Even though it’s early days, it is safe to say that that man in the middle of this image, Andoni Zubizarreta is, along with folks like Ed Woodward and Jorge Mendes, one of the winners of this summer transfer window.
I know … he finally did something, right?
Wrong. It’s because in grading the Barça transfer window, my vote is for a B. What keeps things from an A … two things, actually:
— Vermaelen risk
— Douglas who?
Zubi is incompetent
Coach asks, sporting director assesses, board writes the check. If the first two happen but the last doesn’t, nothing happens. And if you take a group of men who believed they are saving the club by weakening the team, who bask in the waters of record profits, a new stadium project and more sponsorships, men committed to lining up their future by linking their continued tenure to a stadium project that will … finally … make Barça a big club, who has time or money for a team? They’re doing fine. Look, they won a Liga. Quiet over there.
Guardiola asked for transfers, and nothing happened. Vilanova asked for transfers, and got Alex Song, a catfish that someone tried to use to hammer nails. Tata Martino had his list and got Neymar.
But then, faced with a team that didn’t win major silver and fresh memories of a recall vote that was just survived by Joan Laporta after two silverless seasons for the team, something began to happen. Further, faced with a transfer ban that is really of the board’s own making further spurred them to rummage through the pockets of the neatly folded, coal-black trousers for the key to the coffers.
There was talk of a “revolution” this summer, with a laundry list of players going out, and just as big a laundry list going in. ZubiZa would finally, at long last, have the opportunity to be a sporting director. So this summer, Barça spent, and spent big on a certain type of player, mostly.
Stars and watercarriers
Amid the hue and cry for fancy names, big names, “Why did the club sign so and so, they’re stupid,” a whole lot of people forgot a very important thing: the Treble season happened because of a nucleus of stars, supported by dudes, in an ideal measure. The Galacticos didn’t fail because of a lack of talent. If everybody hops in the back seat of the limo, who’s going to drive?
Treble Barça had big stars who weren’t yet HUGE stars as well as very talented players who were not stars, but effective, useful faces. Busquets, Keita, Toure Yaya, Alves, Abidal were exceptional augmentation to the stars: Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Eto’o, Messi, the names that people turn to the sports pages to look for.
In buttressing the team this summer, the sporting and technical staff had to look for the right players. The mix is crucial on a team that already has plenty of stars in addition to players who, thanks to the unprecedented success of a brilliant team and its coach, had become stars. The nucleus was excellent. So now what?
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen: Came for 12m from Borussia Mondengladbach, regarded as one of the brightest young keeper talents in the world, and seen as an eventual No. 1 for a club looking to replace a legend in Victor Valdes. Right player, excellent business at 12m.
Jordi Masip: Promoted from Barça B, an additional layer of quality keeping depth.
Claudio Bravo: No. 1 at Real Sociedad and for the Chilean NT, a starter-level keeper expected to ultimately occupy the No. 2 position. More fine business at 12m for a keeper of that quality.
Ivan Rakitic: Came for 18m (+3m in variables) from Sevilla in one of the deals of the summer. Again, excellent business. There probably isn’t anyone who still thinks our board should be put in jail for not getting Kroos. So far, plays as if to the manor born.
Jeremy Mathieu: Came from Valencia for 20m. Big, strong, fast and durable, capable of a broad range. For me, I rank this as a very good bit of business. Quality CBs were rare, and not moving. When David Luiz goes for 50+m, you can be sure that CBs are the gold standard. When asked why the team went for Mathieu instead of a Benatia, ZubiZa said that Mathieu (and Vermaelen) fit the desired profile better.
Thomas Vermaelen: Came from Arsenal for 10m (5m in potential variables), a roll of the dice for the right price. If he regains fitness and focus, that 10m will seem a steal. If he stays broken all the time and flops, that 10m really isn’t that much money for a club like FCB, but it leaves the club with one functional, quality CB less. So from a business standpoint, this is a good deal. From a sporting standpoint, it’s a risk
Luis Suarez: In the view of many, this is the best striker in the world. He’s also durable. Came to Barça from Liverpool for 81,250,000m, which is a lot of money no matter how you slice it. The talent is immense, the baggage considerable. This is, in the context of today’s transfer market, a good piece of business when you really sit down to think about it. RM paid 100m for Gareth Bale. Barça paid 57m for Neymar, who was as yet unproven. Both those players are considered among the best at their position. Suarez is, according to almost anyone you ask, the best at his position. The best costs money, and if you are considering adding a transfer to an attack that features the best player in the world, you need to consider only the best. From a sporting perspective, that’s Suarez.
It’s an excellent transaction, ignoring the cries that Liverpool had to sell, and all we had to do was work them down. They probably had to sell, sure, but why? The player was happy in Liverpool, and even if they still chose to sell, there were no shortage of big-club suitors willing to pony up. He came to Barça. The price is, strangely enough in context, fair. But the risk has the potential to make the fee a waste of money.
Douglas: Brought in from Sao Paulo for 4m, this is the player who nobody knows, but so many hate. “He’s terrible. Everybody in Brazil says he’s terrible. Ridiculous transfer.” It’s a risk. If he works out as a quality right back, ZubiZa looks a genius. If he fails, it’s only 4m. So it’s a punt in an attempt to reinforce a position that will need help when Alves leaves next summer.
Silly Zubi? Maybe. Maybe not. But a lot of people have a lot of dislike invested in a player that hardly any culer has seen play, in person, on TV or via YouTube clip. A valid suggestion might be that without knowing how Douglas is going to slot into the side, is it worth waiting to see just how he does? If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes, over the sound of crickets, of “Stupid Zubi, getting Rakitic instead of Kroos for a few dollars more.”
Rafinha Alcantara: Already to the manor born (and raised). Recalled from Celta Vigo after a season on loan. He’s a fast, agile player who can occupy any position from midfield forward. He automatically stuck where his other loanee buddy, Gerard Deulofeu, is now sampling the cuisine in Sevilla.
These new faces replaced: Valdes, Fabregas, Dos Santos, Cuenca, Tello, Puyol, Alex Song, Bojan Krkic and Afellay, more excellent business in getting rid of salary, and players who can’t really help all that much in a big, nasty encounter with a determined opponent.
Depth. And depth from the kind of players that can win championships, those high-quality watercarriers. As Peter pointed out, Barça didn’t sign stars, it signed men.
Beyond that, we have no idea, and anybody who says they “know” otherwise is lying. On paper we can speculate that the team jettisoned non-playing weight and replaced it with quality players, two of whom were captains of their former teams, which brings a measure of calm to the proceedings.
There is also depth at every position, which is rather a rarity for culers accustomed to having a Barça player limp off as a quirk is attempted. “So Pedro, you can play center back, right?” This season, even as Vermaelen heals from his World Cup knock, there are still Bartra, Pique, Mathieu and Mascherano. Busquets goes down, Mascherano slides up, or Rafinha could do duty in that spot. Youth players such as Munir and Sandro ensure that there is adequate depth in the forward line as well, until Suarez can play and Neymar is match fit.
On paper, it’s a team that has few weaknesses, not that this will stop culers from fretting like long-tailed cats at a rocking chair marathon. But the reality is that we just don’t know.
What DO we know?
Well, we know who is on the roster, and who will most likely be on the roster for the next two transfer windows.
We know that the team has won its first two matches, but so did last year’s first half record-setting, trophyless group.
We know that Messi seems to be becoming his old self again.
We know that the press is back.
We know that Enrique wants to play possession football.
We know that the team wants to control space via intelligent possession.
And that’s about it. Everything else is speculation, from formations to potential lineups to the quality of incoming transfers, because we have only had only one truly competitive match in which to evaluate things.
The Villarreal lessons
One of the most interesting things to come out of the Villarreal match for me, is the astonishing number of quality chances that the team generated against a low block opponent. It hasn’t been since Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that Barça has looked so potent and dynamic, even with Munir falling to earth in the face of Villarreal’s strong, committed defenders.
Doomsayers will suggest that Villarreal could have scored three goals, mostly thanks to Mathieu, who will need to acquire a stronger sense of calm with his clearances. But doomsayers always plump up the opposition opportunities while ignoring our own. “Oh noez! They hit the post!” So did we. And if you are going to look at their chances, on our end, Neymar alone could have had a hat trick in the half-hour or so that he played. Messi also spurned a couple of great chances that you would have bet the house on him finishing.
This Villarreal match was supposed to be a test, a ground
at which Barça dropped points last season that is always difficult, a faceoff against a top five Liga side. Did Barça pass? Well, with possession touching the 70% mark, chances galore and a clean sheet, you would have to say yes, even as you can see things that the team needs to shore up.
But gone is the seeming fragility of last year’s team, a side that even when it played brilliantly, never seemed fully in iron-clad control as this side does. It isn’t just a depth difference but a systems difference. Instead of Xavi tottering around midfield watching attackers run past him (as he did again a few times on Sunday), there is Rakitic, who is fast, strong and agile enough to cover space not only in midfield but on defense, backing up a roaming Alves.
Jordi Alba has become a defender again, so rather than the instability created by both fullbacks pretending to be wingers, things on the right side are again flowing through Alves, who had the most touches. We can’t truly discern what this means yet until Suarez comes on line, and the starting front line is fit and gelled. But the 18 crosses that Alves pumped into the box can provide a statement of intent. Is Enrique planning for the days when he has a player who will be able to get onto the end of those crosses? Valid ask.
What should culers do?
Sit back and enjoy the show. I wish that I “knew” as much as many others, who state with so much certainty and vehemence how some players aren’t good enough. I don’t. Nobody does. People “know” that Fabregas was crap for us, even as he is setting Chelsea on fire. Right situation? Early days? Exactly.
This team has 8 new players that it has to integrate into the team. That is a lot. Some matches it will go beautifully, others it will be a clunky sort of “What the hell?” A rush to judgment, social media frenzy notwithstanding, has the potential to leave us looking rather silly if events prove us wrong.
Despite the vehemence of debate, supporters have precious few tangible things invested in a football club, even as the investments of time and love are so precious. But don’t seek heartbreak. It will find you soon enough, because that is what heartbreak does. Never forget that winning is a state of grace, a rare and wonderful thing that should never be taken for granted, or expected because of who or what somebody is.
It will be important not to overreact, to good OR bad things, but instead to note how everything is coming together. Results do and don’t matter. Barça is supposed to beat Elche, supposed to beat Villarreal. So far, this team has done nothing except begin to sort of fabricate something approaching an answer to some of the questions that surround it after a busy, busy summer. But the phrase of the moment is “wait and see.”