Barcelona inferior to Madrid: Neymar exit, midfield issue among key reasons
For the first time in nine years, Barcelona are inferior to Real Madrid.
That's Gerard Pique's take on the situation, anyway, after Zinedine Zidane's side followed up last season's La Liga and Champions League double by thrashing Barca 5-1 in the Spanish Super Cup.
Prior to last season, Barca had won a treble and a double under Luis Enrique. They still managed to win the Copa del Rey last year, too, and took the title race to the final day of the campaign. So how has the pendulum swung so definitively in Madrid's favour for the first time since the Pep Guardiola years?
1. Midfield neglect
One of the most alarming things about Madrid's dominance against Barca over two legs this week was their control in midfield. In the years of the 5-0 and the 6-2 Clasico drubbings, one of the many lasting images provided was of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta calmly controlling the game. Now it's Toni Kroos and Luka Modric afforded that honour, supported by Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic, Isco, Marco Asensio or whoever Zidane decides to pick.
Replacing Xavi, now at Al Sadd, and Iniesta, who is picking up injuries too often and whose best years are in the past -- was never going to be easy, but Barca have made a mess of it. Ivan Rakitic has done well, and his role for the team has been completely selfless, but, along with Andre Gomes, he has not been the type of signing to carry the club's possession baton into a new era.
2. Lack of identity
La Masia is held up by the club as its flagship. Before the Miami Clasico, there was a banner saying: "In our style we trust."
But what is their style these days? It used to be obvious. A game against Levante in 2012 became famous because there were 11 academy graduates on the pitch at the same time. Now players go elsewhere because they feel it's the only way for them to get a chance to play.
The concern is not with world stars like Neymar and Luis Suarez, either. They're necessary. Instead, it's the expensive players who come in to bulk out the squad and take roles which in the past homegrown players would have taken.
3. Neymar transfer saga
Ernesto Valverde didn't name Neymar, but the inference was clear.
"There were things that happened in preseason that affected the balance within the team, things which we must correct or work on to find another balance," the Barca coach said after the Madrid loss.
That can be read in two ways.
First, that the literal balance of the team has been affected. Without Neymar on the left, and following Lionel Messi's gradual move back into the middle from a right wing role, there's very little width, creating an unbalanced team.
The second interpretation is a mental one. Barca are used to signing who they want, to being lauded as the best team in the world. How do they deal with seeing their second best player, the player heralded as Messi's heir, leave for Paris Saint-Germain?
Whatever your reading of Valverde's comments, it's obvious Neymar's departure, which overshadowed the U.S. tour, has rocked the club in one way or another.
4. No Messi support
Having the best player in the world on your team can only take you so far, as Argentina have found out. Messi is at his best when he has a functioning team around him, and you could see the frustration seeping out of him against Madrid on Wednesday as he got crowded out of possession time and again.
One by one he has lost his best socios. First Xavi, then Dani Alves, now Neymar. He still has Suarez, but he provides for the Uruguayan; it often worked the other way with the others, Neymar excluded, perhaps.
So Barca will have to buy. Not that they don't know that. Sergio Busquets spoke about the need for attacking players this week -- Barca look threadbare after Messi and the misfiring Suarez -- and the club's general manager Pep Segura has confirmed he's hopeful of pushing through deals for Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho and Borussia Dortmund's Ousmane Dembele.
5. Instability off the pitch
Pique said: "We should all be as close to each other as possible and move forward together."
The defender was criticised by Segura after the first-leg defeat at Camp Nou -- "Pique's error conditioned the game" -- prompting Busquets to defend his teammate on Tuesday.
"It's not the best way to express yourself, and even less so from within the club, aimed at a player," the midfielder said of Segura's take.
Perhaps that's what Pique was referring to -- although he did also say on Wednesday that he was fine with Segura's comments.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, though, and Barca seem to have as many problems mounting off the pitch as they do on it.
An online campaign asking for president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign prompted an official response from the club on Wednesday, while they were also forced to deny any "illegal activity" in the signing of Paulinho this week. Throw in previous complaints about the club's links with Qatar, the court cases over the Neymar transfer in 2013, and you have a dark cloud following the board wherever they go at the moment.
Former president Joan Laporta has been open in his criticism of them, but it's Agusti Benedito, who ran for the presidency in 2015, who is trying to do something about it. Following a positive reaction online, he will launch a vote of no confidence in September and will need 16,000 signatures from the club's socios to take it to the next stage.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.