Barcelona trapped in a recurring nightmare that began at Anfield | Sid Lowe

Pretty much the first thing Junior Firpo did as a Barça player was miss the ball. The second was to fall flat on his face. He had been on the pitch for 54 seconds and as he lay on the grass, the soundtrack provided by a bloke with a swanee whistle and a set of cymbals, he watched the men in red and white run beyond him and a familiar scene unfold. It was happening again, only faster. At Athletic Bilbao on the opening night, Barcelona had gone behind in the 89th minute; against Betis a week later, it was the 17th; and at Osasuna, the sixth.

This time, in week five at Granada, they had only just made it to the second when Ramon Azeez scored. This time, they wouldn’t make it out of trouble. As for Junior, signed from Real Betis for €18m in the summer, he didn’t make it out for the second half. Lionel Messi did, at last making his first league appearance of the season, and so did Ansu Fati, their hope at 16. Even they couldn’t salvage anything from this wreckage. Arturo Vidal came on too. Pretty much the first thing he did was boot the ball off. The second was stick a hand out in the area. From the penalty spot, Álvaro Vadillo made it 2-0. It was all over. And, it was tempting to conclude, even this early, all might actually mean all. Barcelona had been beaten. Barcelona are beaten, it seems.

On the night when Granada, with a budget that couldn’t pay Messi let alone everyone else at the Camp Nou, their salary cap 18 times lower than Barcelona’s, deservedly won 2-0, the story should have been about them. What they had done was, in their manager’s too-literally-translated words, “barbaric”. It should have been about how 11 of their players on Saturday were in the second division while Barcelona won the league last season. About how they have lost just once, against Sevilla on their first home game back in primera, and won three in a row since without conceding. It should have been about how victory momentarily took them top. Granada. Top. But it wasn’t. And not just because Diego Martínez, their manager, insisted that looking at the league was a “waste of time”. Or even because the story almost never is about them when it can be about them.

It was because there was something about the way Barcelona were defeated, the way it managed to shock and not shock at all, that ran deeper. This wasn’t just one game, and certainly wasn’t just two men – still less Junior or Vidal, or even just Ernesto Valverde – however bad it had been. And, boy, had it been bad. It was difficult to remember a performance worse than this, and yet there was no lack of contenders.

This was sudden; it was also a long time coming. Dreadful in defence, in midfield, up front. Nothing worked. “Not even with Messi,” ran the cover of AS, and there was something telling in that too. On Friday morning, El Mundo Deportivo gleefully splashed on Real Madrid in crisis. By the following night, it was Barcelona who were. And by the night after, Madrid were top.

“This Barcelona lies in ruins,” AS’s headline ran. “Another disaster,” El Mundo Deportivo said. At the end, Frenkie De Jong approached the fans and apologised. He must have wondered where he had ended up. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. “For Barcelona, every stadium is Anfield now,” wrote Santi Giménez. “They are a drama of epic proportions, where anyone can strip them bare with startling ease.” Something broke that night. Or maybe it’s more accurate to suggest that something was revealed, and has not been remedied.

They carried on regardless, reluctant to challenge the old order. But once it had happened it was more likely to happen again, a recurring nightmare. Rome resurfaced in Liverpool, and Liverpool resurfaces anywhere: Bilbao, Pamplona, Granada, Dortmund. The Camp Nou is one thing but Barcelona haven’t won away since April. “I am responsible,” Valverde said. He meant for Saturday night but there’s more. It is early, but it is their worst start in 25 years, and for all the coincidences – injuries, penalties, daft individual mistakes – it isn’t entirely coincidental. They’ve trailed in four of their five games and conceded in all of them. No one in La Liga has conceded more goals.

And this is more than that old, facile line about how Barcelona can’t defend: they can’t attack either. At Granada, they had one shot on target. Sure, they have been without Messi, Suárez, Dembélé, Neymar too, but it’s not about that either; it’s about the most basic thing of all, the essence of Barcelona, perhaps hidden behind Messi for too long: the play. Against Liverpool, there was something deeper than defeat. That this is a team losing its religion is an old debate, politicised and exaggerated: Barcelona have been the best team in Spain by miles over the last two years. For all the flaws, Anfield remains hard to explain. Nor were they as heretical, as un-Barça as some accusations had it. But there is something in it, in the lack of a structure, an idea, a commitment to an identity.

It has been hard to avoid the feeling that too few of those that mattered, manager included, believed in the model. Slowly, football slipped from them. Xavi and Iniesta have gone. Messi is too often the team – a process in which he may not be entirely blameless – and one day, he will be gone too. That has created a kind of desperation. After the defeat in Liverpool, Valverde’s time appeared to have come to a close, but it didn’t. It is hard to see how you can recover from a moment like that. There’s a feeling this is a season too far – two seasons too far, some critics insist. There are parallels to Guardiola’s fourth season and Luis Enrique’s third. Defeat brought opportunity, a chance to reset.

Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann has received a cold welcome from some team-mates since arriving from Atlético Madrid.

Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann has received a frosty welcome from some team-mates since arriving from Atlético Madrid. Photograph: Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

But they carried on; Josep Maria Bartomeu, the president, backed Valverde and some players did too: they were comfortable. Too comfortable. Valverde stands accused of allowing it. The decline went largely unchallenged. It is not that Barcelona are bad so much as that they’re nothing in particular. De Jong came, someone to reinforce the model, but not always in his place: he has played too wide or not at all. The men alongside him have changed. There have been five different lineups in six weeks.

Antoine Griezmann arrived, a year late. He has two positions: one is Messi’s, the other is Suárez’s. The welcome was cold; those two wanted Neymar instead. Barcelona pursued the Brazilian publicly, driven by the president. They didn’t sign him, but he cost them. The players who wanted him weren’t happy, Messi among them, and the players that didn’t weren’t either. Asked how sick of it he was on a scale of one to 10, Valverde said 9.5.

Barcelona offered PSG players in part-exchange, but didn’t tell the players that. One was Ousmane Dembélé, another was Philippe Coutinho before he was loaned to Bayern Munich. The attempt to sell the players they bought to replace Neymar, at a cost greater than his, to buy the Brazilian back again was the perfect portrait of the whole sorry story.

The sporting directors have rotated as much as the players, the latest happily heading off to Paris to chase a player he couldn’t get. Meanwhile, the players flew east then west, preseason trumping the actual season. Then they came back and lost in Bilbao, which turned out to be just the start. Firpo fell down within a minute on his debut. The rest of them had been falling for far longer. “We have a long, hard season ahead of us,” Luis Suárez said on Saturday night, and he meant it.

Osasuna 0-0 Real Betis; Villarreal 2-0 Valladolid; Levante 0-0 Eibar; Atlético 0-0 Celta; Granada 2-0 Barcelona; Getafe 4-2 Mallorca; Espanyol 1-3 Real Sociedad; Valencia 1-1 Leganés;
Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Alavés; Sevilla 0-1 Real Madrid

Talking points

Zinedine Zidane did something even he hadn’t done before: he took Real Madrid to the Sánchez Pizjuán and won. The last time they won 1-0 there, he was playing. It wasn’t sparkling, but it didn’t have to be; they just needed the victory and Zidane, under pressure, needed it most of all. “A lot’s been said,” the Frenchman noted. Now it was his turn and he kept returning to the same word: solidaridad. Whether it will work elsewhere is a different matter. As Jorge Valdano put it on Sunday night: “What Madrid did today they can’t keep doing: Hazard, Bale and James will have to go forward, not defend at the back.”

“Agua, agua.” Kieran Trippier needed a drink, so someone in the south end threw him a bottle. He took a swig and threw it back. A thumbs up and there was applause. Atlético’s fans have really taken to him. Trippier has provided more deliveries into the box than anyone else in the Atlético side, but this time it was not enough: they couldn’t find a way past Celta.

“Peter Lim, go home” read the banner at Mestalla, where a 1-1 draw was played out to protests against the owner. At one point, fans chanted the name of sacked manager Marcelino. Rodrigo wagged his finger; he loved Marcelino more than anyone, but now was the time to get behind the new coach, he explained afterwards. When the supporters chanted his name instead, he applauded.

Athletic are top for the first time since the opening day of 2005-06. Unbeaten, only one goal conceded in five, they’re now unbeaten in 17 at home and this is their best start in 25 years.