The week before last, one of the great clubs in world football started its long slow disintegration as Lionel Messi blasted Barcelona’s sporting director for suggesting that the players had gotten the previous manager his jotters. It’s a volcano that’s been waiting to blow for a while.
Things are not yet at the point of no return, but the signs are worrying.
Barcelona has been facing this for years. The decline was inevitable. The mismanagement of it was not.
Some think Celtic might face a similar decline. We have the most successful team in our history save for the Lisbon Lions here. Yet it is inevitable that this great side will be broken up, and not even by the money on offer from England and elsewhere.
The clock takes care of everything and empires fall when they are caught unprepared.
The job has to start well in advance … it should be underway already.
At Barcelona the only way was down.
Guardiola sat atop one of the greatest teams in the history of the game. At the height of their power he had no fewer than seven academy graduates in his starting eleven and all of them were of a world class vintage. The Spaniards who made up the core of that group were so good that they propelled their national team to a Euro Championship and a World Cup. Yet none could hold a candle to the little magician, Lionel Messi.
The fall has taken years, and even as the club slides it continues to win things and Messi continues to bamboozle defenders and rack up goals and assists. His latest Balon D’Or is evidence of his greatness, and the symbol of the monumental problem Barcelona will face.
How do you replace the greatest player there has ever been? Where do you even begin? It may have been easier had they been able to find footballers to step into the shoes of the greats who have already gone, like Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, but they never really did. Yes, Barcelona could only decline, but the decline could have been managed in such a way that even Messi’s eventual departure would have been cushioned. Instead, the club faces freefall.
It has gone on too long. Barcelona, like Celtic, boasts of being an institution bigger than any one man but Messi so thoroughly encapsulates their greatest era and they are so bound to their identity as the club which reared him and calls on his services that in many ways he’s outshone the club itself.
He has provided them with so much, but how much has he cost them?
Think of the dilemma it presents to have such a special footballer at the club. As Jonathon Wilson points out in his fantastic Guardian article on this subject, how do you even contemplate dropping him? You can’t, and not just because it would ask too many questions. Messi is too talented to just leave on the bench when, as Wilson points out, even on an off-day can he can produce something unbelievable and game-changing in an instant.
But equally, Barcelona does not make a place for Messi in whatever team it is building at any particular time; it builds that team around him.
For all his genius, that limits them and the direction they can grow in and that becomes especially problematic as he loses certain of the qualities that made him great. For a player his age, speed is the first to go, then the energy levels that made him such an effective player.
Remember Messi of just five years ago?
There wasn’t a harder working footballer in the game, anywhere. That’s gone and it’s not coming back.
You can see Scott Brown start to lose something, and we’ve built our midfield around him. It is not the problem Barcelona face, but our team system has evolved, to a large extent, by the evolution of Brown as a player and if we leave it too long to begin the next transition we’ll be caught cold.
One area of the side we left too long and almost suffered for it was at right back, where Lustig’s decline was evident and where I thought we might struggle to replace him properly.
He gave us great service in his eight years with the club, every one of them a title winner.
But he had begun to flag as far back as four seasons ago. We are incredibly fortunate to have found such decent footballers for that area of the field; the emergence of Frimpong is especially delicious, but I think Abd Elhamed will be important for us … if he stays fit.
Other areas of the team need that freshness. James Forrest is 28 now. His pace, such an asset to our team, will lessen year on year. Callum is a sprightly 26, with a decade left in him but he plays too many matches right now, and can’t possibly do that for ten more years.
This great Celtic side will start to slip, unless the strategy is perfect.
Right now, it is anything but. We lose quality and cannot replace it with footballers of a similar standard. I genuinely fear for the day we lose Edouard, far more than I worried about the departure of Dembele, knowing that Eddie was already at the club.
It is clear that we’ll struggle to find a footballer of his class, but we have to try.
We cannot sit still. We cannot cross our fingers and hope some project pays off. Our scouts should be active right now, and we should be willing to pay top dollar – the kind that bought Edouard in the first place – if that’s what it takes. It will almost certainly be what it takes.
And the same standard has to be applied to Brown.
Bad decisions at Barcelona have left the most feted club in the world looking rocky, with a shaky midfield and a defence which leaks goals against the other European super clubs. Barcelona has not failed to reach, at a minimum, the Quarter Finals of the Champions League since 2006-07 … but there have been horrific results along the way.
Amongst the most recent were the twin disaster of 2016; the shattering 4-0 defeat – overturned in the incredible 6-1 win at home – against PSG and the 3-0 humbling at the hands of Juventus which sent them out. There was the 3-0 hammering at Roma the following year to send them out on away goals, and last season the complete, and catastrophic, collapse at Anfield where Liverpool overturned a 3-0 first leg deficit to win 4-0.
The Barcelona of old was not perfect – the disastrous 2012-13 7-0 aggregate rout at the hands of Bayern Munich was a case in point – but they were immune to reversals of that sort year on year. This is a new thing, and it is most unwelcome at the Camp Nou.
Their transition should have started years ago, with the Spanish contingent replaced with players who could at least fill the holes if not match their incredible standards. As Wilson points out, the Neymar money could have rebuilt those areas; instead they spent it on bling, and in doing so gave Liverpool the money, via the Coutinho deal, to buy Van Dijk.
On the back of that, Liverpool have become Champions of Europe and are regarded as the best team in the world at the present time.
It makes me proud that Van Dijk was once at Parkhead, but we never came close to replacing that boy in our defence; that’s not a surprise when you see where he’s gone. But the spending of £7 million on big Christopher Jullien was a serious attempt at it, and it’s paid dividends.
That’s the way we have to go forward.
We cannot become stagnant.
And yes, there is room for the project player in all this, as long as the scouting has been done right and as long as we see these guys as part of a successful squad and not just blue chip “saleable assets.” It is vital that we hang onto players and let the team grow. The reason this Celtic side is so good is that the core of it – Brown, McGregor and Forrest in particular – have been here for years and the team has grown around them … much like Barca’s magnificent seven.
The next core group of players – with a long-term commitment to the cause – should be forming up right now. Those who lament my constant demand that we look for and sign the best Scottish talent cannot have failed to see that the most consistent performers in this side are those footballers who hail from our windswept shores.
The next great Celtic team will have its roots here too.
Tierney would have been its lynchpin but chose England and the cash. We move forward. Our next great side should be in the process of coming together already. Perhaps it already is, as guys like Welsh and Dembele and Johnston come through.
It makes me mourn the failure to sign John McGinn all the more; that one could be haunting us for years unless someone like him is plying his trade under our noses. The effort to sign Motherwell’s David Turnbull was an effort at putting a major building block in place, but it ran aground for its own reasons.
We can only hope he re-emerges and we get another chance.
McKenna may have looked the part, but he’s not grown enough to convince me that taking the punt would have been worth the money Aberdeen wanted.
But we have to keep looking for these guys; they are out there, they are coming through.
We have to identify them and move for them before English clubs get a sniff.
This great team has to be transitioned, and in such a way that it causes the least disruption and so that new players can join a team that already knows how to win.
And this is our dilemma and, paradoxically, our great strength; Celtic never stands still. A great team is an evolution and even as one grows it is already in the process of becoming another one. This team of ours is changing, becoming different; you only need to look at the players who have left and those who have come in to see it starting. Soro and Klimala might look like projects now, but in time we’ll hopefully see them as the backbone of the next great side.
Time will tell if they make us better, but the wheels are already turning.