Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea, once titans of European soccer, have seen their eras of dominance fade into history. Revered in their prime, they’re now grappling with the challenges of transition.

A new generation emerged, along with fresh manager appointments, backed by resources and media attention.

Yet, their struggles are evident: Barcelona finds itself in third place in La Liga, and Manchester United ended at the bottom of their Champions League group. At the same time, Chelsea can only dream of European places.

Where did things go wrong for these former champions?

Barcelona and Xavi

Xavi Hernández was appointed after Barcelona sacked club legend Ronald Koeman after a disastrous 0-1 defeat against Rayo Vallecano. 

Xavi had just come from his inaugural season as a manager with the Qatari club Al-Sadd.

The legendary midfielder, widely favoured for the role, promised to reach new heights with the team. Unfortunately for him, the club was unable to fulfill all his transfer requests. 

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This limitation was evident in Barcelona’s approach to player acquisitions. The club resorted to loans and signings that, though not inherently poor choices, didn’t quite match the ambitious standards typically associated with a club of Barcelona’s calibre. 

Players like Eric García, Ferrán Torres, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were signed, while Adama Traoré was brought in on a loan. 

These moves, while sensible, were constrained by the strict Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules of La Liga and the crippling debt accumulated during the tenure of Joan Laporta’s predecessor, Bartomeu.

Instead, Xavi’s first season was more focused on managing player departures to alleviate the club’s financial burden and remove underperforming elements from the squad.

This aspect is crucial because Xavi, as a manager, has not yet reached the world-class status he attained as a player. Consequently, the Catalan is not fully ready to lead a club like Barcelona. 

Over time, the club has made more notable signings, including Andreas Christensen, Jules Koundé, Robert Lewandowski, and Ilkay Gündogan.

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However, the team’s composition predominantly oscillates between very young talents (like academy players or emerging stars, such as Pedri, Gavi, Alejandro Baldé, and Ronald Araújo) and veterans nearing the twilight of their careers (such as Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Robert Lewandowski, and Ilkay Gündogan).

This dichotomy in the squad’s age and experience levels results in an imbalance that poses its own set of challenges.

But more importantly, this situation meant that Xavi Hernández, whose coaching philosophy involves delegating significant responsibility to his players, found himself in a position akin to the Danaides of Greek mythology, faced with an insurmountable task due to numerous challenges.

In many respects, Xavi’s Barcelona operates effectively.

Yet, the combination of inexperienced youth and aging veterans creates a complex dynamic that even his leadership and strategic approach struggle to reconcile fully.

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Given the stature of Barcelona as a club, there’s an inherent expectation for immediate results, forcing Xavi to focus on short-term solutions rather than his own development as a manager. This pressure has restricted his ability to experiment with new strategies or explore different tactical possibilities. 

Much like Daniel thrown into the Lion’s Den, Xavi finds himself in a precarious situation with limited escape routes, leading to potential setbacks in his managerial journey. 

This is evident in Barcelona’s current situation, now in Xavi’s third season, where the team is lacking in several key positions. For instance, there’s no proper left-winger to date – Ansu Fati was loaned to Brighton.

Joao Felix, whose future purchase seems unlikely, has been performing moderately but not convincingly enough to secure his place at the club.

Meanwhile, the club was unable to fulfill Xavi’s keen interest in signing Martín Zubimendi from Real Sociedad, as the Basque defensive midfielder opted to extend his contract with his current club.

In response, Barcelona brought in Oriol Romeu from Girona.

However, Romeu has struggled to make a positive impact at Barcelona, becoming somewhat of an ‘Ugly Duckling’ in the team and failing to impress the fans and critics alike.

Xavi’s tenure at Barcelona tells the tale of a team led by a coach whose philosophy remained largely theoretical, a coach struggling to imprint his vision amid pressure for immediate results. 

This scenario has hindered the natural development and implementation of his ideas.

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The team’s trajectory has been marked by a lack of strategic planning, reactive decision-making in response to external pressures, and a general uncertainty about its direction at all levels – from the board to the players and through to the coach. 

There’s a pervasive sense of doubt, with different factions within the club seemingly pulling in their own directions rather than committing to a unified project. This lack of coherence in the board’s planning is a critical issue, one that mirrors challenges faced by other clubs, as it will be eventually shown.

Manchester United and Ten Hag

Erik Ten Hag arrived at Manchester United from Ajax, a club with a distinct and effective structure. 

In the 2018-2019 season, his Ajax team made a remarkable run in Europe, defeating top teams like Juventus and Real Madrid and advancing to the Champions League semi-finals.

This success showcased talents like Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech, and Matthijs de Ligt, turning Ajax into a hunting ground for Europe’s elite clubs. As a result, Ajax’s core was completely dismantled: De Jong moved to Barcelona, De Ligt to Juventus, Ziyech to Chelsea, and Van de Beek to Manchester United. 

However, a critical aspect of this success was the club’s structure.

Ten Hag, as head coach, had a say in transfer decisions but wasn’t deeply involved in the process. With Marc Overmars as the Director Of Football, Ten Hag could focus on coaching. 

But after Overmars left Ajax following sexual harassment allegations, Ten Hag was drawn to the challenge of managing the legendary Manchester United.

The fundamental issue at Manchester United lies in the absence of a cohesive soccer structure.

Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2012, a succession of managers, including Louis Van Gaal, José Mourinho, and Ole Solskjær, have come and gone, yet none have been able to restore the club to its former glory.

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Each of these managers made several transfer decisions but often faced challenges in getting board approval for their desired signings. 

The ownership of Manchester United, primarily business-oriented, places a strong emphasis on immediate results. This focus on performance, often at the expense of long-term soccer strategy, has led to a cycle of quick managerial turnovers.

If a coach fails to deliver the expected outcomes, the club, driven by its economic motivations, does not hesitate to make a change. 

The issues at Manchester United become apparent when examining Erik ten Hag’s tenure. Initially, Ten Hag’s started well, aiming to implement his philosophy of short build-ups and a team moving cohesively up and down the pitch, reminiscent of Michel’s approach at Girona.

However, the club struggled to recruit midfielders who could adapt to and execute these tactics effectively. 

Wingers like Jadon Sancho and Anthony, who excelled at Dortmund and Ajax respectively, have not replicated their previous form at Manchester United. Moreover, the club’s choice for a defensive midfielder under Ten Hag was Casemiro.

While a skilled player, Casemiro’s style does not align perfectly with Ten Hag’s system; he lacks the ability to bypass high-press defences and struggles with building up play independently, often requiring support.

A similar issue arose with the acquisition of Amrabat last summer, who shares Casemiro’s limitation in this system.

The only midfielder who seems to fit Ten Hag’s ideal partially is Mainoo, a young talent from the academy.

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As such, the pressure for immediate results forced Erik Ten Hag to deviate from his core principles; he found himself in a dilemma, losing sight of his original vision without achieving the desired outcomes.

Progress within the team has stalled, and even once-prominent players like Rashford are losing their lustre. Martial’s frequent absences due to injuries add to the team’s challenges.

This shift to short-termism, driven by the intense pressure and scrutiny of the media, has contributed to the downfall of yet another manager at a major club, struggling to adapt to the high-stakes environment of Manchester United.

Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino

If there’s one club that’s known for instability, it’s most definitely Chelsea. For years, they were ruled by Putin-related Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.

He was part of a group of Russians that took advantage of the post-communist fall to engage in activities often mired in controversy. Abramovich’s close connections with Putin reportedly enabled him to avoid the level of taxation typically imposed on conventional businessmen.

His acquisition of Chelsea, a prominent London-based club, was funded by this fortune and his approach to management was defined by a focus on immediate results and financial investment.

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This philosophy led to a high turnover of managers, each bringing their own unique style. From Carlo Ancelotti to José Mourinho and Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea has seen a wide array of managerial approaches.

This diversity in leadership has often led to the club shifting its project focus with each new manager, resulting in significant expenditure on player transfers each summer to align the squad with the respective manager’s vision.

The onset of the Ukrainian war marked a turning point for Chelsea and Abramovich. In response to the conflict, the English government moved to freeze Russian assets, a measure that directly impacted Abramovich.

Consequently, he was compelled to relinquish control of the club and proceed with its sale.

The new owner, American businessman Todd Boehly, entered the world of soccer with considerable ambition but little experience. Since his arrival, Chelsea has spent over £600 million on player transfers alone. 

While such a significant investment might seem beneficial in attracting a new coach like Pochettino, the reality of managing a squad with over 30 players in the dressing room is a nightmare for any manager. 

Reports from the Athletic highlighted the practical issues arising from such an inflated roster, including instances where some players were unable to find seating in the dressing room due to the sheer number of players that were signed by Boehly. 

Managing Chelsea has become an overwhelmingly complex task for any coach. The squad is predominantly young and inexperienced, with players like Mudryk, a recent arrival from Ukraine, and Enzo Fernández, who also has limited top-level experience. 

The lack of time for development exacerbates this challenge. Additionally, frequent injuries to key players, like Thiago Silva and ex-Leipzig star Nkunku, who suffered a preseason injury, have added to the chaos.

Despite positive additions like Cole Palmer, integrating so many new players into a coherent team structure is daunting, perhaps even infeasible for some.

A core issue is Chelsea’s tendency to sign a multitude of players without sufficient input from the coach.

This leaves the coach struggling to find an effective team strategy in a limited time frame. Players who require personalized coaching, such as Mudryk, don’t receive the attention they need due to the sheer effort and time such coaching demands.

Ironically, Chelsea previously let go of two key defenders—Antonio Rüdiger to Real Madrid and Andreas Christensen to Barcelona— without adequate replacements, further destabilizing the team’s structure.

Consequently, even as coach Mauricio Pochettino has made some progress with players like Conor Gallagher and Mudryk, the lack of consistency remains a significant issue in the high-pressure environment of Chelsea.

On the board-coach-player relationships

The disconnect between club boards, coaches, and players often lies at the heart of many soccer clubs’ challenges, particularly in cases like Manchester United and Chelsea. 

The issue primarily stems from the boards’ unrealistic expectations and limited understanding of the intricacies of soccer management.

Many owners enter the scene with grand ambitions or little practical knowledge of the sport, expecting the clubs to rectify their issues independently. While investment is frequent, patience and a willingness to engage with the process of team building are often lacking.

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A key aspect often overlooked by many investors is the importance of establishing structures that empower managers and allow them to excel. Soccer, at its core, is driven by human elements – the skills and personalities of players and coaches. 

However, directors frequently prioritize immediate results instead of the long-term development of a quality team that resonates with fans. This approach leads to a disconnect with the realities of the sport, setting the stage for potential failure. 

The pressure on managers is exacerbated by media scrutiny, which often overlooks the broader context in favour of focusing on immediate outcomes.

It’s important to recognize that successful team development in soccer typically takes three to five years.

For instance, Liverpool went trophyless for seven years before Jürgen Klopp grabbed the first major title with the Merseyside club. Similarly, despite substantial financial resources, it took Pep Guardiola around seven years to win his first Champions League with Manchester City. 

The path to improvement in soccer is rarely linear, particularly given the increasing number of games played each season.

This intense schedule can put immense pressure on managers, who often lack sufficient support and are expected to exhibit unwavering toughness. But is the human element – the emotions, growth, and connections – not arguably the most rewarding aspect of any victory?

The journey, with all its ups and downs, is often more meaningful than the end goal itself. 

However, many clubs, including the three highlighted earlier, have failed to recognize the value of this journey. Instead, they folded under pressure and opted for short-term solutions, which, while providing immediate relief, can be detrimental in the long run. 

This approach stems from opportunistic and profit-driven mindsets, disregarding the time and effort required for genuine development.

The saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day” aptly applies to soccer management. Success and glory in this field demand patience, sacrifices, and a commitment to a long-term vision.

Until these clubs shift their focus from immediate results to allowing managers the time and space to develop their teams, regaining their former prestige and success may remain an elusive goal.

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