Laporta: "A cycle is over and we are working on a renewal"
The president admits that "from next week on" decisions will be taken to "have a more competitive team"
Last summer, shortly after the league competition resumed, Josep Maria Bartomeu met with his hard core to discuss how the coronavirus crisis would affect the immediate future of Barça. The then president, who had already negotiated a pay cut to the players while football was stopped, and aware that that template would not win the championship, then spoke of taking "unpopular but unpostponable decisions". He was referring to economic issues but also sports. In those early forecasts, Bartomeu still did not know that the team would be swept in the quarterfinals of the Champions League by Bayern Munich (2-8) or that Messi would take the determination to make public the intention to leave the club by means of a burofax. Two episodes that were the epilogue of a no-confidence vote that would end up forcing the resignation of the former president.
The last legacy of Bartomeu in the sports facet of the first team was the arrival of Ronald Koeman with the task of rebuilding a locker room that had been shattered after Lisbon and had chained successive defeats in recent years in the Champions League. But the renewal that Bartomeu wanted to put in place to try to solve what he himself had described as a "sporting crisis" (despite the fact that the club was burning on different sides) remained only in the arrival of the Dutch coach -while Setién was dismissed without reaching an agreement- and in the departures of Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal and Rakitic. Despite the fact that there were more names on the table, some of them big names, the promised renewal was limited, even though Bartomeu had already been warned the previous season, after the Anfield defeat, that "brave and unpopular decisions" had to be taken.
The club's sporting drift in recent years has become increasingly evident, even though Bartomeu has tried to put out the fires by cutting the heads of the technical secretaries and the territorial dominance in La Liga under Messi's leadership has made it possible to hide the shortcomings that were evident when it was time to face top European teams. And the "unpopular" duties involved in a thorough renovation of the Barça dressing room must now be taken on by Joan Laporta, having joined the club halfway through the season with the treasury squeezed to the maximum, the squad at the limit of financial fair play and the club loaded with debts.
"A cycle is over and we are working on a renewal. From next week onwards, decisions will be made to have a more competitive team. I said that at the end of the season we would make assessments based on the game and the results. We won the cup, but we lost the league incomprehensibly and we were eliminated very early in the Champions League", admitted the president yesterday.
The precedent of Laporta
The renewal of the squad, half started by Koeman who, although he has generated a lot of doubts, has made a commitment to have young players, is one of the most unpopular decisions that Laporta has to face. But the president already knows what it means to lead an in-depth renovation. When he first took over the club in 2003, he signed more than twenty departures in his first two seasons in office. The situation and the context now are marked by such decisive issues as the renewal of Messi, resolving the future of the bench and tackling a squad renewal that, in many cases, involves long-term contracts and very high salaries inherited from Bartomeu's policy, which made Barça the best paid team in Europe despite the fact that sporting performance was falling.
Laporta assumes some duties that Bartomeu took too long to face. "To make a renovation like this, you have to be very clear about it. And Bartomeu, when he raised his head and saw how the finances were, seeing that he only had one year left in his term of office, he didn't believe it or had it clear", recalls a member of the board. In fact, in a Bartomeu administration that had become increasingly personalistic, there were no major debates beyond a few comments of protest in a board that had already seen a few resignations.
In the end, the decisions were agreed by Bartomeu with his small core of trusted members, while the board was limited to validating them. A simple majority was enough. The serious debates took place in the offices, with small committee meetings. And, despite the fact that the renewal of the squad was watered down, there had already been talk of names such as Piqué - he himself left his continuity in the air after the 2-8 defeat - Alba, Busquets, Dembélé - in the summer of 2019 he was included in an operation to try to bring Neymar back - Griezmann and Coutinho. Names that are once again in the spotlight in the revolution that Laporta is facing in a squad that, as the season has ended, sees how the leadership of some veterans is out of date.
The future of the bench
Although Koeman's continuity is not ruled out, the final stretch of the season has weakened the Dutchman's chances of continuing. Laporta respects his figure as an azulgrana icon, but he is not a coach he has chosen, nor does he fit in with his idea of starting up a project. With the economy in a stranglehold, having to pay a severance package for the remaining year of Koeman's contract is a major handicap, just as it will be crucial to be able to find a convincing alternative. Some reports have put on the table the names of coaches such as the German Hans-Dieter Flick, who is finishing his contract with Bayern Munich, or the Dutchman Erik ten Hag, coach of Ajax. According to consulted sources, the ARA advanced that the preferred option was that of Xavi Hernandez, with whom Laporta would have to meet this week, although from Barça they insist on denying this possibility.
The change of coach is a trascendental decision to launch a project, but the fingers also point to the locker room. "It had reached a point where the sessions were tailor-made for the veterans, who are untouchable" recalls a former manager. This ended up condemning Ernesto Valverde. With Koeman, intensity was recovered, "the training sessions changed completely and the entry of young players had given another air to the team", as the Sant Joan Despí team highlighted - but when it came down to it, the team ended up collapsing.
The diagnosis seems clear. What is not so clear is how to execute it. This Tuesday, Mundo Deportivo published that Laporta planned to analyse the heavyweight cases of the locker room such as Sergi Roberto -his contract expires in 2022 and the ARA already reported that if renewed, it would be at a lower price-, Busquets, Pique and Griezmann to analsze what they earn in relation to their performance and address the future. "Now everyone understands that it is the squad that Laporta has found. But next year it will be the one that he will have created. The results will depend on him", explains a voice close to the president, who after winning the elections with a large majority has the legitimacy to make a renewal that the results of recent years show cannot be postponed. The renewal is also key to determine which new faces can join the team.