The mood is not positive around the Camp Nou ahead of tonight’s vital Champions League Group F game against Borussia Dortmund.
“Barca have forgotten how to play football,” wrote respected Catalan reporter Ramon Besa in El Pais on Monday, while less reserved voices among the blaugrana commentariat have called recent performances “abhorrent”, “frightening”, and“filthy”.
At first glance, Ernesto Valverde’s side are not in that bad a position — joint-top of La Liga with Real Madrid, and with the chance to qualify early from a tricky UCL group if they beat Borssia Dortmund tonight.
But performances have not been up to the standards required of many Barca fans, with the team’s style of play particularly angering purist pundits who are increasingly fed up with both Valverde and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The reigning La Liga champions have already lost three times domestically this term, including humbling defeats at Granada and Levante.
They have ridden their luck spectacularly in Europe, scoring just three times in their first four group games, while relying on goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen to bail them out on multiple occasions.
Barca were unrecognisable during a very fortunate 2-1 victory at Leganes last Saturday. Although they had most of the ball over the 90 minutes against La Liga’s bottom club, they barely created a chance in open play, with both goals coming from Lionel Messidelivered set-pieces.
Beforehand Valverde had complained about reporters always starting questions by asking “are you not worried that...”
He then told his post-match news conference that the most important thing was the three points while using the phrase “it was not a brilliant game” in four of his seven answers.
Catalan critics were at least in agreement with that lastassessment, and it has been much remarked upon that only one of Barca’s last seven goals has been scored in open play.
Winning ugly is definitely not acceptable for puristblaugrana pundits such as Besa, who bemoan the team having lost their trademark midfield control, and regularly hark back to increasingly far-off days when Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were the team’s central architects.
Former Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol coach Valverde is widely seen as notwithin that heritage, despite being a player at the Camp Nou under Johan Cruyff.
Saturday’s line-up almost bypassed midfield completely, with all of Messi, Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann, and Luis Suarez starting together for the first time in a rough 4-2-4 formation.
The experiment clearly did not work.
Barca are now worryingly reminiscent of Argentina, where everybody just gives the number 10 the ball, and hopes for the best, even the coach.
Last summer’s big money arrivals Griezmann andFrenkie De Jong were signed to evolve Barca’s style of play and make the team more ‘modern’ and direct.
Neither have yet earned much influence, with everything still flowing through Messi.
Both were substituted early against Leganes last weekend, and Griezmann especially is struggling to understand what is being asked of him.
“There will always be choppy waters, we shouldn’t trick ourselves,” said a characteristically phlegmatic Valverde at yesterday’s pre-game news conference.
“It will always be like that. The demands here are to win, and to give a football lesson, in every game.
“The good thing about football is that there is always another game to play, and make the fans happy.
“Of course we can improve, but we should not lose perspective. We focus on the games when we did play well. We can’t always be right on the edge when things have not played a complete game.”
A convincing win tonight would quieten the noise for now, and things could be very different by the time the knockout stages coming around after Christmas.
However should they lose, Valverde’s side will go into the final game at Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan with a historic group stage exit a possibility.
And Barca’s recent Champions League history is full of away game disasters.
The challenges are coming domestically too — with a trip to Atletico Madrid on Sunday, and the rearranged Clasico against a resurgent Real Madrid coming up at the Camp Nou on December 18.
What Messi really thinks of the current situation is unclear — but the usually reticent public speaker has been clear that he felt the team needed Neymar back last summer, while not denying he could in theory break his contract unilaterally and leave next year.
The 32-year old plays his 700th Barca game tonight, and could well add to his 612 goals so far.
Such numbers really are mind-boggling but also underline the team — and club — is super reliant on one individual.
If Messi is in the mood, Barca will be okay. If he is not, Valverde is in deep, deep trouble.