When FC Barcelona was granted the emergency signing of a player in the wake of the catastrophic injury to Ousmane Dembele, it’s a pretty safe bet that Martin Braithwaite wasn’t the player anyone envisioned.
There is nothing about him, nothing about his stats that cry out for his inclusion in the Barça squad. Yes, his national team coach and teammates are effusive about his qualities, from effort and running in behind the defense to defending and work rate. But hell, Sergi Roberto does that.
Braithwaite comes to the club at a particularly fraught time, when people are asking if it wouldn’t be better for the club to lose matches so that a mutiny would result in the board being swept off the face of the earth by a tsunami of disapproval. The last short-term signing, Jerome Boateng, is brought up in many conversations about Braithwaite, a signing that seems to benefit Espanyol by weakening a relegation rival in Leganes, more than it might benefit Barça.
When a player comes to a club that is undergoing any sort of a crisis, especially in the almost perpetually roiling cauldron that is Barça, the tendency is to look at what is necessary to make the move represent something bad. “These people did it, so it can’t be good. His coach is just being nice in saying all that good stuff. He sucks.” It’s weird, the desire for something bad to happen so that something good can happen comes, and how it can permeate everything, even a signing that might not be as bad as so many anticipate.
We saw it in Paulinho, a player deemed to be beneath the necessary standard for a club such as Barça, where every touch of the anointed was a glitter bomb that flecked our feverish brows with stardust. Paulinho tried a few tricks and flicks at his presentation, and culers laughed, as they did with Braithwaite. But that wasn’t Paulinho’s game, and it isn’t Braithwaite’s either. And even when many saw what Paulinho’s game was they scoffed, choosing to ignore how effective it was because that was as fun as being “right” about a player people didn’t want.
So what about Braithwaite? Surely there was something in him that Setien and the technical staff saw that warranted ponying up 18m. Depends on who you ask, but it’s worth a look.
Braithwaite is fast, and quick. So he not only gets up to speed quickly, but sustains that speed. In thinking about the one thing that the Barça attack lacks, it is pace. Messi is quick, but not fast. Griezmann is neither quick nor fast. Ansu Fati is quick. Ansu Fati is also 17, as Nyom reminded us very recently. The return of Dembele was greeted with anticipation by so many, because of what pace and the addition of a player to move a defense around would bring to the attack programming of Setien. What if Braithwaite is that player?
When Luis Suarez went down with his knee injury, when Dembele was felled by his hamstring, the biggest loss for Barça tactically is that both are players who can move a defense around. Dembele does it through pace, Suarez does it through movement in the box. Moving a defense is essential because as we have seen recently in the absence of such a thing, Barça has to rely on the ball and player movement to slide defenses around, which doesn’t always work as more disciplined defenses just look to control areas of the pitch, managing whatever comes rather than tracking specific players or the ball. This has turned Messi into a prolific provider of assists, but it has also neutralized Griezmann, who needs space to move into.
The way that the team moves into attack now is at times precarious, particularly in the face of a pressing opponent. Ter Stegen plays a pass to a fullback. who might slide it to a CB or mid, and the ball winds its way up the pitch. The one-touch grace isn’t possible, because of the press, which will either work the ball loose from a moment of slack possession, or foul to disrupt. Then the process resumes.
In the other scenario, a defense allows Barça the possession it wants, the control that it thinks it has, just stroking the ball around just outside the dangerous part of the pitch, 80 percent possession and no shots on goal. In both cases, there is nothing dynamic to move the defense, so now what?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s the time for a player with pace to rip at the fabric of a defense. For those who don’t remember, or started following the club after that first Guardiola year, a keeper or mid used to just knock a ball into space for Thierry Henry to run onto, using his pace to open up the pitch. He would either cut in and shoot, or hold up play until the rest of the team got into position. Either way, it worked time and again. And no, Braithwaite isn’t Henry, or he would have cost significantly more than 18m, and he wouldn’t have needed to be plucked from the bosom of a relegation side. But Tello worked pretty darn well in the context of Barça side in which he played.
But this Barça team doesn’t need Henry as much as it needs something to shift the defense, to create passing lanes and openings. And maybe Setien and the technical staff see potential for that in Braithwaite. Some want to promote someone from B, but who? What player has the necessary attributes? It’s interesting to consider how few successful forwards have come from B level and why that is. Maybe it’s something to do with what the club recruits, players with skill on the ball, tactical nous and a good head. Football still doesn’t see the possibility of a player having two things, physical attributes and skill on the ball. Even now the structure of football so often separates players into technicians or studs. Where does Braithwaite fall on that spectrum, and can a player who is merely “pretty good” help a team excel.
There was a time when signings were exciting for culers, a time when we sat at keyboards, looked at attributes, strengths and weaknesses, in discussion of what a player could potentially bring to the side. At some point, that changed. Now, every signing is going to be a failure, “And here’s why.” Too expensive, too unskilled, too cheap, not good enough, not world class. Coutinho wasn’t going to make it, neither was Dembele, and what the hell are they signing Griezmann for. Ugh. It’s like we’re afraid to see or say anything positive, for fear of the, “When he came, you said … ” Tweet.
Yes, history has proved it was right to ask those questions about past transfers, but there is a joylessness about everything around Barça right now that has changed even how we look at transfers. It’s like hope is gone. For sure, Braithwaite might turn out to be another failure, but what is life if we never allow for the possibility of something beautiful, something delightful that might confound our expectations?