The Andoni Zubizarreta Show has ended, aka “Now we wait and see”

Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona
Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona

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?

Roll call

tfers

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.

The result?

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

villasandro

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.”

villaenrique

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Written by:

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.

28 Comments

  1. dl
    September 4, 2014

    Spot on, in my opinion. The transfers have to be considered in context — both who is available and of those available which fit the team — and in that sense the board has done an exceptional job. Perhaps they had to have their backs against the wall with guns at their heads before they finally acted, because as you point out they have been severely deficient for the past two years.

    There are a lot of good teams out there, and silverware is never guaranteed, but I think we have as good a chance as any, and I am very confident that we’ll get to see some brilliant football!

  2. September 4, 2014

    Brilliant post. Agree on everything. I am happy with the summer transfer dealings and I cannot wait to see how the season plays out. Very excited.

    Also, Kroos is not better than Rakitic so not sure what some people are complaining about. In fact for the sort of player we need, Rakitic is a much better fit. Is it just me or does it seem like he has been playing for us for years? He seems to understand the system so well already. Unlike Madrid, it looks we made signings based on the needs of the team instead of what would look the best to the fans.

  3. September 4, 2014

    Whoa. Dunga just made Neymar Brazil captain.

  4. agar2515
    September 4, 2014

    That’s awesome that he was named captain, he’s ice cool under pressure. Deserves it, makes that entire team go. Can’t really complain about too much like you said. The only thing I wish is for Ter-Stegen to be jn the posts ASAP, he’s just that good.

  5. ciaran
    September 4, 2014

    This has been a very successful transfer season for us. Line by line we’ve improved every section of the team.
    Valdes, individually, is better than any of the three keepers we’ve got but as a group we’re much stronger now with the competition.
    Puyol had been out for so long it’s getting hard to remember when he was himself so having Vermaelen and Mathieu is a luxury.
    Rakitic fills the role of a Barca midfielder better than anyone could have imagined but his play with Sevilla over the past couple of seasons had me all giggly before he was every signed. His pass for Bacca’s chance in extra time of the Europa League final was sublime. Masch playing further forward is also a blessing. His performances with Argentina put pay to any doubts I had about him in midfield again.
    Suarez is a beast in every sense and him feeding off Neymar and Messi is going to be great to watch. Rafinha once fully in the swing of things too will be a great asset considering his very different skill set.

    What more could you ask for in reality. Sure I would have preferred a different player here or there but the glass is overflowing, not half full or empty.

  6. Lord Eddard Stark a.k.a. Brichimbrodvoken, the vulnerable one!
    September 4, 2014

    I think Zubizaretta has always been a good sporting director, just that he was allowed to do his job only this summer, because the board had to attend to the squad to save their asses.

    I really like the fact that we are a team of captains now. And it was necessary after losing monumental captains in Valdes and the legendary Puyol. Apart from the masia flavored captains in iniesta, messi, busquets and xavi, we also have Mascherano (ex captain of argentina and captain material for barca as well in my eyes), Rakitic (captain of sevilla), Suarez (captained ajax), Vermaelen (captained arsenal) and Neymar (now brazil captain). Thats a lot of leadership right there – 9 players who know what it means to lead and take responsibility. That gets me very excited for the coming season. All signings tell me that we are equipped in many areas and we are going to be, once again, a very very hard team to beat.

    Bring it on.

    • dl
      September 4, 2014

      I hadn’t noticed that with the captain-heavy crew. Very good point. I’ve kept to myself over the summer about this year’s team — no point in coming up with a point of view until all the signings have been made — but I feel really stoked about this team. As much as I hate to see the old one go (there were giants in those days….) the new team looks primed! Bring on the epic battles!

    • Lord Eddard Stark a.k.a. Brichimbrodvoken, the vulnerable one!
      September 5, 2014

      Oh, and I forgot Claudio Bravo – the captain of Chile.
      10 Captains we have!

  7. dl
    September 5, 2014

    Sorry for the OT post, but I can’t find it anywhere on the site though I know the info has been posted. I expect to be in Barcelona in October, probably at the time of the first el Clasico! I’d love to see the game — any tips on 1) whether this is just a foolish dream and 2) where to get a ticket or two? and 3) absolutely do not do x, y, or z?

    Many thanks.

  8. September 5, 2014

    Costa pulls out of Spain squad, and Del Bosque calls up Munir from U-21s.

    • barca96
      September 5, 2014

      Happy for him but this is way too soon. I thought it was bad news when I read that Sandro was called up to replace Munir for the u21 team. I thought he disappointed in the last match. Where are the other Spain forwards? Negredo, Soldado? I’m worried it’s going to get over his head. Happy for the kid nonetheless.

    • Huckleberry
      September 5, 2014

      Pure strategic. He’ll be not allowed to play for Morocco’s national team any more if he plays a game for Spain.

  9. barca96
    September 5, 2014

    Kxevin, I suggested this many times before. You should put up a sticky for advice on tickets so that those that are going there wouldn’t need to post the same questions and wait for readers with experience and knowledge (like you) to answer the same thing over and over again.

  10. norden
    September 5, 2014

    Nice article, Kxevin. Thanks!

    Can’t wait to see more games. Why do they have to put a national break when the season barely started.

  11. Serena Andre
    September 5, 2014

    I think we did pretty well this summer. We have a lot of new players, and it will take time before we get a good idea about how this new Barcelona is actually going to look.

    For me, this season really is one match at a time. I think we have a good shot of winning some silverware, but it’s not going to be easy, and I won’t be too heartbroken if we don’t. We have a new coach and a lot of new players after all.

    I also wanted to point out that we didn’t drop points against Villarreal last season. I remember that match like it was yesterday. It was the one our poor guys had to play right after we lost Tito.
    It also involved Dani’s banana incident.

    • Peter
      September 5, 2014

      It also featured four goals by Villareal in a game that finished Villareal 2-3 Barcelona, courtesy of Dani Alves’ innumerable crosses 😀

    • September 5, 2014

      Correct. The only excuses I can offer are a bad memory and … well … a bad memory.

    • Serena Andre
      September 6, 2014

      The best part was when he thanked the fan for throwing him the banana and providing him with the extra energy that helped him make those crosses. 😉

    • Serena Andre
      September 6, 2014

      I really hope he gets to take more FK’s for us this season. He seems to be getting better and better at them.

  12. Peter
    September 6, 2014

    Lots of people wonder why Barcelona opted for arguably three keepers. It´s all about redundancy. There are various examples, some more recent than others, which show why it’s a very good idea:
    1. Bayern vs Borussia in Aptil. Bayern losing 0-1, Neuer got injured, the back-up keeper entered and conceded two in about seven minutes.
    2. Right now Sevilla have had to conscript their B team keeper(Sevilla B play in Segunda B, that’s the Third Division), because their starting GK Beto was injured, and then their new back-up Barbossa was injured as well.
    3. In 2012-13 Casillas broke a finger, Adan entered and Madrid lost quite a bit of points IIRC.
    4. Barcelona conceded a lot more goals and dropped points while Valdes was injured, first while on international duty and then during the Celta Vigo game. I’m not blaming awesome maniac extraordinaire Pinto, he was in a bad situation, but the point remains.
    5. Right now Masip broke a finger, Ter Stegen just got the medical all-clear, but Bravo remains in form. Redundancy.

    Second, that unknown terrible player Douglas. According to some rumours of people who supposedly saw the game arranged for Luis Suarez with the Babies, Douglas impressed, and I mean impressed. Maybe it’s just a rumour, but it seems he isn’t that terrible.

    Other than that I have nothing to add to another fabulous post by Kxevin.

    Just one last thing to add:

    While culers debate whether this or that player are good enough for Barcelona, Real Madrid has another problem:
    With Khedira injured and out for about five weeks more, the only real pivote that Real have is… Illaramendi. Barcelona’s weakest link is the striker team, which has Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Sandro, Munir and if needed could play Iniesta or Rafinha as wingers, or conscript Adama or Dongou from the Babies. Redundancy and polivalence.

    My personal feeling is that Florentino Perez may become quite active in the winter window, especially if Real drop points in La Liga and/or Champions. One shouldn’t forget that apart from everything else Real have to play in the Club World Cup. True, not in Japan, in Morocco, but still these will be two games more while the rest of top teams in continental Europe recharge batteries or train in Doha/Abu Dhabi.

  13. TITO
    September 6, 2014

    “Draft Day” with Kevin Costner is a movie to watch – some similarities with our situation. 😀

  14. barca96
    September 6, 2014

    Zubi did a good job for Suarez transfer at least as he underpaid according to a research. The man does do his job well.

    I wonder if he still has to show up at work every morning now since we are banned for 3 transfer windows. Maybe the club should do away with the technical director position since there is no need for it until 2016 🙂

    • barca96
      September 6, 2014

      And Neymar came before Tata. Tata was given a short list of defenders and looked at the Argentinian player but he didn’t want IIRC.

  15. Messiah10
    September 6, 2014

    I’m really excited for the season and seeing what this team is capable of. I love when Culers rush to judgement and go into panic mode before we’ve even played a handful of games. I’ve liked every signing we’ve made. The only one I haven’t been geeked about is Douglas, but that’s because I just haven’t seen him play or frankly even heard of him. Visca Barca!

    Below is a sweet Busi skills compilation!! Kinda long, but worth every second to watch his beautiful footwork. Amazing.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLZxQxCFWIY

  16. September 6, 2014

    Just knocked out a few thoughts on Munir.

  17. agar2515
    September 13, 2014

    So Bartra Doesn’t make the squad again… Interesting this is demanders now that don’t seem to put all the faith in him. I wonder what it is? I knew I wasn’t being too harsh when I snickered at people that didn’t want to buy more CB’s because it would ” hurt Marc’s development”.

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