Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but the man in that picture at left, want-away whiner Alexander Hleb, could be one of the keys to this season. So the news that he is going with the squad on the Asian tour warms my heart, even though I know that it is to put him in the shop window, in the hopes that somebody, anybody, will pay around 7m for our 15m midfielder.
There is, effectively, a month left in the transfer window. We have bought a little (David Villa, Adriano Correia), sold a galaxy and a Ukranian (The Yaya, Txigrinski), dumped a kid (Gai Assulin) and released some veterans (Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez). Which demands the question** Where are we now?
Where we are is in a position to explain why Hleb could be one of the keys to season, before the natives come running after me with pitchforks and torches, demanding that I explain an assertion that is, prima facie, absurd. But, one of the things that we need, desperately, is midfield cover. We saw it last season, as Xavi ran down for stretches at a time, and Iniesta spent much of the season recovering from varied and sundry injuries, usually to the exact same spot on his right thigh.
Various tricks and tidbits were tried, including running out the World’s Largest Attacking Midfielder who is, alas, now a Citeh player. But what if we’d had a quality midfielder, one who could pass and dribble with accuracy, who could retain possession while taking contact and who came from a first-class European side, so he understood how the game is played at the highest level? The value of such a player would have been immense.
We owned such a player but alas, he was in Stuttgart being a prick and a piss-poor winger. But Hleb is back with the squad. I won’t begin to argue, even for an instant, that he deserves to start, blah, blah, blah. But as a squad player, provided he can sit the hell on the bench, shut his hole and play well when called upon, would mean a great many things, most notably that Xavi wouldn’t have to play those 5-1 matches until the bitter end, thus keeping him daisy-fresh.
Admittely, Hleb being one of the keys to the season assumes that we are going to sit pat during the remainder of the transfer window. Let’s assume that we do, and look at the squad.
Last year, we were thin, and it showed at crucial times. Henry being injured and/or ineffective robbed us of that legitimate left wing threat that made our offense roll so well during the treble season. More importantly, we lost tactical flexibility, the wonderful emergence of Pedro! notwithstanding. This season, ZubiZa (that could be more fun to say than Txiki B.) has intimated on more than one occasion that we will look inward before looking outward, seeing what is on offer from the B ranks before splashing for some player who might be a) expensive, b) vexing and c) not up to standards. Now let’s go spot by spot:
The back line
The starting back line is etched in stone: Alves, Pique, Puyol, Abidal. Rafa Marquez, the most recent defensive departure is for me, in the “good riddance” category. Yes, I respect and admire what he did for the club, but his days of having the physical capabilities to perform at the level required by us were over. We saw that last season. Yes, we lost a defender, but if it’s a defender who can’t be counted on, what have we lost? But, with the sale of Txigrinski, we are suddenly down two back line players, even if they are back line players that got ripped every time they came on to the pitch.
So right now we have in addition to the Fantastic Four, Milito, Andrade and Correia for the back line. Adriano can roam around, filling in where need be, and Milito is a world-class center back. But one more quality center back is a decided need. Yes, we could play Abidal there, some who didn’t watch him as center back for Les Bleus might say. Lord, no. But we do have a farmer or two ready to step up into the role of a squad player: Fontas and Muniesa. The former has already been spoken to by Pep Guardiola, so expect to see more and more of him as a role player.
I think we can save our pennies here, and go with what we have. Our starting quartet have been exceptionally durable, and the addition of Adriano means that we can fill two of the four back line positions with a player who doesn’t bring down the quality all that much. I’m fine with that.
Again, the starting midfield is rock-solid: Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets. The most glaring departure from our midfield is The Yaya, who moved to Citeh for a not-so-cool 24m (would have been 30, but some jackass allowed a “give the Pond Scum some” clause). This robs us of a number of things, including depth, since he could play midfield and back line, intimidation factor (even though he went down a little too easily for me) and just overall Man-ness. Most importantly, we go from 2 1/2 (Keita is the half) defensive mids to 1 1/2, which ain’t a good number. We’re a wrong foot plant away from being screwed, and you need a different kind of player than Busquets. Keita can do that, but this is where I think that we need a signing, a solid squad player who can slide right in without much loss in quality.
Busquets has been very durable, but isn’t always at his best. He also needs pressure to give of his best all the time. Rare is the player who doesn’t. A Marcos Senna would be perfect. He’s ready to end his career somewhere, but still is an excellent player. He’s also cheap which, to hear Sandro Rosell talk, is a pretty big, giant ol’ important thing right now. And what of Oriol Romeu, the 18-year-old, “he’s ready really he is” farmer? He might be ready for Osasunas or Copa matches, but if Busquets is injured and Keita suspended, would you trust our Champions League future to him? No. Sorry, but no. So look for a DM to be purchased before the window closes.
In the attacking midfield phase, in addition to the big two, we have Hleb. But Correia and Andrade can also move up, to perform valuable command and control work in the midfield. Neither is a Xaviniesta, but neither is anybody else on the planet. This is also the season for either Thiago Alcantara or Jonathan Dos Santos to step up, and begin getting more first-team minutes. Voila, hey, whoa, we’re suddenly looking pretty darned deep in the midfield, particularly when you consider that Messi can also slide back, feeding a front line of Villa/Ibrahimovic/Pedro!. No purchases required here, provided Hleb demonstrates that he can be a good boy, and a productive one. And hit those Berlitz Spanish books, eh. Crikey.
This part features three irreplacable players but again, backing them up is quality. The starting trio is, without a doubt, Villa/Ibrahimovic/Messi. Expect the three to swap positions, run around and generally wreak havoc on the opposition. The addition of David Villa brings back the scoring threat from the left, and the presence of Ibrahimovic means that Villa has a grownup around (he was much more effective in the World Cup with Torres on the pitch) to distract, while he does damage.
Villa will also shift defenses because like Henry, he requires the attention of two defenders, as do Ibrahimovic and Messi. This warms my heart. But after them, we have Pedro! and Bojan Krkic, players who would probably be playing regularly for most clubs in the world. I expect P! to be a stalwart, wonderful first sub. He might even start in some situations. I predict that this is going to be a difficult year for Krkic, because all three front-liners are durable as well as brilliant, making it difficult for him to get the reps that he needs to develop. This is also going to be a tough one for the oft-injured Jeffren, because one sub role is now filled by P!, and the other by Krkic. Where does he sit on the depth chart? On paper, it’s on the outside, looking in. I would add Jonathan Soriano to that mix, a farmer who is 24, and into prime “Will he or won’t he” territory.
We have Pinto, and Valdes, who is exceptionally durable. Pinto is an excellent keeper for Copa matches and other situations that don’t require Valdes. A high-quality third keeper would be a luxury, but given the quality and durability of both our current keepers,
So, as we begin the Asian tour, I like our squad, and don’t think that we need to spend another penny, except for an inexpensive but manly DM. This one’s easy, and there are a number of choices, none of which will unduly tax the remaining 40m of our transfer budget.
But enough from me. What say ye?
**Nerdy editor’s note: To beg the question isn’t equivalent to demanding a question. Yes, it is one of those lovable misuses that has come to be considered truth. Instead, it’s a way of, in effect, calling B.S. on a point that defies logic. It’s part of an intellectual or logical argument. So, “Pique could be a great midfielder because midfielders pass a lot, and Pique passes a lot.” The logic is flawed, thus begging the question, as you may well wonder what the mere act of passing has to do with being a great midfielder? Gotcha.
And that’s what I know.