There is only one word to describe FC Barcelona's 2020-21 season: dramatic. It had a mixture of off-field drama, on-field success and failure in equal measure.
Even before the season began, the news of Lionel Messi wanting to leave Barcelona began hogging the headlines in the summer of 2020. On the back of a humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals, Messi sent a burofax to the Barcelona hierarchy asking to be released from the club with one year still left on his contract.
The entire episode ended on a sour note, with Messi accusing Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu of backtracking on his promise to free him from his contract based on a technicality. The clause stated that Messi had to submit his request before June as per the contract. Messi didn't submit the request in time as the season was extended until August because of the pandemic.
If this wasn't enough, there was also a clearing out of many senior players from the club. The departure of Luis Suarez to direct league rivals Atletico Madrid, and the inability to replace him adequately was a major low point for the club. With numerous problems on and off the field, and a new coach in the dugout, there was an aura of negativity surrounding the club.
Poor Start to the Season for Barcelona
The Catalans had an extremely lackluster start to the season. With only 14 points in the first 10 games in La Liga, it was their worst start since the 1987-88 season.
The only positive during this period was a 2-0 win against Juventus in the Champions League group stage. But after a shaky start, Barcelona slowly began improving and went on a 19-game unbeaten streak. The upward change coincided with Messi hitting form and Koeman's decision to revert to a 3-5-2 system made the Blaugrana tick in attack and shore up their defence.
Positives for the season
The emergence of Spanish midfielder Pedri was definitely the highlight of the club's season. Signed by Barcelona from Spanish second division team Las Palmas, the 17-year old was a revelation during the 2020/21 season.
Pedri was initally expected to ply his trade with Barcelona B during his first season but Koeman was clearly impressed with the youngster in training and decided to throw him into the first team from the start. The move paid rich dividends as Pedri dropped some excellent performances throughout the season.
With his deft touches, clever back heel passes and a telepathic connection with Messi, Pedri was a breath of fresh air in a Barca set-up that began placing its trust in the youth again. He played the most games for Barcelona in 2020/21, notching up 52 appearances. The stats themselves are mind-blowing and are rare even for the most seasoned players. Only Antonio Puertas from Granada with 53 appearances played more than Pedri out of sides in the Spanish top-flight.
Frenkie de Jong was another player who benefitted the most from Koeman joining Barcelona. Having played in a defensive midfield role the previous season, de Jong was moved to a more advanced midfield position by his former national team coach. He scored seven goals & provided five assists in his most productive season yet.
Antoine Griezmann is another player who has shown marked improvement compared to last season. He scored 20 goals and assisted a further seven - a vast improvement on his first season with Barcelona. His French compatriot Ousmane Dembele finally seems to have shrugged off his injury concerns. Dembele appeared in 44 matches in 2020/21, the most he has managed in his 4 year stay at Barcelona. In this injury-free spell, Koeman trusted Dembele more than Griezmann to partner Messi upfront as his speed gave Barcelona width, pace and an extra edge in attack.
Another highlight of the season was a renewed focus on youngsters and specifically La Masia graduates. Clearly taking inspiration from his idol Johan Cryuff, Koeman promoted several B-team players to the first team.
Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo and Ilaix Moriba played major roles throughout the season. A bit-part role for Riqui Puig was largely criticized, but there is hope that the situation will change in the 2021/22 season. The season-ending injury to Ansu Fati early on was also a major blow for the Catalans as he started the season brightly as the focal point in attack following Suarez's departure.
“It is clear that we are proud to let young people from grassroots football in. We do it because they deserve it, there are people like Pedri, Ilaix, Riqui, Araujo, Mingueza ... They are the future of the club," said Koeman about the young guns in his Barcelona side.
Sergino Dest, a summer signing from Ajax, was excellent at right-back. With Jordi Alba on the other flank, the USA international played the role of a flying wing back in the 3-5-2 system to great effect. At only 20 years of age, Barcelona finally seem to have found a potential heir to Dani Alves. The Barcelona legend himself has given very simple advice to Dest to succeed at the club: 'Pass the ball to Messi!"
In addition to the youngsters, Messi and Sergio Busquets turned the clock back with some fantastic football at the start of 2021 and led Barca to some excellent results. Messi was once again the top goalscorer in La Liga and won the Pichichi trophy by scoring 30 goals, seven clear of second-placed Gerard Moreno.
The Blaugrana, on the back of these results, also went on to win the Copa del Rey. It was a hard fought win as Barcelona played 3 games that went into extra time against Sevilla, Granada & Cornella. The Sevilla & Granada games were especially memorable as the Catalans had to come back from 2 goals down on both occasions to progress. The Copa win was important for the club after a trophy-less 19/20 season and was also the first major honour for many of the young players in the team.
Negatives for the season
The off-field issues before the start of the season clearly affected the team that led to a slow start. Even when Barca began playing better and were picking up points, there was a clear lack of consistency. This was expected because of the departure of many senior players and the inclusion of several inexperienced youngsters in the first team.
The ups and downs were clearly on show against the big teams. Barcelona lost or drew all their matches against the big guns in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League (UCL). The 0-2 away success against Juventus in the UCL group stage was the only exception.
Barca lost 0-3 to Juventus in the return fixture to finish second in their group. The loss meant the Catalans were drawn against a fantastic Paris Saint-Germain side in the Round of 16. Barca lost the first leg 1-4 and drew the second leg 1-1 to exit the tournament, with the Parisians emphatically proving that the Blaugrana have quite some distance to go to challenge for the UCL again.
A similar thing happened in La Liga against the big teams. Barcelona lost both El Clasicos played during the season against Real Madrid. The second loss vs Real Madrid in particular was very painful to watch, as it ended their 19-match winning streak. Against Atletico Madrid, Barca lost one and drew another.
Even with these losses, Barca were in the title race until the very end of the season. At the end of Match day 30, the equation was very simple for FC Barcelona: win the remaining 8 matches and become La Liga champions. With a 5-2 win against Getafe & a 2-1 victory against Villarreal, Barcelona were off to a very good start. But with only 2 wins in the remaining 6 matches, Barcelona finished the season in 3rd position behind bitter rivals Real Madrid while Atletico lifted the league title.
Evidently, 2020/21 was a mixed bag for Barcelona. They had a trophy to show for their efforts, but could have made it a domestic double with a little more consistency. Despite the anticlimactic conclusion to the season, the 20/21 season can still be counted as a remote success for a Barcelona side that are clearly undergoing a transition period.
Ronald Koeman has laid a solid foundation with a core team of young and experienced players for the upcoming season. With the new board headed by Joan Laporta handing Koeman a second year on the job and making smart acquisitions such as free transfers, Sergio Aguero and Eric Garcia, Barcelona can look forward to a brighter 2021/22 season.
With the confirmation of Lionel Messi continuing for another couple of seasons for Barca on the horizon, the sky is the limit for the Blaugrana in 2021/22