The “best available athlete” dilemma, aka “Hammering nails with a banana”

Immense thanks to Allas for the Sanchez video.

Alexis Sanchez is ready.
Alexis Sanchez is a problem.
Neymar will be something if he ever learns how to play the Barça way.
Alex Song was a waste of money, and isn’t anything approximating Barça quality.

A quartet of interesting statements that raises a complex matter with its roots in a notion that some American sports sides (particularly NFL teams) subscribe to, which is to pick the best available athlete. The thinking is that you can train a player to play a position, but you can’t train ability and talent. So you draft a speedy cornerback, and figure you can train him to run pass routes and play wide receiver.

In the footballing world, are we seeing its contemporary in the “difficulties” that three players, Sanchez, Neymar and Song, are having in the blaugrana?

Song bossed Germany in a weekend friendly. Sanchez stomped on the terra like a midget mastodon against Egypt in a friendly. Brazil coaches say Neymar has “never been better” and is the great hope of Brazil, one of the favored teams in the World Cup. Yet none of the players are that well thought of by many, many culers.

So what’s the deal?

In each case of our misfits, they play very different roles for their national teams, and are pretty much the man for those entities.

— Song is a box-to-box CM
— Sanchez is the playmaker/ball handler
— Neymar is the playmaker/ball handler/scoring threat

When you watch each of these players in action for their national teams, it’s easy to watch them and determine which task, when they are playing for Barça, would be performed by someone else. “Busquets would do that. Iniesta would do that. Messi would be in position to do that. All Xavi, all the time.”

And you wonder about the “best available player” concept, and how brilliant players can look decidedly less so when in the blaugrana. But it’s easy, when you think about it.

Let’s take Sanchez, who is as ready as he will ever be. Someone whose opinion I value said to me on Twitter that Sanchez’s play for the team will never be better, nor will his value ever be higher. Sell. Others believe, only now, that Sanchez’s sale would be an error, but not as many as you might think for a player who banged in 21 goals for us this season past.

But Sanchez is ready. And we know he’s ready not only because his whereabouts are one of the hot Barça gossip items of the summer, but also because it is evident from his play.

When Sanchez was signed for Barça three years ago, nobody quite knew what the club was getting except a player with pace and an abundant work rate. But as with all expensive attacker signings, the expectation was of goals galore.

As Barça snapped up two of the most desirable South American attackers of the past few years, to team with the ultimate South American attacker, it’s worth wondering again about “best available athlete,” and whether that is a viable notion. Yet both wear the shackles of a system that is designed for something very different from what they are best at doing, like hitching a racehorse to a plow and tending the fields.

Barça teaches its players to be calm, conscious and confident with the ball. Make the right choice, think two passes ahead, pass and move, control. Yet with Sanchez and Neymar, we have acquired two players whose operative word is “Wheeee!” This isn’t to say that they are undisciplined, rather that they are unschooled in the Way. “He will be great once he assimilates,” is what we most often hear, in the Barça as Jedi Knight training mode of thought. “He just has to learn what to do with the ball.”

It fascinates me that there is never much consideration of the Way coming to meet a “Wheeee!” player. Sanchez and Neymar both get the ball and start running toward the opponent goal. When they start, it isn’t entirely clear what’s going to happen, but by the time they get there, they will have figured something out … probably … maybe. And if not, “Hey, let’s try this. Wheeeee!”

Culers cringe, as they are accustomed to wondrous woodland creatures capering about with a glowing sphere tied to their feet. Busquets to Xavi to Iniesta to Messi to Xavi to Busquets to Valdes to Busquets to Xavi to Iniesta to Messi to Alves to Messi to Xavi to …

We are accustomed to this. This makes sense. It controls the match, keeps the ball and applies logic to a thing of wonder. And for years, it has worked. So we clap our hands to our heads when Sanchez takes the ball on the right, dribbles, spins, loses it, gets it back, dribbles, spins, then passes it back to Xavi or Messi. Or when Neymar gets the ball, stops, dances the mambo, tries to beat a defender, runs into two others or gets fouled. “Dammit, what’s wrong with him?”

Nothing, is the answer. Against Egypt, Sanchez was running with the ball, making plays along with a cadre of runners. Playing for Barça, he is told, essentially, to go stand in a corner and wait for something to happen. He gets the ball in a stationary role, is surrounded by defenders and looks something of a mess at times.

“Sigh … we overpaid.”

“Song, you go in for Busquets.”

Busquets is a brilliant DM, perfect for the system that Barça play. He is also a unique player, both in approach to the game and skill set. So in the culer template that makes the incumbent also the standard, any player who doesn’t play the position like the incumbent is poor, not Barça quality. Yet using Song at DM isn’t his best position, no more than using Iniesta at DM would be. So in his more natural position, with his national team, he looks the business. Out of position, learning a “best available player” new set of skills, he’s kinda lumpy.

“Sell him. Worst Barça CB ever.”

Neymar is a player who is a complexity. He is the gift horse of Sandro Rosell, a player whose fee was 57m or whose total cost was 97m. Depends on what number you’d like to use, and what your worldview is. Either way for that kind of money, I expect a bajillion goals. The strength of Neymar, more than his goalscoring, is his associative play. Like Ronaldinho, he will get an attacker the ball. In watching the video above, I got to thinking about the strange universe in which a Barça player could have a highlights reel like that one and have people questioning what he brought to the club instead of salivating over next season.

But again, Neymar isn’t playing in an ideal position, nor with ideal partners for his skill set. As usual with an imported player, it is up to them to adapt to the template, right? One of the greatest abilities of Thierry Henry was his ability to adapt to the team, to subsume his skill sets and work within the strictures of a system.

But Henry, Neymar and Sanchez were at different career trajectories. Neymar will eventually leave Barça, for the team that will unshackle him, make him the man and let him run the show, as he does with Brazil. Perhaps even sooner, Sanchez will leave Barça, for a team that will allow him to be the man, playing in a way unfettered by the limitations of a Way. And Song will leave Barça, for a team that wonders why anyone ever tried to play him at CB or DM, and probably raise hell.

And culers will say, “If they had played like that, they would still be at Barça,” ignoring the fundamental difficulty of that statement: being at Barça makes it impossible for them to play like “that.”

Neymar isn’t for sale. It is rumored that the club turned down three “important” offers for Sanchez. Song will go to the first person willing to pony up something between 10 and 15m.

The eventual fate of Sanchez will say a lot about what Luis Enrique is thinking about his football club, whether it is to continue to be built around Messi, or shift to a more egalitarian attack that brings back the days of the best Barça of recent vintage, when Henry, Eto’o and Messi were all a constant danger, each capable of having a hat trick by halftime.

One thing, however, is for sure. Each player is ready for that next level. Compare scrawny Neymar to the bulkier player of today. Compare the Sanchez who thought himself to death to the confident hellraiser we’re seeing today. Compare uncertain CB Song to Cameroon Song, and ask yourself a few questions, which will be fun to debate:

— Should the Barça system be more accommodating?
— Should the team not bother signing players who aren’t going to fit into the existing system, rather than using a player out of position in the hopes that he will adapt?

The floor is open.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Messi creates, Masch bosses around. Argentina friendly is fun stuff. Anybody tuned in ?

    1. Yes I watched the game. When Di Maria failed to square the ball for Messi after he gave that delightful chip through ball, my commentators went ballistic on Messi’s “sudden lack of form”..

    2. Ha. I watched that.
      I also thought Messi missed a sitter there.
      But the ball never reached him.
      He talked about unfair criticism recently,
      but who cares what he thinks.

      Lavezzi is a poor substitute for Kun.
      Palacio is alright.
      Masch keeps things simple, everything goes through him.
      Messi’s free kick came off the post, and masch tapped it in.
      Not making this up : )

  2. All this talk about Alexis staying or going is pretty irrelevant, isn’t it. My understanding is that he’s decided he’s going and the club will let him because they don’t want an unhappy player on their hands.
    Anyone who wants to understand Alexis’ real game should watch the you tube highlights of the game against Chile. He’s at his best continually dropping into midfield and creating, which he’ll never get a real chance to do at Barca.

    1. Bartomeu: “You are going to enjoy watching Barça next season!”

      What that tells me is that quite a few players now want to leave or won’t be asked to stay, particularly in light of how our season ended.

      Bartomeu I think is telling fans beforehand that they are going to do quite a bit of freaking out this summer, but at least give the club a chance until after the World Cup and we start seeing what the new Barca 2014-15 may look like. It could be a promising new beginning or a Frankensteinian concoction.

      But I am with you in worrying that Sanchez won’t be part of the new Barca next season.

    2. Seriously, I think he’s totally gone. Be absolutely nuts to stay. He can effectively play the Messi mobile creative forward role but with a much bigger work ethic. Why should he play second string to Messi? I think people will be surprised at how much he will cost on the open market – particularly if he has a good world cup.
      But, of course, if he gets badly injured at the world cup, he’s all Barcas!

    3. Why should he play second string to Messi? I think people will be surprised at how much he will cost on the open market

      Because Messi is a much better player and you don’t hear rumors about clubs bidding for him let alone for a lot of money.

  3. For those still trying to figure out what exactly happened to the Barcelona dynasty established in the fall of 2008, here is an interesting piece from a few years ago. It falls into the theory of the enticement of Messi dependency in the wake of the Ibra problem, but can also fit other explanations.

    Another concept that seems equally important was the increased obsession with possession which may have gone from a strategy to an ideology.

    The essential part for me (which I cleaned up for coherence):

    “Such a transition meant that possession became a greater priority than offensive drive. Losing possession became more drastic from the system’s perspective than missing a scoring opportunity. This situation put more pressure on the forwards to become less daring to take gambles.

    Eto’o and Henry used to lose the ball too often to even work in the system that Barcelona applies at the moment. But I bet they would’ve kept on doing things their way. Only a player with enough courage (and ego) would dare to take responsibilities and try stuff from the high-risk-high-return shelf.

    Villa was relegated from being the offensive leader he was at Valencia to serving as a co-pilot to Messi. The other forward, Pedro, also felt more comfortable playing it safe and only making high percentage decisions. But offensive players are not supposed to avoid doing the wrong things, they are supposed to try doing the right things, regardless of all the risks involved.”

  4. More rumors, preceded by the caveat that nobody knows anything, even people who claim they do.

    — Rakitic is rumored to be in play, with a personal agreement already arranged. Recall the quotes of his father about the three teams vying for his son, and which one they would prefer.

    He has a 30m buyout, but it is allegedly in his contract that if we or RM come calling, it reduces. He is increasingly rumored to be the next signing.

    — The Mascherano contract talks buzz is growing. That is, for me, a very good bit of news. By all accounts, he turned in a MOTM performance today. Yes, it was Trinidad & Tobago, just as Sanchez rocked the house, and it was just Egypt. So there ya go.

    — No denials issued so far in l’affaire Fabregas, but it’s early yet. Note also that Pique at a presser said that Barça doesn’t appreciate Fabregas, blablablabla. Quotes below:

    “I really like Cesc, I know he’s going through a tough time, because the club don’t appreciate him as much as they should,” he said at a press conference.

    “He’s one of those players who’d be first-choice at any other club in the world, the star of the team. Despite that, he’s finding it harder at Barça,” he added.

    Piqué hinted that Cesc has some doubts about staying at Barcelona, but admitted that he did not know what his final decision would be. “I don’t know what he’s going to do; we haven’t spoken about that,” he said.

    “I hope he stays, because if you look at his stats this season, he’s our highest-scoring midfielder and the one with the most assists. Of course I want him to stay with us,” said Piqué.

    1. Is Pique joking or is he seriosly telling Del Bosque that Cesc is leaving for 33mil?


  5. In case we really want to raise cash,
    Either Lex, Cesc or Both might leave.
    Only those two are worth 35+ M in market.
    The rest (except Song) would go dirt cheap.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. What if Sanchez became our number 10 at least when the team really needed to nick a goal.

      Certainly gives us more tactical diversity. Almost like Cesc’s role in coming in off the bench late in games to get that all important goal.

    2. Pedro is already a ball circulation machine & work horse with decent goal threat. (Instead of selling him off for couple millions, we can use him)

      3-Busi-3- Neymar,??,Deulofeu

      Messi & Lex are proper 10s.
      Cesc, Ney are 10s too .
      Lopsided squad, I tell you.

      Throwing xavi onto the pitch with chronic tendonitis every single week is not feasible.

      Besides with some CBs in our squad,
      Xavi’s role of defending by keeping the ball in his pocket won’t be needed.

      The game will be open & we’ll get to watch something new.
      We should at least try playing direct against lower tier liga teams.

      Without a proper striker, our wingers are not very effective, stuck in their barren zone, why waste their talents ?

  6. Woahh, are these cesc rumours for real?
    Even though I’ve argued for his sale / release, I never believed that the club would actually do it and thought he’s here to stay.
    Wow. unbelievable.
    also why the F can’t barca hype their players? Am sure in a world where Mata is 50M, Fellaini 25M, Marwuinhos 45M, Cesc should be atleast 50M and Alexis Sanchez, similar? Dreadful.

    1. it’s all speculation at the moment but there exists in the contract of cesc that when he is sold for 36M+ , arsenal will get half of the added value.
      I am just spitballin here but i thinkkk that 33 M plus variables which basically means arsenal get 0 and we get 33M and the variables will be perhaps 10M that goes straight into our pockets instead of sharing with arsenal
      Who knows if he’s going for 33M in the first place anyway ?

  7. News Flash: Barthmou Admits That There is No New Xavi

    An emotional scene broke out today in front of a packed audience of cules when President Josep Maria Bartomeu continued his Let’s Tell Fans the Honest Hard Truths Tour.

    Fans were invited to ask the President questions about the club next year which Barthmou promised to answer as candidly as possible. The climax of the event came when 7 year old Llorenc Cases asked the President who the New Xavi was.

    In a shocking turn of events Barthmou answered in no uncertain terms:

    “Son, sometimes grown ups tell children little stories that seem to make life more pleasant and exciting. For example, the coin under your pillow that comes when you lose a tooth or the gift under your Christmas tree may not be part of the story that you think.

    I am not here to tell you that there is no Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus, but what I can now tell you is that there is no New Xavi. Never has been and never will be. Even if Mr. and Ms. Xavi have 25 new little Xavis, none of them will be the New Xavi. The club told you an untruth that we thought would make all our lives seem a little brighter but now I must clear the air.

    And for everyone else listening, please let me stay as your new President and I won’t lie to you again. I’ll will even make Puyol our new Minister of Truth.”

  8. Latest rumors (again, a grain of salt … always, a grain of salt):

    — TV3 has reported that Chelsea has lodged a real bid of 33m for Fabregas.

    — The club contacted Pique with a “WTF” query after his hot-mic episode of yesterday.

    — Ivan Rakitic is close to being ours, for a fee of around 20m.

    — Marquinhos talks between PSG and Barça are well-advanced.

    Actual stuff:

    — Mascherano bossed some shit yesterday, and there was a Maschegol!

    — In a mere 30 minutes, so did Alexis Sanchez, who is blowing up like Krakatoa this World Cup season.

    1. I havent watched any of chiles recent games, only highlights.. but it seems that exceptional off the ball movement by the center forwards are contributing to his recent form..he doesnt always have that at barca..

  9. As frustrating as it is watching Neymar and Sanchez (and in the larger FCB dynamic, Fabregas) play with Messi after you have seen them play for their NTs, they are the next generation world-class players at FC Barcelona. Messi has to start taking turns with the Sanchez and Neymar running the offense. If you have Sanchez and Neymar AND Messi, the first two have to have some time each game when they are in charge creating high quality goal scoring chances. They all benefit from runners in front of them. Either they run for each other, or FCB must buy another Villa-type like Jackson Martinez. If any of those three leave, then they must be replaced with world-class players and why bother without a very clear long-term vision?

    Second, Oliver T. is on loan at Valencia. Will FCB make him a new home?:

    Mute is advised if you are distracted by high-art penis rap.

    1. Exactly. How extraordinary is it to have three world-class players, who can all run, beat defenders, create from midfield and score goals for you? “Liberating” Neymar and Sanchez also reduces Messidependencia.

      In an interesting future world, I see a 3-man back line with Mascherano in front of it, Busquets pushed up into midfield with Iniesta and Rakitic/Rafinha, fronted by an interchanging Messi/Neymar/Sanchez.

      What a wonderful world.

    2. 3 men backline would be huge improvement over the current One and half men defence.

  10. More rumors. Cesc deal was at first a disappointing one, 33m? should be closer to 60 adjusted for oil-money inflation, but if you can ‘swap’ him for Rakitic and make 10m+ profit that’s a hand played well. With this now even larger transfer budget there is the potential to create the clearly best squad in football for next season.

    1. I think you are right about the Cesc for Rakitic switch and tried to explain why it may happen below.

  11. Trying to Understand the Noise: In Praise of Transfer Rumors and Predictions

    In the Intelligence field it is called “noise”, certain bits of information gathered here and there that are hard to make sense of let alone definitively interpret. A good analyst is able to take the available facts and “noise” to develop and overall narrative of what might be going on and formulate a hypothesis of what may happen next.

    Certain favorable outcomes have been made possible with the help of great analysts who were able to predict what may happen in the future. For example, British intelligence workers were able to break the German secret code Enigma and then learn their opponents U-boat locations and moves.. On the other hand, an intelligence failure was the inability of US analysts to predict or adequately prepare for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the base for almost the entire American Pacific fleet.

    So what are the essential data points and “noise” and how do we interpret them in this summer’s transfer window. In this case, the data points are our club’s performance this season and the fan’s collective dissatisfaction with some of the players and management which they see as failures in that they have accelerated our decline from the best team in the world to now about the sixth most likely team to win the CL next year if you gibe credence to opinions of bookies.

    On the other hand, the noise is the copious transfer rumors that we read about everyday. However, only about 1/2 are even somewhat reliable; the others are either made up or provided by teams or agents to mislead or gain an advantage to a certain rumor being believed.

    Questions and Possible answers on transfers this summer:

    Case #1) Why is Cesc leaving and Why for Cheap?
    The facts: Cesc’s arrival at Barcelona in 2011 came right after our triumphant 2010-11 Champions League triumph. His transfer was also supposed to answer our questions about our future midfield. Most fans believed that by now having Cesc our future would be secured and Thiago and Cesc would lead our club to further dominance for the foreseeable future.

    However, after having Cesc for three years with the club, the evidence of Barca’s continuing dominance has been contradicted with significant decline the more convincing narrative. Cesc has not become the star player for Barca many would have liked and this has led to bitterness and disappointment on the part of the club, the fans, and the player alike.

    So what are the reasons that Cesc is now probably leaving and seems very close to an official exit:
    Possible explanations:

    1) Cesc no longer wants to be at Barca and now views his future best served by a return to the EPL.

    2) The club wants to send a clear message to fans about change by getting rid of a disappointment and signing a promising new face before the World Cup.

    3) Enrique is only lukewarm about having Cesc on his team at Barca next year and the club wants to cash in on him because of his potentially large transfer price.

    My hypothesis: 1 and 2

    Case 2: What the Heck is Going on with Alexis Sanchez?

    The facts: Very similar to that of Cesc except in this case Sanchez’s improved performance this year has changed minds in that many now recognize that he is an important player and he could be a really hot commodity in the future.

    Question: Why have the transfer rumors about Sanchez died down?:

    1) The club and its current manager, Enrique, now entirely value this player and see him as essential to our future.

    2) The club has listened to some offers but since they do not even approach the worth of this player, the club has now decided to keep him and he will be part of the squad next year.

    3) With Cesc leaving, the club does not want to make a deal on Sanchez now in that the prospect of losing both Cesc and Sanchez without clear replacements would cause too much unrest.

    4) With the World Cup looming and Sanchez’s performance and his Chilean team being one of the potential surprises of the tournament, the club has now taken a wait and see attitude. If he has a great tournament and we can sell him for over 40 Mil, we will do it, but otherwise we will not.

    My hypothesis: 3 and 4

    Case 3: Pedro Rodriguez

    The facts: Similar to Fabregas and Sanchez in that many fans and the club feel disappointed in his performance over the last 3 seasons. However, his situation is different in that he is a La Masia graduate and was an important part of some of our best seasons under Pep.

    He is also a player plays a somewhat similar game to Sanchez at Barca though now most agree that Alexis is more talented. Still Pedro is a promising transfer to another team given his formidable skill in producing goals when he is given space in the attack.

    Question: Will Pedro be sold?

    1) No, he is still a valued player and seems fine in a somewhat diminished role at Barca.

    2) He will only be sold if the team keeps Sanchez because Pedro is a lesser version of the former player.

    3) Yes, the club will take advantage of a reasonable offer given his value to another club like Liverpool, which should be on the order of roughly 25 Mil.

    My hypothesis: 1

    Overall predictions:

    1) Cesc will be gone and Rakitic wil be signed before the World Cup.

    2) Sanchez will be sold for over 40 Mil after the World Cup, and we will get a known talent such as Reus instead, or Sanchez will have a less than stellar World Cup, and he will still be with the club next year.

    3) Pedro will be a Barca player next year.


    This story is absolutely stunning! This literally brought me to tears. I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotionally moved by reading something relating to sports. Just a thought of Tito and his dying wishes for the club is so moving it really is incredible. Just so everyone knows where I’m coming from I also hold this board responsible for driving off Pep and destroying a once great project!

  13. Di Marzio and Bild confirm Rakitić to Barça. I can hardly contain myself, I remember watching the Europa league final and thinking gosh this guy is exactly the kind of player we need and for around 20mil!? Fantastic business.

    1. And a top-class bit of business. Getting that player for 15m+incentives is badass, I have to say. And as I predicted, on Twitter am getting the “We overpaid for a player with 1 year left” stuff.

    2. If it is the case then it is a great piece of business but I’ll hold my excitement until I see something concrete.
      I still hope that it’s not at Cesc’s expense but we’ll wait to see if that’s the case too.

    3. For me, DiMarzio is concrete. Dude is like the New York Times of the transfer market. Rarely wrong, because he has great sources and is willing to wait to be sure, rather than racing to be first.

      Yesterday, he popped the Keita was transferred to Roma. Club and player were like, “That hasn’t happened.” Then today, Roma announced that Keita was transferred there.

      If MD, Sport, etc say it, I am dubious as hell. But not DiMarzio.

  14. Depending on the objectives, Barcelona could finish its transfer term with a renovated squad, no big-name sales and within the limits of its transfer budget.

    We already know that Barcelona have a 40 million transfer budget. This can be increased by “borrowing” from next year’s budget, by saving on salaries and associated costs, as well as transferring players who are not vital to the team.

    According to some rumours Tello may be going for something like 12m Euro to Porto. Dos Santos, Affelay, Cuenca could fetch the odd million, and selling Song to the highest Premier League bidder could generate upwards of 15 million. The removal of Tello, Dos Santos, Affelay, Cuenca, Pinto, Oier, Song, Puyol and Valdes from the account books would free insane amounts of money (22.6m net, which in Catalunya means upwards of 40m gross expense), a large part of which can be used for signings(whose salaries would be cheaper). This all amounts to a very impressive war chest even without the sale of Sanchez or Fabregas.

    40m transfer budget, 12m Tello, 5m Dos Santos+Cuenca+Affelay, 15m Song, 40m salary savings get Barcelona a fair and balanced 112m Euro budget – and that is without selling Sanchez or Fabregas or digging into the next year budget. How much for say Marquinhos, Mathieu, Bravo, Rakitic and their salaries?

  15. Watched a best of last season video of Rakitić; half of the clips were from clashes agains us, none from facing EE… from what I can tell he is a more versatile, dynamic player than Cesc, and we could really use his shooting ability. Hopefully, buying him coincides with opening up our strategy a little – he seems able to deliver those long, sweeping passes to running forwards.

    1. Hehe, thanks. Of course, my research was below par, just found it a funny coincident. Came to think of AC Milan of old, buying players who did well against them to avoid facing them…

      And that’s one hell of a goal he scores.

  16. Dibs on Best of Sevilla.
    Best of Valencia next ?
    Bring us Mathieu : )
    This transfer window is alright.

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