Another week brings a fresh set of lows for Barcelona and their fans. Humbled on the pitch by Benfica, Barça also had the true extent of their financial situation laid bare in black and white for the world to see via the publication of LaLiga’s latest salary limits.
The inevitable “Barça hit rock bottom” headlines followed the latest in a long series of heavy European defeats. However they’ve been published so many times before, it’s logical to doubt whether this really is as bad as it gets or whether things may get worse still before a corner is truly turned.
It’s a question that in the grand scheme of things is far more significant than that of the immediate future of Ronald Koeman, whose days as Barcelona coach are clearly numbered. It’s a question that his potential successors will all be asking themselves should Joan Laporta come calling over the coming days and weeks.
In the short-term, with or without Koeman, Barcelona now face an uphill struggle just to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League. It’s 21 years since they failed to progress from a UCL group and dropping into the Europa League, or worse still coming bottom of a group they are yet to collect a point in, would unquestionably mark a fresh low on the pitch whilst also having further financial consequences off it.
Far more damaging, would be a failure to even qualify for next season’s competition. At this point, it’s entirely reasonable to view that as a genuine possibility. As the 2021/22 salary limits reveal, Barcelona now have only the seventh highest maximum budget in LaLiga, ranking below the likes of Villarreal, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club following a staggering drop of nearly 285 million Euros from last season.
Their 2021/22 budget of just 98 million Euros is only 20 million more than local rivals Espanyol who were playing Segunda División football last season. To put it another way, their entire playing squad budget is now less than what Leo Messi used to get paid per year (including bonuses) before his move to PSG. The question should not be why Barcelona weren’t able to find a way to keep their legendary forward, more how they could even contemplate holding on to him this summer, or rewinding a year, why they didn’t grant Messi his wish and let him leave in 2020.
That’s one of many questions only Josep Maria Bartomeu can truly answer. The repercussions of the dreadful mismanagement of the club at boardroom level during his tenure continue to loom large over Camp Nou but just how realistic is the possibility of Barcelona missing out on Champions League football this season?
Well, money does indeed talk, but the salary limit rankings can be a little misleading. Firstly they are not an indication of what clubs actually spend on wages, more what the maximum allowance for their registered players in LaLiga is. There are also some ways to get around the system in the shorter term. These include offsetting larger portions of salaries until future seasons which Barcelona have done with some players and tried to do with Messi.
As such, it’s almost certainly inaccurate to suggest Barcelona now have only the seventh most costly squad in LaLiga – a position that in the very best case scenario would only be good enough for UEFA Conference League football were the league table to mirror it.
With everyone fit, Barcelona’s first XI is unquestionably strong enough to finish in the top four. Indeed it’s arguably still good enough to at least push the Madrid clubs for the title, however as their current injury problems have served to highlight, their squad is woefully short on depth in some areas of the pitch. Should they have to deal with persistent injury issues throughout the campaign, their position in the top four could certainly come under threat.
Much will depend on the likes of Villarreal and Real Sociedad – the two most likely candidates to break into the top four. Despite the legitimacy of some of Koeman’s claims about selection woes, it should perhaps be pointed out that La Real are currently riding high in 2nd place in LaLiga and unbeaten in Europe, despite currently being without nine first team squad members to injury.
Given Barcelona don’t have any realistic chance of winning the Champions League this season, there’s almost an argument to suggest the league and making sure they are in next season’s competition, should be the utmost priority. If they are capable of doing that, then the true rock bottom should come sooner rather than later.
There may still be some pressure to cut costs in 2022, but in that regard, the worst has already passed. It’s difficult to imagine a situation that could be anywhere near as bad as last summer where Barcelona had to let such an iconic figure leave and were left in an almost comical situation where they were left struggling to register new signings right up until the first whistle of the season.
The contracts of Ousmane Dembélé and Sergi Roberto expire next summer. Neither are likely to get new ones unless they agree to huge reductions and either way that will add a bit more breathing space in terms of the salary limits. The return of fans to Camp Nou and visitors to the city of Barcelona, many of whom spend significant sums of money both on match tickets and stadium tours, will also help improve the club’s dire financial situation.
Fast-forward another year and the summer of 2023 marks the end of the contracts of high-earners Samuel Umtiti, Philippe Coutinho and Sergio Busquets. It seems relatively safe to assume, that despite huge current debts, Barcelona’s financial recovery should be well underway heading into the 2023/24 season, providing they can continue to secure Champions League football in the meantime.
While an uncompetitive Barça at elite European level and a lack of trophies may have to become the norm for a few seasons, foundations can begin to be built and while there will almost inevitably be isolated performances and results that feel like fresh lows, things shouldn’t get a great deal worse than they have been over the past fortnight.
However, should Barcelona finish below 4th this season, that would not only set a new “rock bottom” but potentially be a sign of darker days ahead and perhaps a deeper and more extended decline. Champions League losses in Lisbon would suddenly pale into insignificance in comparison to Europa or Conference League nights in some of Europe’s less glamorous footballing destinations. It’d be a symbol of just how far Barcelona’s stock has fallen since the glory days of Guardiola and the treble of 2015.
While Barcelona have revenue streams that would survive the loss of Champions League football, ones that many other big clubs can only dream of, there’d still unquestionably be significant financial implications. At a time when the club is teetering with bankruptcy, that’s something that doesn’t really bear thinking about. It in part explains why there is at least a degree of logic in spending more money to fire Koeman now if there is more confidence in his successor (even if it is only a stopgap appointment) delivering a top four finish.
It may mean another transitional season or two where the experienced big earners and final remnants of Pep’s golden era are moved on and Barcelona’s squad mostly consists of promising youngsters who don’t yet command big salaries and budget buys who under normal circumstances wouldn’t be anywhere near Barcelona’s radar.
For every Gavi and Nico González, there will be a Luuk de Jong and a Martin Braithwaite. Providing there are no further financial bombshells, there ought to be just enough money left in the pot to hang onto at best a handful of higher paid stars – the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Memphis Depay and Ansu Fati.
Those players are going to be vitally important over the next couple of years. They will need to assume responsibility and with the right structure around them, even amidst a clear rebuilding operation, Barcelona should continue to be a force in a domestic setting at least.
There is now at least the sense of the project Messi was so hungry for when he delivered that damning interview last year, even if it has come about largely out of sheer necessity and with continued chaos behind the scenes. There is an obvious path to the first team for talented young players that hasn’t always been there and there is a clearer idea of how the future might look on the pitch.
With the likes of Ronald Araújo, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ansu Fati, there is even the emergence of something resembling a possible long-term spine of this team. There’s fresh talent too but it’s perhaps too early to judge La Masia’s latest crop of graduates, not that that has stopped Luis Enrique from fast-tracking Gavi into the Spanish national squad after all of 290 minutes of first team action for Barcelona.
Whether these players are going to be good enough to ultimately propel Barcelona back up to the very top table of European football remains to be seen, but at the very least there is a footballing path out of the current turmoil. At boardroom level, action has finally been taken to stem the financial bleeding and ensure this club does have a future.
There will be more bumps along the road but as much as it may pain Barcelona fans to admit it, 3rd or 4th place and no trophies would not be a disastrous outcome in what even under less of a dark financial cloud, would most likely have been a tricky first post-Messi season. It would be a signal that the worst was starting to pass and reason for cautious optimism of better times ahead.