In the wake of a transfer window with a lot of noise but not a lot of action on deadline day, we’re left with a squad that is rather good. We’re also left with some bile. Let’s deal with that first.
So much of the potential business the club did, could and couldn’t do was defined by failure. Not only the failure of a project — mind, you have to have one first, but also the failure of planning, the failure of anything vaguely proactive and the utter failure of the people tasked with stewardship of this club to leave it in a position to do anything except rely on the kindness of strangers to accomplish stuff.
In addition to doling out geezers on frees to strengthen European rivals in a desperate bid to lighten the salary load, it sent Rafinha to PSG, again on a free, and sent a young, talented CB in Jean-Clair Todibo to Benfica on loan for 2m. The club is said to be angry with Todibo because a 20m buy offer came for the French talent in summer, but the player refused. And in all frankness, Todibo has no obligation to make anything at all easy for the club that lured him, then proceeded to treat him like the shit on its shoes before sending him off to Schalke. Then they brought him back, where the club said, “Find a new home, because you won’t play here.” So he did. The club is angry because a player clearly, after all this, meant to be a profit center essentially told them to eat a bag of dicks. Good on him.
Compounding the idiocy, they sent Todibo off to Benfica before closing the deal for Eric Garcia, who wanted to leave Manchester City but Barça couldn’t get a deal done because City rightly said, “If you want to leave on a free, okay. But if a European rival wants you early to strengthen themselves, it will cost.” So City as well told Barça to eat a bag of dicks. They had to chase Garcia because their CB ranks consist of a geezer, some wounded knees, a CB excellent in context and a newly promoted talent. So the club has four CBs, alright, but it kinda doesn’t. Makes the inability to get the De Ligt deal over the line even more painful.
They also wanted to do a deal for Memphis Depay because boy, howdy, Koeman liked him. Lyon dropped the price, sent over the paperwork in prep, did everything except wrap the player in swaddling clothes and deliver him to Camp Nou. And shame on the club for pushing the narrative that Dembele had to leave for Depay to come. They don’t play the same position, and in fact could work well together. Depay didn’t come because the club is broke. It couldn’t find 20m in the sofa cushions to give the new manager what he wanted. That deadline day was on the same day that the club announced precisely HOW broke it is should have been a harbinger of something.
And Lyon, who didn’t want to lose Depay on a free and thought they had him sold, is probably also making gustatory suggestions for the people who run FC Barcelona.
But the club is in such a state that the accountants dictate the sporting project. Gotta reduce the wage bill, can’t buy until we sell. And they were running the club into the ground even before the pandemic hit, so any potential sympathy for the COVID-sparked losses is minimal. The board did this, a group rightly facing a successful censure motion.
Now, the good part
It has been a very long time that a Barça manager has been able to call upon a squad as deep as the one Koeman has. The only two “Uh, so … ” players on it are Martin Braithwaite and Matheus Fernandes, both on the squad because like Umtiti and Dembele, the club couldn’t find them a new forever home. And let’s take a moment to laud the good business that the club could manage. Pedri, Trincao and Dest will all be key parts of the team. They’re all so young that even if they all wanted to gather and crack a bottle of booze to celebrate, only two of them could legally do so in Spain. Pedri would have to drink Orangina or something. Between those three, and the promotions of Fati, Puig and Araujo, the average age of the roster took a dip, even if the age of the XI is still up there.
But this roster also has more questions than a four-yaer-old, many projects for a manager who doesn’t strike anyone as a nurturer. But the payoff for acting like one could be massive.
Koeman will have to find a way to get Firpo back to something like the player that he was at Betis. He will also have to establish a detente with Dembele, and get Umtitl healthy so that he can be a viable option. He will need to bring Dest along right, and get De Jong more consistent. And Griezmann is beginning to look like a psychologically damaged player, so that’s another project for a man who already has his hands full. If he gets it all right, a massive task, he has a Barça squad that will be able to do everything. If he misses on too much of it, there’s another potential 8-2 in his future.
Team speed is still insufficient, and while the affection for technical players is adorable, at some point you need horses to fight a battle. Sevilla’s Kounde made Fati look 17 going on 16 rather than 17 going on 25. Pedri is a dynamo, but in a weightlifting contest against Puig, the outcome would be uncertain. Trincao is brilliant but young, and Dest would, ideally, be learning from a fully vested backup. His growing pains will be front and center this season.
But there is a nice, tighter sine wave of talent that means lineups can, and hopefully will be malleable. Dembele gives something different than Trincao who gives something different than Griezmann. And Coutinho has returned, ready for battle. The attack worries less than the midfield and defense. Even in their dotage, there is no competition for the places of Busquets, Pique or Alba, and that seems … wrong. All three have slowed, and aren’t the players they once were. But all three are undisputed starters, another indictment of the people in charge of the sporting project. Football isn’t the place to revere your elders.
The team struggles to play out of the back, and loaned the one CB it had who could bring the ball out in a way that solves that issue. (Sighhhh … ) The midfield is still susceptible to pressure, and that a key component of the attack is a precocious winger isn’t entirely confidence-inspiring. Sevilla shut Fati down with Kounde, leaving Messi to fend for himself as Griezmann was his usual not-quite-enough self.
The right side of attack is a desert, the left too predictable. There were sparks of something that will be fun to watch in a season or so when Pedri and Dest got to fluff their feathers on the regular. But there is nothing that looks set to clearly shake up Koeman’s preferred XI. This season will be a test of his bravery. Fati and Dembele flanking Griezmann while Messi rests? Why not? How wedded is he to the double pivot, which was less fluid and fluent against a more resolute opponent. It would be giddy to see this squad in the hands of a Bielsa, Klopp or Guardiola. We have Koeman, and a season to assess how he does. And this we will do, even as in spare moments we can mourn the institutional ineptitude that kept a good, deep squad from becoming a great one.