What do you hang onto, and why? Favorite pieces of clothing? Shoes? Love letters or cards?
Our brains are constantly shuttling information, helping us file away or forget things to make room for new bits of data. We don’t forget because we want to, we forget because we have to. This makes our brain a lot like a big football club, which must constantly serve many tasks. It has to win, build for the future,support its youth and respect its veterans. In other words, a big club has to do the impossible.
The Barça sporting director, Robert Fernandez, had a presser at which he confirmed many things: Alves is leaving, Bartra is leaving, Adriano can leave, but the club hasn’t received any concrete calls, Mascherano is staying, Neymar will renew and stay, Sandro is leaving, he and Luis Enrique know where the team needs reinforcement and what they would like to do, Carles Alena will spend his summer with the first team. It was a fascinating laundry list that included all of the things necessary for a big club, the constant churn of bodies and tasks.
In that list is getting rid of the past, ensuring the future and tending to youth. Alves is, naturally, the biggest focus so it’s worth starting there with something that isn’t all that pleasant to say, which is that the evolution of Barça has made him surplus to requirements. This is true even as Robert said that the club didn’t want Alves to leave, which is certainly true in a philosophical sense. But …
Alves has a big salary, and the club won’t be sorry to see that go. Alves also has a big mouth, and as charming as we find it, the club won’t be sorry to see that go, either. The game and how it is played at Barça has also shifted. The left side of attack is now where the action is, with Alba and Neymar as well as a frolicking Iniesta. And now that Messi is becoming more of a player who lives up to the heritage of his number, those dazzling forward forays between Alves and Messi have, of necessity, changed.
As Alves became as much auxiliary midfielder as right back, the interesting question was always going to be whether that necessary shift would also make him an extra, now that the needs for the right side have changed. In a world where Sergi Roberto can be almost as effective for a third of the price, some hard questions need be asked. Alves wanted security, the club didn’t want to give it to him because of the needs that it has. And if you are going to retool a bit, the time after a treble followed by a double is perfect.
Circumstances have made Alves no longer essential from a sporting aspect, a cold-hearted analysis that doesn’t suit a world of romance where supporters fall in love every season as accountants make furious calculations because for them, athletes are just entries on a balance sheet. Alves was and is, vividly, engagingly human. He plays with kids at trophy celebrations, hangs with Masia players, he’s the capricious side of everyone and an everlasting delight. He’s also an athlete and a businessman who has to make decisions that are right for his future, just like the club that he used to play for.
None of this takes into account the biggest question, which is how we want to remember our great players. Xavi went out draped with streamers and confetti after a treble celebration, still with plenty of magic in his legs. Alves went out, mic in hand, saying Barça is the best club ever, backed by the sound and fury of a double celebration. Do we want that, or a guy who no longer has that step, who supporters are clamoring for the departure of as he is a shadow of his wonderful, vibrant self. The best memories leave us wanting more. Clubs don’t care about that, but if they have to let a veteran go, it ideally is one year before he falls apart. This makes him easy to move, easy to point to and say “Whew!” when the inevitable happens.
Complicating those decisions is that Barça has, right now, a once-in-a-lifetime generation of talent that the club doesn’t want to waste. This messes with another aspect of the list of big-club tasks, bringing along youth players, which is something that requires time, patience and a willingness to soak up youthful errors. A club that is rebuilding or sitting mid-table can give Munir the playing time he needs to develop his prodigious talents. Barça, where every goal is potentially season-defining, doesn’t have that luxury.
Not wanting to waste the dwindling time of legends in the making also leads to something that many snarl is “short-termism,” but is in fact a judgment call. You only get one Iniesta, only one Messi. So you sign a Turan instead of bringing along a youth midfielder because you have no time to waste. But you also look at youth players in the summer, when nothing is at stake, to file away impressions for the future. Some go on loan, never to return, others are sold with buybacks. It’s all part of what goes on, and what must go on.
Youth players also sometimes mature into an athlete who doesn’t quite meet standards. Marc Bartra is moving on because he has more questions than answers, and the club is, at the moment, tired of asking them. So he will be sold with a buyback, which helps supporters who love him, or overrate him because of the academy roots, feel better. It also helps soothe the feelings of the player, even as everyone knows that he won’t be returning to Barça. Understanding when a player isn’t cutting it and turning him loose is another part of the business that is the game we love.
It’s all part of the planning, even when that planning sometimes fails. Valdes goes, Ter Stegen comes, Bravo is the bridge. Xavi leaves, Iniesta is there. Alves leaves, club is ready with Sergi Roberto and Vidal. Puyol left, and there was Mascherano. Players come and go, plans are made, succession strategies put into place.
Supporters want a club to win, respect and revere veterans, bring along youth in the exact right way, win, do good business buying and selling and have every transfer be exactly right. Supporters are, most of the time, as unrealistic as unicorns that poop gold bricks. Youth players might not be good enough because of the stratospheric quality of the Barça XI. But you also buy a Turan instead of taking a risk on promoting a Samper or Kaptoum because the sure thing provides greater value for the existing, aging talent that you have. Kaptoum or Samper will take two years to mature into full brilliance. In that time, Iniesta will be 34, Messi 31. Too late, so let’s get this done now. Youth can wait and, in that circumstance, should wait. The club makes them understand, then plugs its ears as supporters scream about youth being ignored. Context and perspective are important.
Youth players moving into a senior side have to be good enough. Is there a B player who could even crack Barça’s first-team roster as a sub right now? Maybe Samper. That’s it. So now what? Turan and the seeming short-termism that is, for many, acknowledgement that the team’s core is aging, and fast. There aren’t that many treble windows left so every one needs to be taken advantage of. This requires judicious rebuilding. You can take a risk with a Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal right-side combo to replace Alves because of the necessities of that new task, even as supporters will judge new players by the standard of a past player and find the new player wanting. That’s human nature. “The guy who did that job did it this way. That defines the job.”
But of course, Barça has young players in the first-team roster that also require care and feeding. If Ter Stegen is going to be the No. 1 keeper next season, Javier Mascherano will be a welcome sight, with his veteran nous and calm stability, the two things a fledgling keeper will most need. He and Pique will also be around to help the new right side of defense, whether it’s fixing a mistake, correcting and reminding or just being calm and stable. If Denis Suarez and Rafinha will grow into something magical, the veteran cutting edge of a player such as Arda Turan is important, as well as the mentoring of captain Iniesta.
A deeper look makes us wonder if Robert’s delight at Mascherano staying says something about the club’s desire or ability to splash big for a CB this summer. Why spend 50m for a CB when you have Mascherano, who will almost certainly start if he is fit. So the club takes a risk or two, replaces Mathieu and Vermaelen with a young CB and a quality veteran, and moves on. The sporting director won’t care a whit about the 19-year-old hipster CB favorite that some supporters are screaming that the club didn’t sign, because there are other necessities that are more important.
Alves is leaving on a free, which is a nice gesture by the club, but also crucial. Alves’ salary means that if a club has to also pay a transfer fee for him, a deal becomes a lot more difficult. That’s another part of the financial balance necessary for a big club to do what it needs to do. The timing for the move is also perfect.
The summer will, for FC Barcelona, be fascinating. We always knew that some players were going to be moving on this summer. Both Alves and Mascherano were on many lists, even as the latter was always more likely to stay. Alves brings something magical, a crazy intangible, but so does Mascherano. In the cold-hearted calculus that big clubs perform, the equations worked out right for one and not the other. And that’s okay, because it has to be.