Before the news had really landed, before there was time to even form thoughts about replacement players or to get concerned about squad depth, I tweet out a fairly innocuous little joke about Pedro, Chelsea, and exes. Ugh, I told myself, why them? I’ve been resigned to losing Pedro for the last couple of months and I’m genuinely happy to see him go somewhere where you can imagine he’ll get a lot more game time that at Barcelona. I’m also assuming that he’s getting paid beaucoup dolares for his services, so that cannot be a bad thing either. It’s not like the team came out all that badly either, with a backup earning a €30 million transfer and bringing the net expenditure for the summer to €15 million.
From a sort of macro perspective, that’s not so bad, but leaving aside questions about Pedro’s sanity the obvious problem worth discussing is squad depth. One mode of thinking would be to say that the 1st string lineup is so outlandishly good that it has suffocated the opportunities for backups and caused an slow trickle out the door to greener pastures. Another view would be to say that the youth structure has not produced adequately talented players to step up to the highest level. A third perspective is to point out that the squad has a bloated quality about it right now, like someone stocked it with all the random bits and bobs they could get their hands on only to discover that they had a pantry full of junk. All of that is not actually such a big deal for a team with the financial horsepower of Barcelona, but there’s the tricky detail of the transfer ban.
Despite having forked over €45 million for Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, neither of those two players will be able to appear in the squad until the next transfer window opens on January 4,* which not only leaves the squad without substantive reinforcement in the wake of Xavi’s exit, but also presents a very obvious reason for backups like Pedro to leave. While neither are necessarily automatic starters—Vidal less so than Arda—they should both be reliable pieces of the puzzle for Lucho throughout the second half of the season. Assuming that Barça does make it out of the group stage of the Champions League, their existence will be vital for a deep run in that competition, but that should also be obvious to other rotation players whose minutes will all but dry up once January comes along. Adriano, for instance, should be the most worried player left, but Sergi Roberto and Rafinha can’t be thrilled by Arda’s arrival either. Rakitic can weather this storm simply because he is likely to retain his place and Mathieu and Bartra should have fairly decent amounts of game time, but Thomas Vermaelen should also be worried. Douglas needn’t be worried because he’ll get no playing time anyway.
Obviously that means that the following players should depart: Vermaelen, Sergi Roberto, Adriano, Douglas, and Pedro. The last of those has, in fact, done so and that’s also the biggest blow to the squad. Pedro is a well oiled substitution machine and his off-the-bench contributions will likely be missed. His 11 goals in 50 matches was not particularly amazing, but his last 4 years saw him score 13, 10, 19, and the aforementioned 11. His match winner against Sevilla was a fitting send off and it’s a shame that he had to endure a 4-0 shellacking coupled with missing a potential tying goal. Kevin has already written a fitting tribute to him that is well worth a read if you’ve missed it, so I won’t dwell further on Pedro other than to say I hope he doesn’t win any titles at Chelsea.
The problem with having such a list of “dead weight” is that these players are useful because they cannot be replaced. There are some talented players waiting in the wings, but it is clear that Lucho does not rate them and does not believe they can or will contribute to the first team in the coming campaign. Adama took the hint and roared off to Aston Villa (see what I did there?), leaving a few Twitter personalities fuming. Within the context of a club, a single missed opportunity does not spell doom, but a rather regular decline in the contributions of youth products does spell future problems, especially for a club incapable of signing outside talent.
Therein lies the crux of the problem: you can take a wide variety of views on this and none are necessarily wrong, but the for my money—which is money backed not by the gold standard but by a few empty Snickers bar wrappers and a box of half used crayons—the biggest of these problems was the transfer ban. Forgetting to cross your T’s and dot your I’s is not so bad if you’re a 4th grader, but for a club to do so—willfully or otherwise—is fairly unforgivable. That Lucho proved himself a better coach than expected is the only reason the transfer ban didn’t bring down the entire administration. Admittedly, Bartomeu proved himself a better politician that expected, but even with many of the conservative bloc of voters in his pocket, he would have lost had the team not suddenly gelled and brought in 3 trophies (for the record I think 2 would have been enough, but 3 was icing). For other instances of institutional bungling, look no further than the rumors that the club rushing to Gerard Pique’s defense after the Super Copa second leg was derailed by utter stupidity. Assuming that Barcelona employs a veritable army of lawyers, that seems particularly inept, but possibly highlights why the transfer ban occurred in the first place.
Despite the seeming volume of players, there are only 22 squad players left. With Neymar out (with the mumps!), both Pique and Mathieu suspended for the first week of the season, and with Douglas and Adriano injured, the team feels horribly thin, especially at the back. Where Munir and Sandro can fill in up front despite their relative lack of experience, there is no such trust in Thomas Vermaelen and a larger and larger number are voicing their doubts about Marc Bartra, last year’s “future Pique”. A starting lineup including Bartra and Mascherano at center back is solid enough, but Mathieu’s suspension coupled with Jordi Alba’s continued absence will mean either a radical shift in tactics or Grimaldo being called up from the youth team. Some will say that is the least worst option and others will say it is about time he got a shot. He can’t be worse than pushing Vermaelen wide, can he? Only he’s possibly injured as well, so Doomsday just got a little doomier if you subscribe to that worldview.
Regardless, the truth is that the transfer ban is causing the problems it was predicted to cause and the team will need to rally around its remaining parts to get through the first few weeks of the season. Let’s hope that our forward line can produce the magic it has failed to produce in the last 250 minutes of game time—but then again, Lionel Messi sees no barrier he cannot break. Hopefully he can break the institutional anarchy that appears to be rearing its head throughout Barcelona’s mighty empire.
*Spain and Italy’s window opens on January 4th, while Germany, England, and France get to do business starting on the 2nd. Further, because of today’s schedule rearrangement, the Real Betis game on Jan 2/3 has been moved to December 30/31 and the rest of the schedule has been shifted up a week, so Arda and Aleix will now miss the match at Espanyol originally scheduled for January 9/10 and now slotted into the Jan 2/3 weekend. The Round of 16 of the CDR is scheduled for January 6, but it’s Spain so who knows if they’ll take place then, but for now that is their first eligible match day.