Poor old Andre Gomes. He might as well be made to carry a bell through the streets of Barcelona. How quickly it has all turned sour for him. He landed in the Catalan capital during the summer a European champion after Portugal’s heroics in France. He was only 22 years of age.
Huge money was spent on him, potentially stretching to €55 million with add-ons. Great things were expected. It was whispered that he could be a successor for the aging team captain Andres Iniesta.
A clause was included in Gomes’s contract about a bonus that would have to be paid out if he wins a Ballon d’Or award. How they laugh now about that notion in Barcelona. They like to boo him from the stands at the Camp Nou, where he has turned in several poor performances and become a lightning rod for fans’ disaffection.
The local press have taken to running articles analysing how much of a loser he is. The team plays better without him; they have won ten of the 11 games he hasn’t played. He has only scored one goal since joining the club.
Against Malaga, in Barcelona’s most recent defeat in the league, he failed to intercept a single ball. Against Real Sociedad last weekend, in a laboured 3-2 win for Barca, he started but was withdrawn – after another listless outing – with 20 minutes to go.
The media pressed manager Luis Enrique on why he perseveres with Gomes, particularly at the expense of Iniesta. Enrique bristled, rising to the bait. They were comparing apples to oranges. “Iniesta is unique and absolutely indispensible,” he said. “I have always admired and appreciated him. It is ridiculous to think someone can take his place.”
Yet this is what Gomes has been tasked with. With the exception of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, Gomes has played more minutes than any other Barça midfielder.
Iniesta – who has been bedevilled with injuries, including knee ligament damage suffered against Valencia last October, and the vagaries of squad rotation – lies seventh on that list for playing time behind the likes of Arda Turan, Rafinha and Denis Suarez.
Enrique has had the difficult task of keeping Iniesta on ice during this campaign, winding down his career – as he did successfully with Xavi Hernandez two years ago – and hoping he peaks for the clutch matches in April.
Iniesta is not always enamoured with how his old team-mate – who he played alongside in the first batch of 700-plus appearances he has clocked up for the club since 2002 – is carrying out this delicate task.
Iniesta responded acidly, for example, when asked recently whether he will renew his contract during the summer, hinting at the frustration he feels at his diminished role. “I’m not going to be here just for the sake of it,” he said.
Enrique has held firm. He too – like Xavi and possibly Iniesta, – finished his career at Barcelona. “I know that he wants to play more minutes,” he said. “I know, but I also want him to acknowledge what it means to grow older at a club like this.”
The punt on Gomes – favoured over La Masia graduates such as Denis Suarez and Rafinha this season – is illuminating. Gomes is one of six players the club splurged on in the off-season. Barca spent €123m effectively on squad players. Of their number, only Samuel Umtiti has established himself as a regular starter on Barca’s first choice XI.
During Pep Guardiola’s four-year reign as Barca coach (2008-12), he was adept at regenerating his squad from within. He gave several players – including Busquets, Pedro, Sergi Roberto, Thiago Alcantara and Marc Bartra – their starts in Barcelona’s first team, promoting them from Barca B.
Guardiola was an ideologue. He adhered to his philosophical principles, according to Real Madrid’s former manager and World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, “to the point of exaggeration”.
There is a significant lobby in Catalonia who are anxious that Barça re-finds its footballing identity, which is based around dominance of the ball, specifically in the middle of the park. Guardiola once said he would only play with 11 midfielders if he could.
Barça have abandoned Guardiola’s obsession with midfield dominance, Besa feels. It showed last weekend against Real Sociedad, who won 51 per cent of possession in the tussle, something no visiting team has done at the Camp Nou in a long, long time.
Under Enrique, Barça rely heavily on their MSN front three – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar – producing moments of magic to decide matches rather than the pass-and-move way in which Barca used to suffocate teams under Guardiola.
Were it not for Messi, in particular, their season would be a shambles. He has been sensational. His relentless standards are extraordinary. He has scored 29 goals in 28 league appearances. He has an even better goals-to-games ratio in the Champions League.
In last weekend’s game against Real Sociedad, for example, he was the unmistakable difference between the two teams, setting up one goal and scoring a brace, including a bullet from 25 yards.
Messi’s wondrous performances this season alongside Neymar and Luis Suarez, who have been in fine form, too, merely highlights how badly the rest of the team has been playing. Barça’s defence has been porous, with the hapless Jeremy Mathieu – replaced at half-time in the recent league defeat to Málaga – an easy scapegoat. The buck stops with Enrique, of course. In an effort to rouse his troops from their stupor, as they enter the business end of the season, he went for the nuclear option, announcing in a post-match conference in early March that he would be stepping down at the end of the season. None of his players was present in the room. There were no tears, no fanfare.
The players were fed up with his surly mood. Enrique hoped his decision would free them up. It worked initially – with the miracle comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League – but their league form has since dipped. A one-point lead over Real Madrid has changed to a three-point deficit with a game more played.
Only a win at the Bernabeu today against Real in the Clásico will rescue their chances of retaining the league title this season. They must attempt the feat without the suspended Neymar. It seems unlikely that Gomes or any of Enrique’s other deputies are up to the task.