvajal||£35,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Lucas Vazquez||£30,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Kiko Casilla||£25,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Marco Asensio||£10,000||(4 Years) 2020|
|Mariano Diaz||£5,000||(5 Years) 2021|
|Ruben Yanez||£4,000||(2 Years) 2018|
In contrast to Barca’s randomly assorted salary structure, Real’s wage bill is neatly organized via player hierarchy, status, and importance to the club. Ronaldo rightly earns the most money, followed by Bale, Modric, and Ramos - it makes sense. However, what’s truly amazing, is how crucial players like Marcelo, Casemiro, Isco (who has a newer and more expensive contract now), and Carvajal, earn(ed) less than the aforementioned Mathieu, Turan, and Alcacer. In fact, forget those three, for Carvajal, the best right back in the world, earns just as much as Douglas!!!
This comparison highlights the utter mess that Barcelona have created for themselves. With a non-existent wage structure, they have quickly accrued the highest salary bill in world football.
Real Madrid aren’t that far behind, but they can pay for every cent. As per Los Blancos’ official annual report after the 2015/16 season, their net debt stood at -€13 million, having decreased €109 million over one year. On the other hand, Barcelona had €287 million in debt in 2015/16, with their payroll contributing significantly to the problem.
As can be seen above, their wage to revenue ratio has increased steadily since 2011/12 and stands dangerously close to the 70% limit recommended by the European Club association.
Real Madrid, who pay nearly the same gross total of wages, only have a wage to turnover ratio of 49%, which was enabled by Florentino Perez’s shrewd financial management when he became president in his first term.
When coupled with their astute wage structure, Madrid’s salary to revenue ratio leaves them with plenty of room to maneuver when it comes to contracts, which will enable them to continue to sign the best of the best in the future. The same cannot be said for their rivals, who seem poised to continue to struggle as they allow players and their agents to dictate the terms of contracts against the interests of the club. We have already seen the negative consequences of this, when in 2016, Barcelona were prevented from signing Nolito due to the previously mentioned financial difficulties. This can only get worse as time wears on.
As a result, Barcelona’s newest manager, Ernesto Valverde, has been left in a tough position. He possesses an incomplete squad and lacks a board that possesses the necessary financial tools to chase the prime targets necessary for rebuilding. Thus, it is likely that Ernesto tries the strategy of his predecessors: put together a decent tactical plan and hope that MSN carries you to glory. But unlike in the past, this plan will probably not work. MSN have always had a pretty strong midfield behind them, and with Iniesta at the end of his career, that looks like an impossibility. Additionally, Messi is slowly entering his own phase of decline. 2016/17 saw the Argentinian great begin to transition to a No. 10 role, in order to ease the stress that came from cutting inside from the wing. While this helped keep his insane productivity at previous levels, it also hurt his team. It left Sergio Roberto isolated on the right flank, causing the closest central midfielder to move wide to compensate, therefore destroying the structure of an already weak-ish midfield. Thus, not only does Ernesto need to overcome the squad deficiencies that have been left to fester, but he also has to devise a totally new system that adjusts and compensates for the new Messi.
That looks like an impossible task and it leaves Madrid in a very strong position for the future. Unlike Barca, Florentino Perez has overcome self-inflicted mistakes to build one of the greatest squads of all time. There is immense depth in every position and Real possess the ability to add more if they please (see the countless Ceballos and Mbappe rumors), thanks to a supremely stable financial situation.
While one can never be certain of how the greatness of players like Messi and Neymar will impact the fortunes of a club, it seems like Barcelona’s bad habits are finally catching up with them. Their financial mishaps and clueless transfer strategy can no longer be covered up by La Masia’s golden generation and Pep Guardiola’s enduring tactical philosophy. If Barcelona don’t heed the warning signs and start making drastic changes now, Real Madrid possess the ability to surpass them and usher in a grand age of footballing dominance.
Special thanks to fellow Managing Madrid writer Ondra Paul, who was of immense help in collecting the sources and data necessary for writing this article.
Has Barcelona’s incompetence helped to put Real Madrid in a position to dominate football?
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