Flops, thrashings and financial ruin: A timeline of how it all went wrong for Barcelona

Lionel Messi
(Image credit: Getty)

In 2015, Barcelona looked unstoppable. An unshakeable brand of football had just defeated a gritty Juventus in the Champions League final and Barca had arguably the greatest frontline of all time. The present was glorious; the future looked bright.

Fast-forward seven years into the future and virtually everything has changed. Barca have been humiliated on the European stage. They've been outsmarted in the transfer market. They've made bad decision after bad decision and karma's come calling over and over again – now, they've dropped into the Europa League two terms on the trot. 

It barely looks like the same club. This hallowed institution is a shell of itself. How did we get here?

August 2017: Neymar leaves, paving the way for Ousmane Dembele

Ousmane Dembele

(Image credit: PA)

There were questionable decisions being made at the Camp Nou long before he left - but you can pinpoint the moment that Barcelona took an obvious turn for the worse when talismanic Brazilian showpony Neymar departs.

And it comes utterly out of nowhere for the Catalan club. The forward had apparently been convinced to stay the season prior but Barca were not certainly expecting Neymar's €200 million release clause to be met any time soon. The much-celebrated MSN forward line is torn apart – and with it, a limb ripped from the team. 

Somewhat panicking at the prospect of losing such an electric forward, the club replaces him immediately with someone of equal creativity up top. The answer? Ousmane Dembele. The problem? Everyone knows that Barca had just received one hell of a windfall.

Dembele costs around £120m. It's incredible debatable whether he was ever worth this amount of money.

January 2018: Philippe Coutinho joins, just months later

Philippe Coutinho

(Image credit: PA)

Ousmane Dembele is ruled out for four months on his first league start for Barcelona. Understandably, the attack still struggles to click and so Barca look to strengthen in January.

Barcelona wanted Philippe Coutinho in the summer but had to hold out until January, signing him for an initial £105m, which could rise to £142m with various clauses being met.

Liverpool, meanwhile, reinvest the Coutinho money in Virgil van Dijk, getting to the Champions League final that season. Barca did not fare so well…

April 2018: Roma rise from their ruins

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A year after doing the 'remontada' against PSG, Barcelona are themselves handed a familiar fate, as they lose 3-0 in the Stadio Olimpico against Roma. Barca are sent out on away goals, after a 4-1 win at home. 

This is the first of a number of disastrous European nights. 

June to July 2018: Samuel Umtiti extends his contract, while Barca spend another £100m in transfers

Samuel Umtiti spends the summer of 2018 winning the World Cup with France and extends his stay at the Camp Nou with a bumper new deal. In the three years that would follow, however, he'd play just 49 times for Barcelona and that contract will become one of a number of millstones hanging around the club's neck.

Barca are extremely busy that summer, too, bringing in Clement Lenglet – who essentially replaced Umtiti immediately – along with Arthur, Arturo Vidal, Malcom and Jean-Clair Todibo. The club brought in roughly the same amount of money in fees but did they invest wisely? Yes, no and… not really. Only Lenglet remains from that window's business. 

May 2019: Liverpool turn around a three-goal deficit to knock Barca out of Europe

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Remember how well Liverpool used Barcelona's £100m? Well, they showed them in person, as a Reds side sans Salah and Mane destroy Barcelona 4-0 at Anfield in the Champions League semi-final.

This is the second successive season that Barca have been thrashed in a European knockout tie – and this one is particularly humiliating. Despite all the good that Ernesto Valverde had done in LaLiga, he's treading a tightrope from hereon-in thanks to back-to-back continental collapses. 

July 2019: Griezmann becomes Barcelona’s third £100m+ signing, as Coutinho leaves on loan

Antoine Griezmann

(Image credit: PA Images)

"Does a struggling salesman start turning up on a bicycle?" The Office's David Brent once mused. "No, he turns up in a newer car – perception, yeah?"

Taking this thinking on board, Barcelona shell out another nine-figure transfer fee, this time to Atletico Madrid for World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann. Philippe Coutinho is kicked to the curb and sent on loan to Bayern Munich for the season, while Frenkie De Jong joined for a whopping £67m - despite the fact that there's no obvious place for him in the side. 

January 2020: Ernesto Valverde is sacked, with Barcelona top of the league on goal difference

The title race is wide open and Barcelona are in the hunt. Despite this, the club decide to sack Valverde.

There were major doubts over the Spaniard after the Champions League humiliations but he had at least delivered two titles. His replacement, Quique Setien, has never won a major trophy as a manager. He does however talk the talk, using his unveiling to speak about his love of beautiful football and admiration for Johan Cruyff.

While it seems like a move towards a team that looks a little more like the Barca we all know and love, a midseason appointment certainly looks risky.

BEHIND THE SCENES How did Barcelona's academy lead to a club in crisis? The inside story of the death of La Masia

February 2020: Martin Braithwaite joins in controversial fashion

Barcelona striker Martin Braithwaite

(Image credit: PA Images)

A month after the transfer window closes – in which Barca do no business – the club take the decision to exercise emergency LaLiga protocol.

You see, Setien has no fit strikers at his disposal. Within the laws of the league, the Catalans are allowed to make a signing within the Spanish top flight: so they plump for former Middlesbrough forward Martin Braithwaite.

Braithwaite is at Leganes at the time, who took the decision to keep the Dane around for their relegation battle and instead sell their other forward Youssef En-Nesyri to Sevilla. Now, they're left up the creek without a target man: Leganes can do nothing about Braithwaite leaving and aren't granted with an emergency transfer themselves. 

Sure enough, Leganes lose their relegation battle and go down. It turns out that Barca don't even need Braithwaite, as COVID-19 postpones the season just weeks after his signing. Luis Suarez returns before the end of the season. Typical. 

April 2020: Lionel Messi speaks out about the COVID-enforced pay cuts at the club

People who follow Barcelona closely are worried about the captain. Lionel Messi speaks out during the pandemic to confirm that Barcelona's players will be taking a 70% pay cut, contrary to rumours coming from the club itself. 

"We want to clarify that our desire has always been for a reduction to be applied to our salaries because we understand that this is an exceptional situation and we are the first that have ALWAYS helped the club with what they have asked of us," Messi says in his statement. 

An exceptional situation this may be but it's extremely uncharacteristic for Messi to speak out himself about the club and it hints to a degree of unhappiness about rumblings behind the scenes. 

June 2020: A deal is made to effectively swap Arthur and Juventus’s Miralem Pjanic

Miralem Pjanic Juventus

(Image credit: PA Images)

Arthur's Barcelona career to this point has been solid if not spectacular. Still, the Brazilian schemer is shifted onto Juventus, with Bosnian Miralem Pjanic sent the other way. 

The fees are roughly similar for these two players, as some claim it's more of a book-balancing act than a tactical move. With Pjanic a whole six years older than Arthur though - and presumably on a much higher wage - questions of Barcelona's ageing squad are starting to be asked.

And anyway, do Barca need Busquets, De Jong and Pjanic? Oh, by the way, in the background of the business going on, Arda Turan leaves on a free transfer, marking another costly mistake in the market. 

July 2020: Barcelona lose the title to Real Madrid

Real Madrid

(Image credit: PA)

The midseason gamble to bring in Quique Setien does not pay off with another title. 

OK, it might be more of a long-term vision of how Barcelona want to play – but the new manager still hasn't found a surefire way to integrate Suarez, Messi and Griezmann into one cohesive frontline.

Real Madrid win the title, almost in Atletico-style defensive fashion, conceding few but also scoring few. Would Valverde have brought Barca closer to the title? We'll never know for sure. 

August 2020: You'd 8-2 be a Barca fan

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Setien's reign as Barcelona manager is brought to a swift full-stop following easily the worst of Barcelona's hat-trick of Champions League catastrophes. Bayern Munich obliterate the Catalans in the quarter-final in Lisbon, scoring eight times.

To add insult to injury, on-loan Coutinho scores two after coming on as a substitute late on. The loss becomes the biggest defeat in history in a Champions League knockout match.

Hours later, Netherlands boss and former Barcelona player Ronald Koeman is drafted in as manager. There are question marks about whether the ex-Everton and Southampton manager is really at the level needed to take Barca forward but Koeman's appointment is made to steady the ship. Some point to the fact that he's a club legend: others worry about Barca living in the past with another nostalgic appointment.

In other disappointing news, renovations to Camp Nou get postponed until 2025.

September 2020: Lionel Messi gives an interview venting his frustrations at the club, as close ally Luis Suarez moves to Atletico Madrid for free

Luis Suarez

(Image credit: Getty)

The rumours that Lionel Messi could leave Barcelona for Manchester City are finally cleared up in September, by the man himself. But perhaps not how many Barcelona fans would have liked.

Messi says that he wants to leave but can't. It's revealed that he's legally prevented from going this summer and will have to sit out the last year of his contract. 

To rub salt into the wounds for Leo, one of his best mates departs the club for a close rival. Luis Suarez's final match for Barcelona was that 8-2 drubbing, as he moves to the capital; Nelson Semedo and Ivan Rakitic also leave.

October 2020: President Josep Maria Bartomeu announces his resignation

In a colossal power struggle between him and Messi, Josep Maria Bartomeu resigns as president of Barcelona, along with the entire board of directors.

On his way out, Bartomeu casually drops the bomb that the club have agreed to join a European Super League. His exit is welcomed by the fans but again throws futures into question. 

March 2021: Joan Laporta is re-elected president, as Paris Saint-Germain knock Barcelona out of the Champions League

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Joan Laporta is back at the club. 

The man who ran Barcelona from 2003 to 2010 says that he will "do everything to ensure Messi continues", as many cast their votes because they feel Laporta has the best chance of keeping the little genius at the club.

Elsewhere, PSG dispose of Barcelona in the Champions League with ease. It's not quite the tragicomedy of previous years but highlights the gulf between the French champions and the Catalan giants, as Kylian Mbappe runs riot. 

April 2021: Barcelona are involved in the contentious Super League breakaway

Barcelona are one of the 12 founding members of the short-lived Super League. While reaction to the news in England is vitriolic, it's a lot more muted in Spain where many Real Madrid supporters back the idea. 

Still, it's hard to see the Super League as anything but a loss for Barcelona. If it really was the ticket to financial restructuring that the club were waiting for, it gets shattered within days, as LaLiga chief Javier Tebas watches with glee at the project toppling before the rebels' eyes. The very sight of Florentino Perez and Joan Laporta teaming up is an odd one and highlights just how desperate both Real and Barca perhaps were for this project. 

June 2021: Stars join for free, as Messi’s contract expires

Sergio Aguero Barcelona

(Image credit: PA)

LaLiga is cash-strapped. As Real Madrid welcome David Alaba onto the books without a transfer fee, Barca plot similar moves for big stars.

Sergio Aguero joins to link up with good pal Messi, while the long-coveted Memphis Depay joins on a free, too. Eric Garcia is back as well, having left the club as a youngster. 

Still, some Cules are concerned that Messi's contract is left to expire, with the club frantically re-negotiating the deal and working out a pay cut to keep him at the club. Why were Barca handing out big contracts to new signings before Messi? There's hope, at least, that the saga will be over soon. 

August 2021: Messi leaves Barcelona for free over financial problems at Barca

Lionel Messi Barcelona crying

(Image credit: PA)

Oops.

After long discussions, Messi agrees to extend his Barcelona deal, only for LaLiga to veto the decision due to financial issues at the club. Barcelona can't afford to keep Messi – even if he plays for free – and so it's announced that the Argentinian will leave.

There's a feeling that perhaps Barca are trying to play LaLiga's bluff, threatening to let the league's biggest commodity depart elsewhere. Tebas stands firm, however: the rules will not be bent for Barca.  

August 2021: Gerard Pique takes a pay cut in order to allow Barcelona to register their new signings

A Messi-less Barcelona are now scrambling to even register the players they've signed this summer. 

LaLiga's wage cap means that it's tight squeeze, so in the eleventh hour, defender Gerard Pique agrees to take a pay cut in order to accommodate Depay, Garcia and Aguero. It's not the ideal start to their Barca careers and not the way Pique would've probably wanted to spend his hard-earned wages. 

Ousmane Dembele is still at the club for another year and he's scored just seven goals in Europe in four injury-plagued seasons. Samuel Umtiti won't be leaving any time soon, as he sits on his lucrative contract and recovers from another knee injury. Efforts to shift Miralem Pjanic also look to be in vain until they found a loan move for him to go to Besiktas for a year.

Pjanic did not score or assist a single goal his debut campaign, making him the only outfield player who played at least 170 minutes for the club all season to not have a single goal involvement. He even fell behind Ilaix Moriba in the pecking order. Moriba, too, leaves the club for RB Leipzig, as Barcelona hurry to raise capital with crippling debts. 

August 2021: Antoine Griezmann rejoins Atletico Madrid on loan, as Luuk De Jong comes in to replace him

Antoine Griezmann in action for Atletico Madrid against Valencia.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Deep into deadline day, Barcelona are frantically trying to flog flops. A year-long loan and €40m obligation for Antoine Griezmann to return to Atletico is agreed.

Why did Barcelona let Griezmann go back to the title winners? The one club they knew he could thrive at? A direct rival, too? It seems like the club are just desperate to get wages off the books: Ansu Fati and Pedri are both now in the final year of their contracts.

Luuk De Jong joins Barcelona as Griezmann's replacement. 

October 2021: Wretched form costs Ron

Bayern Munich travel to Barca and beat them without stepping out of second gear: so far, so expected. Benfica defeating them in their second gameweek? OK, now things are getting concerning – and Barca could bomb out of the Champions League group stage for the first time in two decades. 

Luis Suarez is on hand for Atletico to sink his former club in LaLiga, before a drab showing in the Clasico hands all three points to Real Madrid. Rayo Vallecano deliver a swift right hook to finish Koeman off just days later, as Radamel Falcao scores the only goal. Koeman and his much-maligned 3-5-2 are no more. And the future looks just as bleak as the present. 

December 2021: Barcelona crash out of the Champions League

Xavi is back in Catalonia but can't prevent his team from dropping to the Europa League for the first time since 2003, following a miserable evening in an empty Allianz Arena. 

This becomes a turning point for Barcelona who are now looking to January. Ferran Torres will join before the window opens – but won't be able to be registered just yet – while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traore and a returning Dani Alves are all coming to Camp Nou to bolster Xavi's team.

April 2022: A Europa exit 

Eintracht Frankfurt

(Image credit: Getty)

Things are looking up for Barca. Xavi has them playing better football, they've beaten Real Madrid 4-0 in the Clasico and are starting to look the old Barcelona. 

But form isn't suddenly a simple trajectory back uphill and Xavi is reminded just how much work he still has to do when Eintracht Frankfurt dump his side out of the Europa League. The 3-2 scoreline flatters the Spaniards, too, who are dominated all game by the eventual competition winners.

July 2022: Economic levers

Real Madrid have won the title and the Champions League, showing Barcelona just how far they are behind. In reaction, the club reaches an agreement with investment firm Sixth Street, for the acquisition of a 10% share of the club's LaLiga TV rights.

Interesting… anyway, more free signings join in Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie, before an astonishing £45m is spent on Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele has his contract extended and Jules Kounde is snared, too. Raphinha will soon join 'n' all. 

Barcelona are seemingly gambling big. An additional 15% of the club's LaLiga TV rights are flogged to Sixth Street, giving the firm 25% of this income for the next 25 years. Are these signing worth that?

August 2022: The De Jong saga

Frenkie de Jong central midfield of Barcelona and Netherlands gestures during the friendly match between FC Barcelona and Manchester City at Camp Nou on August 24, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain.

(Image credit: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Barcelona are seemingly desperate to offload Frenkie de Jong to either Manchester United or Chelsea to pay for the new toys they've already splashed out on. There's talk of taking the Dutchman to court over his wages – which Barca would like lowered – but he doesn't want to leave the Spotify Camp Nou. Yes, the Swedish streaming service now sponsors the stadium, leaving some fans bemused.

The club later announces the activation of a third 'economic lever', selling 24.5% of Barca Studios to Socios.com for €100m, "to accelerate the club’s audiovisual, blockchain, NFT and Web.3 strategy". This pays for two-thirds of their transfer business. 

Fringe full-backs from London clubs, Marcos Alonso and Hector Bellerin, join late in the window on free transfers. Odd deals for players who seemingly won't improve the squad… but at least they're both Spanish, eh?

October 2022: Another European disappointment

Things are going remarkably well in the league for Barcelona, who have won all but one game – until Real Madrid host them for the first Clasico of the season. Barca are outclassed in blaugrana shirts adorned with Drake's OVO logo in a Spotify partnership, as the Canadian popstar passes his football curse onto the Barca boys. 

In Europe, Barcelona are dumped out of the Champions League at the first time of asking. Kounde has been injured for much of the campaign, leaving Eric Garcia and Andreas Christensen as a lightweight partnership against Inter Milan before Bayern Munich deliver a knockout blow on a back three that contains Bellerin and Alonso. Chastening.

The future of Barcelona is uncertain to say the least. The club spent huge money in the summer improving the squad, expecting instant success. Where does this latest setback leave them both on and off the field?

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