In truth, just two years ago Barcelona went through a week about this harrowing. That week went from a Wednesday through the next Tuesday in April. The bookends were a 0-1 loss at Stamford Bridge and a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the return to end their chances at a 2nd straight Champions League crown, and then a 1-2 loss at the Camp Nou to Real Madrid to cede the 2011-12 La Liga title to Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid. Barca had three games in 7 days, two at home, and didn't win any of them, crashing out of the Champions League and losing the La Liga race.
They responded by having a dominant 2012-13 domestic campaign, going 32-4-2 (W-L-D), scoring 115 goals and tying the record (set by Real Madrid the previous season) with 100 points. But behind that dominance lied some interesting results that already signaled the end of Barca was near. First, was their over-reliance on Messi, as the goals scored by Messi compared to the rest of the team rose to absurd levels. Messi scored 60 goals for Barcelona in all competitions in the 2012-13 season. That's incredible. The next highest scorer? Pedro... at 13. That's also incredible. There was never that discrepancy. La Liga defenses aren't that good, so Messi tore those up (46 goals in 33 games), but international competition proved tougher. They played 6 knockout games in the Champions League and won exactly one of them, a 'last-moment-of-brilliance' 4-0 win over AC Milan to advance to the Quarterfinals (a big result since they lost 0-2 in the San Siro). What followed were two draws against PSG, winning the tie on away goals as they drew 2-2 in Paris and 1-1 at home, and then the true nadir, the 0-7 aggregate waxing Bayern Munich put on them. That was the beginning.
This bad run of play isn't new. Sure, three straight losses hasn't happened for Barcelona since Lionel Messi was 16, but this bad run of play for Barcelona has basically been the norm since Jan 1st. On the start of 2014, Barcelona were 15-1-1 in La Liga. Since, they are just 10-2-4, netting just 30 out of a possible 48 points. That is really not very good. Some of the losses were just ridiculous, like losses to regulation contending teams like Real Valladolid and Grenada. These are bad results. This is what happens when a team that prides itself on being the 'purest' form of football runs terribly afoul at the highest level.
Lost in Barcelona's early success in the 2013-14 campaign was the sudden resignation of Team President Sandro Rossell. He resigned over the investigation into the true nature of the transfer fee paid out to get Neymar. They claimed the fee was one thing, but it ended up being far, far more, forcing the President out of a job and the club to pay tax dollars they tried to evade. And that even doesn't count how shady the transfer fee looks when more than half of the money is paid to a corporation owned by Neymar's father.
Then two weeks ago came the news that Barcelona has been slapped with a transfer ban for two transfer windows (essentially through the 2014-15 Europe Club Season), because of some nefarious methods Barcelona used to acquire international youth players for their youth academy. 'La Masia' as it is refered to, was the long-standing pride of Barcelona, so much that Barca higher-ups would never forego a chance to expound the values of La Masia and how they build their stars while 'the others', namely Real Madrid, buy them. Well, now La Masia came under fire, and Barcelona may not be able to fix the problems that are currently messing up the club.
The final piece of internal strife is over the manager position. Gerardo 'Tata' Martino is coming under fire for Barcelona's poor performance, and for good reason. This is going to be Barcelona's worst campaign since 2007-08, the first year of Pep Guardialo's run before Messi was Messi. His hiring was strange, as he was plucked from Newell's Old Boys, a club in Argentina. He had no European coaching experience, and was seemingly hand-picked by Leo Messi himself, in a sign that his influence in the club was growing exponentially. Now Tata is failing to do anything new with the club, as his adjustments have just made them worse.
It isn't like Barcelona is suddenly a bad team. They still have a ton of skilled players. Their larger issue is they have no depth, and while the club has extolled its purist virtues, trying to make splashy, uneccesary signings and overlooking the true problems have killed the team. For years, people have said that Barcelona needs better fullbacks. This wasn't said at the height of the Guardiola days. Those days are interesting, since Barcelona's defenses were impeccable in those days. With Puyol and Pique healthy, in their prime, and Erik Abidal (or Maxwell) on the outside, and Toure Yaya playing the Busquets role, they were great defenses. In Guardiola's last three seasons, they gave up 24-21-29 goals in La Liga. They gave up 40 last year.
Over the years, Puyol started becomingly constantly hurt, while Pique has gotten older. What was the brilliant idea that Barcelona came up with? Move Javier Mascherona, a career defensive midfielder, to fullback. He's been out of position for three years and a liability from the beginning. Intsead of going outside to get someone, they've relied on untested La Masia players (in fairness, Marc Bartra - ability to get burned by Bale aside - is becoming a decent fullback) or moving other guys back. They desperately need both depth and youth in their back line, a problem that isn't easily solvable considering they can't make transfers for a year.
But then there's the offense. For all their defensive woes, the first two of their three losses were 0-1 (although Atletico Madrid should have had at least three). They seemingly have been found out by any competent defensive team. When was the last time they just scorched a good team, like they did to Real back in 2010, or Aresenal in the Champions League? When was the last time they made a good team look foolish. Back in the day when Chelsea first did it in 2009, parking the bus and playing all out defense and trying to pick one or two up on the counter, Barcelona players, management and supporters decried their opponents of playing 'negative football'. See for Barca, it wasn't about just winning, but winning beautifully. Now, they aren't doing either.
Tiki-Taka style football worked in the Pep days for two reasons: his back four was good enough to allow his front six to all-out press knowing if their opponent breaks the press the back line is good enough to stop them, and because Xavi and Iniesta were better players then than they are now. Those two can still come up with brilliant moments, but their passing isn't as sharp, their movement isn't as good, and that beautiful inventiveness is kind of gone, at least against good competition.
They need a plan B, but Barcelona, and this is a criticism even in the Pep era, has never been able to develop a Plan B. They've tried bringing in Real #9 type players to go up top like they had with Eto'o back in 2008-09, but they've all failed, from Ibrahimovic to David Villa, to even Neymar now. They've brought in Cesc Fabregas, but never had the space for him to play like he did at Arsenal, moving him to unconventional places with average results. The only forwards that worked were La Masia products like Pedro and Alexis. Now, with depth and age concerns sprucing up, Barcelona is basically trying to play exactly like Barcelona from 2010, but with worse or older players.
In Tata Martino's defense, he is trying to put in place a Plan B, like trying to play more directly, trying to play with more verticality, trying more conventional routes to scoring like more and more high crosses, but they don't have the players to do that. They have the players to play tiki-taka, but teams know how to defend Tiki-Taka.
The biggest problem Barcelona is facing is that there is no easy way out. Assuming the transfer ban does not get overturned (and since the ban is coming from FIFA and not UEFA, overturning it seems unlikely) they have no way of going out and getting good defenders that they desperately need. They can't stop the aging process from making Xavi worse, or Iniesta, or Messi himself. There are problems facing Barcelona on the field and off it, and the one's off it are more systemic and possibly larger. The group running Barcelona hasn't really done much good since Sandro Rossell replaced Joan Laporta. It was the Rossell regime that brought in Fabregas for no reason, with no natural place to play him, just because they wanted the La Masia product to return home. It was his regime that brought in Neymar with similar concerns under shady tactics. He's gone, but the infighting remains.
In the end, Barcelona's off the field issues will probably impact the on the field issues, which is sad since the on the field issues aren't that great. 0-7 loss to Bayern aside, this isn't a team that lost any of these games badly. They're still very good. They still have one of the two best players in the world in what should be his prime. They still have a player in Neymar who was doing well when Messi went through myriad injury issues in October-January. They still have loads of money to buy players. But the buying players part is where the off the field comes in, in that they can't for now. Who is going to replace Martino when he is eventually fired? Is Messi going to handpick another coach? Are there going to be any shady hirings and signings?
What really hurts Barcelona is that they have massive competition in Spain right now. Madrid's already won a trophy, is alive in the Champions League and ahead of them in La Liga. Atletico Madrid can say the same for the second two things. Both of those two teams have managers who's identity is all over their teams, with Diego Simeone doing with Atletica what Jurgen Klopp has done with Dortmund, and Carlo Ancelotti has done wonders in his first seasons at Real Madrid. Both teams are in great shape, and Madrid has the resources to hang onto their players. We shall see how Barca reacts. For years they thought of themselves as 'more than a club', and now they aren't, they are just that, a club, and have to do what any club does: rebuild and reload. The quicker they can remember they aren't more than a club, the quicker they can go back to being one.