Ronald Koeman is adamant Barcelona will be better soon but he heads to Granada in LaLiga on Monday under pressure, with his team accused not just of losing but of losing their identity.
Barca were outplayed in a 3-0 defeat by Bayern Munich on Tuesday, the gulf in class so obvious that Bayern eased off in the second half.
By the end the home fans at Camp Nou were more interested in keeping up an inflatable ball than keeping up with what was on the pitch.
Koeman’s team failed to muster a single shot on target, had less of the ball – once the club’s signature statistic – and have now registered three consecutive losses at home in the Champions League, with 10 goals conceded.
After the string of summer sales and the departure of Lionel Messi, nobody was shocked Bayern were better. Few expect Barcelona to trouble either the Champions League’s latter stages or any of its chief contenders this season.
But as Barca look ahead now to some kinder assignments – Granada on Monday, then Cadiz and Levante – the debate has begun about the manner of the decline and whether Koeman is the right coach to close the gap.
“It is what it is, we are what we are,” said Gerard Pique after the game in midweek, a sentiment Koeman said he agreed with. “We have to be realistic,” he added.
Yet that growing sense of resignation has irked many around Camp Nou, who feel the line between realism and acceptance is being blurred. While Barca are not expected to beat Bayern, there is a way to lose – courageously and while rebuilding in the process.
Last season, Koeman was given margin for error, his insistence that the team were “not in a position to win anything” reluctantly absorbed by the club and fans, after senior players had left and youngsters began to emerge.
The key, though, was also a base level of results and performance, which eventually won Barcelona the Copa del Rey, put them in contention to win LaLiga and saw a degree of resistance offered against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
There was an adherence to the club’s style and values too, which were so painfully absent against Bayern. Barca, playing at home, set up to sit deep, with five at the back, the plan seemingly to absorb, contain and limit the damage.
Luuk de Jong trudging after speculative through balls was the enduring image of a side that lacked pace, belief and quality. “I am a Cruyffist but also a realist,” said Koeman earlier this month.
The club’s president Joan Laporta felt the situation was dire enough to publish a video on Wednesday in which he addressed supporters directly. “I am as upset and disappointed as you all are,” Laporta said.
He also asked for patience, like Koeman had, the Dutchman insisting on Tuesday that Ousmane Dembele, Ansu Fati and Sergio Aguero returning from injury would make a difference in a matter of weeks.
The relationship between Koeman and Laporta has become increasingly strained after Koeman objected to Laporta suggesting a coach does not have all the power. “He spoke too much,” said Koeman.
At the end of last season, Laporta stuck with Koeman only after seeking successors and finding nobody suitable was available, or willing, and it is hard to see how that situation has changed.
Appointing an up-and-coming coach would be a huge risk while the idea any of the world’s top coaches will take charge of a club with debts of 1.35 billion euros seems fanciful, especially given Barca cannot offer big wages or significant signings.
Sacking Koeman would also cost the club more than 10 million euros, according to reports in the Spanish press, money they do not have.
Barcelona have made a solid start in LaLiga and for now, the hope is an upturn will postpone bigger, and more expensive, decisions until later.
Atletico Madrid play at home to Athletic Club on Saturday before Real Madrid travel to in-form Valencia on Sunday night. Valencia have taken 10 points from their opening four games under new coach Jose Bordalas.