During this year’s “El Clasico” – easily the most hyped sporting spectacle worldwide – wonder kid Marco Asensio put the world on notice, blasting two long shots past keeper Andre ter Stegen. However, not even Asensio stole the show this year. These two matches were overshadowed by the Neymar saga. Easily the most shocking transfer in recent memory, the Spanish Super Copa was engulfed by questions concerning a future without Neymar. A star player entering his prime, leaving the most prominent club on the planet is both unprecedented and demoralizing for fans of La Blaugrana. The most hyperbolized phrase the past couple of weeks have been “how will Barca replace Neymar?” With regards to being blunt, there is no replacement for Neymar. Neymar is as unique as they come, as the most likely successor to the joint reign of Ronaldo and Messi. He is a generational talent and the term ‘irreplaceable’ would be doing a disservice to Neymar’s skillset. With that being said, Barca’s issues have far predated the Neymar to PSG rumors.
Winning La Copa del Rey appears trivial relative to the success that their rivals, Real Madrid, have endured – winning both the league and the Champions League. Neymar masked many problems that Barca had last year purely due to his unparalleled talent. As did Messi and Suarez, for that matter. The glaring holes that plagued Barca in recent memory could be attributed to players that were once reasons for their widespread success. Like a successful company, a futbol club the magnitude Barca, should always be looking to improve. Attempts to sign players the likes of Coutinho, Dybala, and Verratti shouldn’t be a response to losing Neymar. Rather, a team like Barca should always be looking to renew and improve. Barca fell victim to their past dominance. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Well, it so happens that their system is broke right now.
While Barcelona stood idly bye, Real Madrid was constantly replenishing and improving their roster. Acquiring young talent in Isco, Carvajal, Casemiro, and Asensio while Barca has tried reliving and mimicking the Pep Guardiola days. The truth of the matter is that Barca will never be the team they were under Pep. In fact, it will be years before a team even gets close to the heights that Barca reached. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be European contenders. In fact, they have no excuse for not being a perennial powerhouse. The inherent problem is their reluctance to change and adapt.
Barca found success through their academy. The organization had a strong face and an even stronger foundation. At their peak, during the 2011-2012 campaign, the best players on that team came from La Masia – their youth academy. Players such as Busquets, Puyol, Messi, Pedro, Iniesta, Thiago, and Xavi were all consistent starters that came up through the Barcelona system. These players were taught a certain style and had the requisite skill to apply this come game time and be extremely successful in doing it. That team relied on unique talent like Iniesta and Xavi to control the speed of the game and dictate the flow of the ball. Without those two players, the system would crumble. La Masia to this day is still being taught this style of play, but there isn’t a Xavi around and Iniesta looks like a shell of his former self. The academy has to adapt the way they teach and the way they train and so does the team itself. They can’t keep teaching a style of play that doesn’t fuse with the players that they have on their first team.
The signing of Nelson Semedo seems like the first right move that Barca had made in a while. A young talented right-back with energy and grit that Barca is lacking at the moment. Does he replace Dani Alves? A question that Barcelona has been attempting to answer the past couple of years. No. He doesn’t. Dani Alves was a unique talent, that complimented Messi on the right side and was also able to track elite level players like Ronaldo. However, Barca shouldn’t be trying to replace the players that once breed success. Those players are irreplaceable. The blue and red must adapt and find new ways to play. This brings us back to the Neymar question. The signing of Ousmane Dembele is definitely exciting for Barca, but in no way does he replicate what Neymar did. However, Barca shouldn’t even be trying to replace their previous talent in the first place. Rather, they must acquire talent and try adapting it to a coherent squad. With a likely signing of Philippe Coutinho in the coming days, people will surely be asking “can he replace Iniesta?” And once again, the answer is an outstanding no. No one in the world can replicate what Iniesta did during the Pep era. However, Coutinho has a unique skillset and young legs that can bring flair and promise to Catalonia.
At the end of the day, Barca has to stop attempting to dip their past stars into the fountain of youth. Rather, they have to build these players up from their academy and sign young talent across the world. They can’t rely on 30-year-old has bins to play an outdated style anymore. They need to reinvent themselves and that begins with a youth movement.