Resisting the De Ligt temptation

This is a guest post by Eric Coffin-Gould, sharp observer of the game. You can find him on Twitter at @coffingould.

I am not one to quickly buy into any transfer rumor. However, there is now enough smoke to say that Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt are seriously eyeing each other. Whether or not the transfer ends up happening, the 19-year-old Ajax captain wants to move to Barcelona, and Éric Abidal and co are evidently considering forking out at least €70m for him.

They should not.

I get the temptation: De Ligt’s talent is inarguable. While no 19-year-old is a sure thing, De Ligt has already proven himself on the biggest stages and shows maturity beyond his age. He is already a starter for the Netherlands, and there is little doubt that he will soon be a starter for one of Europe’s elite clubs. Barcelona always want the best players — more importantly, they don’t want to see him wind up at Real Madrid. But is that worth hamstringing themselves financially and screwing up their squad development?

Looking at Barça’s squad right now, there are several clear needs. 1) A striker to replace Luis Suárez, which was an obvious hole last summer and becomes more obvious every time the Uruguayan forgets how to control a football for a couple weeks at a time. 2) A left-back to supplement Jordi Alba, who despite being the best in the world in his position and enjoying a new contract, is still just one man (slash quokka). 3) A winger, more so if Ousmane Démbéle cannot stay fit and Malcom does not factor into Ernesto Valverde’s long-term plans.

Only then does one get to the center backs. Gerard Piqué is 32, and has at least one more season as an undisputed starter, and probably two (Carles Puyol was a starter until 34, and had done far more damage to his body). Samuel Umtiti has some question marks around him due to injury and rumored surgery, but is one of the finest defenders in the world when fit, and still only 25. Clement Lenglet, just 23(!), has been so good that Umtiti’s absence has been barely felt. And then, as a cherry on top, we have Jean-Clair Todibo, a 19-year-old picked up on a free who is supposed to be quite good and has already impressed Ernesto Valverde (no easy task).

Where in all that does De Ligt fit in? He may well turn out to be better than each of them, and few would be surprised if he became the best defender of his generation — but how much is incremental improvement worth?

Consider the following facts:

  1. It is far easier to find a great defender for cheap than a great attacker. Historically, there are few examples of low-budget forwards that have performed at the top level, and plenty of such defenders
  2. Center back is by and large the most difficult position on the field to rotate, due to the fact that center backs run the least and rely on collective communication the most.
  3. An attacker that plays alongside Messi carries outsize importance to Barcelona’s success (see Dani Alves, Luis Suárez)
  4. Barcelona’s wage bill last season was the highest in Europe, nearly €100m more than Real Madrid, making up an insane 70% of the club’s turnover (Madrid was at 53%).

In all of this, as Barcelona plan for the future, they need to be ruthlessly pragmatic and consider their most pressing needs first and foremost. When Luis Suárez was signed, he was the perfect fit for what Barça needed, and catalyzed a new level for Lionel Messi. Messi’s twilight years will be conditioned by how the forward line is built around him as Suárez ages out. And Barcelona’s Champions League success will be conditioned by how well they can replace Suárez’s goals — as Madrid have shown, replacing a superstar striker is not an easy task.

We have already seen how bad the team looks when Suárez is out of form, or when they lack a wide 1-on-1 threat in Démbéle. Youth and speed up front are a necessity this summer. There aren’t clear transfer targets yet, but whoever that attacker is, whether a traditional 9 or a wide forward, he will cost a lot of money. And Barcelona are already in the red as transfers are concerned given the form and price of Philippe Coutinho, a player they spent €135m on and are likely to sell for half that.

De Ligt is a nice-to-have. If we’re being honest with ourselves, so was Frenkie De Jong, given the team’s sudden surplus of midfield talent. Barcelona already chose one extraordinary Dutch youngster to splurge 70m plus; they don’t get to have every toy in the store, no matter how tempting they are. They have to sit down, and budget, and run the club like adults.

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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.