What next for Barcelona and Ernesto Valverde?
Barcelona's season came to an unhappy, premature end when they lost 5-4 to Levante on La Liga's penultimate weekend. Like a house of cards collapsing as you place the final one, the defeat killed off Barca's hopes for the first unbeaten Spanish campaign since Real Madrid won 10 and drew eight in 1931/32.
Ernesto Valverde's side closed from 5-1 down, but many Cules are upset the manager elected to rest Lionel Messi. Given the club's performances when their talisman has not been in the lineup, or on the rare bad day, as in Rome, it seemed an unnecessary gamble with something still at stake. That Barcelona went to South Africa for a friendly on Wednesday didn't lighten the mood.
The Blaugrana must now play their final game of the season with nothing at stake. Fans will put their anger aside to celebrate Andrew Iniesta's career and bid him farewell in his last match at the Nou Camp.
However, Barcelona won't stop because Iniesta is gone. Thoughts will turn to how the club can progress next season. Here are my extensive thoughts on the matter.
Valverde has made enemies in recent weeks, myself included. Is it harsh to question a coach who lost one of his best players before going on to win a domestic double? Or made it 36 games into a La Liga campaign unbeaten? Maybe, but things have gone sour over the last month or so.
Many fans blamed the former Athletic Bilbao boss for the Roma debacle that evicted the club from the Champions League despite a 4-1 first-leg advantage. The complaint then was Valverde hadn't rotated the side, leading to fatigue.
Few have approved his actions since the Roma loss. Once Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League, all that remained was the Copa del Rey final and an undefeated league season. For some bizarre reason, Valverde decided this was the time to start rotating the squad.
He had a lucky escape when a second-string side managed to secure a 2-2 draw away to Celta de Vigo just before the Copa final. With that competition won, the fans' focus turned to keeping the zero in the loss column. So, Valverde left Messi out of the matchday squad for Levante. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite fan unrest and my recommendation, the only reason Valverde won't be in the Barcelona dugout in 2018/19 is that he chooses to leave. He has led the club to a domestic double. That will tick all the necessary boxes for the board.
With Valverde almost certain to stay, it's best to look at Barcelona's needs next season in terms of his favoured formation.
Valverde employs a 4-4-2 in defence. When attacking, it transforms into a 3-3-1-3. Jordi Alba becomes a left winger. Iniesta tucks into central midfield alongside Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto, who moves forward from his right back position. Sergio Busquets usually slots in beside Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti at the back. The right midfielder pushes forward to play to the right of Luis Suarez. Lionel Messi pulls the strings from between midfield and attack.
With that in mind, here's a look at who Barcelona should keep, sell, and target to help the club battle for honours in the 2018/19 campaign.
Ideally, nothing should change between the sticks. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is coming off a career-best season. He is pushing that group of elite goalkeepers to be among the best in the world. The German will no doubt be number one next season.
Having a goalkeeper of Jasper Cillessen's quality in reserve is a credit to the club. The Dutchman has been consistent since arriving at the Nou Camp, rarely letting the club down.
Cillessen's personal ambitions will be the only reason for new business in goal. If he is happy to play second fiddle to ter Stegen, he will be kept. If not, Barcelona should let him go, even though it would be difficult to find as solid a replacement.
Sergi Roberto is first-choice and rightfully so. Originally pencilled into midfield, the move has brought out his best qualities.
Nelson Semedo is his backup but doesn't fit into Valverde's system. The 24-year-old's pace often rescues him defensively, but Barcelona are unbalanced when the Portuguese plays. Only signed last season, he'll likely be retained but must work to fit into Valverde's plans.
Douglas has been on loan this season. It's doubtful Benfica want to keep him. Barca must offload the Brazilian, be it through sale, loan or outright release.
Jordi Alba has a fantastic partnership with Lionel Messi. The Argentine loves to play the ball over opposing defences into Alba's path. The tactic ranks among the Blaugrana's most lethal. Messi will want the Spaniard to remain, and what Leo wants, Leo gets. There is absolutely no doubt that Alba will remain.
That said, speed is the 29-year-old's greatest asset. His legs are going to go at some point. Barcelona need to be ready.
Lucas Digne is rarely better than average as the second choice. The club might be best served to bring in some money for him.
Nineteen-year-old Marc Cucurella is with Barcelona B. Highly rated, he should be given the occasional game to spell Alba as a transition into the older man's replacement.
Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti are the clear starters. World class on his best days, Pique remains prone to daftness that simply won't be coached out of him at 31-years-old. Umtiti has been outstanding and improves every week.
A big task this summer will be to sort the Frenchman's contract. His release clause is well within the Premier League's 'no need to think twice' range. A class act, the club should do everything to tie him down long term.
There is a huge gulf in talent beyond the top pair. Normally, I would recommend selling Thomas Vermaelen but, in these circumstances, he's the one alternative who should stay on the books for another year. Los Cules need a veteran as the third-choice centre back. There's little point trying to engineer a like-for-like change in the market. The club would almost certainly take a loss.
Either Yerry Mina or Marlon Santos will be fourth in the pecking order.
Mina arrived in January. Like so many winter signings, he struggled to make an immediate impact. He shouldn't be written off yet as he's still young.
Marlon was on loan at Nice this season, where he had a mixed year. Valverde should bring both players on the preseason tour to see who performs better.
The youngsters should be monitored closely over the next season. Barcelona ought to be seeking a long-term replacement for Pique. The sooner they know whether the solution lies in-house or on the market, the better.
Ousmane Dembele owns the position despite a difficult freshman season at the club. Under pressure from the start due to his exorbitant fee, a serious injury didn't help. When he returned to fitness, it seemed he lacked the manager's trust. The summer offers a new start, however. If the Frenchman can stay fit through preseason, he should be able to grow into the role and meet Valverde's expectations.
Secondary options are poor. Aleix Vidal was originally signed as a right back but Valverde values him further up the pitch. Even then, his opportunities have been limited. He clearly isn't an adequate backup.
The other option is Gerard Deulofeu. The fact Valverde allowed him to leave on loan suggests he isn't the answer either. If Vidal and Deulofeu are sold, Barca will need to purchase an insurance policy for Dembele.
The next Iniesta?
I know, I know. You can't replace a player or a man like Andres Iniesta. His departure will leave a huge void.
The person who will take over the position is Philippe Coutinho. While unavailable in Europe, the Brazilian has settled remarkably well since arriving from Liverpool in January. He can play in a number of positions but he's as good a replacement as you can get for a club legend. He should thrive as a left midfielder who will come inside to support Messi as a second playmaker.
Denis Suarez is the next-most-likely suspect. There is a Cule faction who rate him. I don't attend their meetings and would let him leave.
Personally, I'd love to see Carles Alena get some minutes in games where Coutinho is rested or assumes a different role. The 20-year-old has looked promising in fleeting appearances. There's a huge gap between Barcelona B and the senior side, so it remains to be seen whether the young Catalan can produce consistently. If I had a vote, he'd be given the chance.
Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets have manned the middle this season. While everyone has been on the Busquets train for a long time, Rakitic has enjoyed a magnificent season under Valverde. Never your typical Barcelona midfielder, the Croat has been a target of Cule ire, but other than Messi he has been Barcelona's best player this season.
Paulinho has come a long way from the man who couldn't juggle a ball for curious fans at his unveiling. His skill set is limited, but he is among the few Barcelona players willing to venture beyond the forwards and break lines. That can be a match-winning attribute when teams defend as deeply as they often do against Barcelona.
Rafinha is also effective. Unfortunately, he may sign permanently for Inter after a successful loan spell with the Nerazzurri. It was a mistake to let his brother, Thiago Alcantara, go. Saying goodbye to Rafinha is just as ridiculous.
Sergi Samper and Andre Gomes fill out the midfield corps.
Samper went on loan to Las Palmas, was injured early and has been out since. While a fan favourite, he probably doesn't have what it takes to make it at Barcelona. The 23-year-old should either be sold or loaned out again.
Gomes must also be sent out into the world. The former Valencia man never made the impact expected.
Lionel Messi is Barcelona's creative hub and will remain so. When fit, he should start all games. Valverde could manage the Argentine better by lifting him when Barcelona is well ahead in the second half. Had he done that this season, the club might still be pursuing an undefeated season.
The problem with resting Messi from the start is the squad has forgotten how to play without him. Remember how he had to come off the bench to rescue the Sevilla match? If he's injured next season, the new plan is to bring Coutino into the number 10 slot. Of course, that leaves a talent gap in midfield.
Luis Suarez plays in front of Messi. Despite scoring 25 times, fans are losing faith. He's 31, but a quarter-century in goals indicates there is fuel in the tank.
If anything, Suarez was the player most impacted by Valverde's formational shift. At times, he was isolated, left alone. It's only natural that scoring became more difficult. Barcelona would be crazy to let him go.
His second, Paco Alcacer, has been disappointing. It took forever to score his first goal. Admittedly, his opportunities have been limited, but it's because Suarez is clearly the better player. Alcacer is only given minutes when the Uruguayan is being rested or injured.
Munir El Haddadi is a more viable alternative. The 22-year-old has enjoyed a decent season on loan at Alaves, scoring 10 goals. Barca could do worse than bring him back as a squad player. Spanish-born of Moroccan parentage, he can do a job as a backup striker, but also man the wings when required.
Everyone is talking about the Frenchman trading the Wanda Metropolitano for the Nou Camp. The Atleti forward is a great player but doesn't fit the current formation. If he comes, then everything I've just written is for nought. Valverde will have to employ a new strategy. Barca may feel it's time to move on from Suarez but Griezmann isn't a typical number nine. He does his best work off a main striker, Diego Costa, for instance. That's Messi's role. If the rumours are true, it's a clear indicator Valverde has a new plan.
An area Barcelona definitely need to strengthen is midfield. Were I making the call, the team would be in the market for two central midfielders and a right-winger.
One space may be filled by Arthur Melo of Gremio. The 21-year-old midfielder is excellent in possession but also possesses an uncanny knack for intercepting passes and picking up loose balls. It's not so much he hunts them as they find him.
The Brazilian is tagged to arrive in January, suggesting he's not in Valverde's immediate plans.
If Arthur isn't arriving in summer, Barcelona need someone else, especially if the club do jettison Gomes, Samper and Rafinha. Veratti would be the ultimate signing. Barca chased the Italian relentlessly last summer only for Paris Saint-Germain to turn the tables by swooping in for Neymar on that giant €222 million raptor from Avatar. Once burned, twice shy, they say.
Jean Michael Seri
With Verratti seemingly off the table, there are two outstanding alternatives. Barcelona came close to signing the Ivorian last summer. Instead, he has enjoyed another stellar season with Nice. Several English clubs have also been linked but he fits the profile of a Barcelona midfielder.
Another midfielder who can look after the ball, the Napoli star would slot into a Barcelona lineup nicely. He would be a star right away.
Ligue 1 is the world's bazaar when it comes to right wings. Barcelona could sign either the Bordeaux or Lyon starlet. Both are up and coming players who could support or replace Dembele. Even better, they can be had for value.
Or none of the above
It's almost impossible to guess what Barcelona will do in the summer. When it comes to the game's biggest clubs, everyone has an opinion. The hard truth is Barca are expected to compete on all fronts. At present, the gulf between Valverde's preferred XI and their reserves is far too wide. Until that's addressed, Barca won't win every trophy for which they're eligible, regardless supporters' demands. There is work to be done.