An occasional feature where T. Johnson, BFB’s business correspondent, examines the economic situation and ways to improve The Club’s management.
The team is entering the most fun part of the season. The stakes are high and so are the emotions. Coming out of the customary “February slump” and dealing with health issues and suspensions, the rumor mill has picked up steam. As good as this team is, some adjustments are required.
Learning from mistakes
It’s not the fact most people would rush to acknowledge but every defeat carries a valuable lesson. Smart is the man who can get over the emotions and be able to learn from the unpleasant experience. Let’s examine the most notable “failures” since Guardiola took over: Hleb, Chygrynskiy, Caceres, Henrique, Keirrison, and to a lesser extent Zlatan, Henry, and Eto’o.
A few patterns emerge:
- Foreigners (ex: Zlatan, Hleb and Chygrynskiy have Eastern European mentalities)
- Young and not mature enough to handle the pressure and responsibility at a club as big as FCB (Caceres, Henrique, Keirrison, Hleb, Chygrynskiy)
- No La Liga experience and limited familiarity with the language and culture (Eastern Europeans, Henry and Abidal)
- Ego (Eto’o and Zlatan; in this particular case the amount of money invested raised the expectations and put significant pressure on the player)
Another equally important factor is the humbling one is likely to experience when practicing every day with the core of this current FCB’s team. Sure, any newcomers get a general idea watching the tape and, if (un)lucky, head-to-head on field. It is, however, different than seeing Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets do amazing things as a part of their daily routine.
You can imagine the impact it can have on someone coming from the outside where he enjoyed star status, constant praise, and admiration. It takes a strong character and time to handle this effect. I am speaking from a personal experience. It is why Henry underperformed during his stay at The Club and why Hleb was a total disappointment. Same goes for Caceres and Henrique. It took Abidal two seasons to get accustomed to it.
Armed with this knowledge, it is easy to devise a list of requirements. Some will weigh more in decision making process than the others:
- Necessary skill set for the position (exceptional ball handling skills, quick decision making, fast with and without the ball)
- Cost (transfer fee + salary vs. projected on-field contribution and endorsements)
- La Liga experience and familiarity with the language and culture
- Psychological profile (intelligent, strong work ethic, family and team oriented)
5a. Medical history
5b. Played in a similar system
5c. Familiarity with EPL top teams
For the CF position in particular, the focus should be on athleticism (height and robustness), maturity (to cope with the expectation and limited minutes), and proven track record.
Making sure a player scores high in the aforementioned analysis would virtually ensure the shortest possible adaptation process before he starts to contribute in a meaningful way. The long-term investments (a player scheduled to yield returns not in the immediate future) are excluded from this analysis.
Now that we identified what kind of players are more likely to succeed, let’s look at the areas that need to be improved on. I prefer to look at the bigger picture, starting my analysis with identifying general needs and then looking for different ways to satisfy those needs at the lowest possible cost.
The needs listed below are ranked from highest to lowest priority:
1. Impact players available on the bench to come in and change the momentum (the lack thereof was painfully obvious against Arsenal in London).
2a. Establish a credible threat on the left wing. If “we” can consistently get at least 80-85% of what Messi-Xavi-Alves partnership is yielding on the right side this team is going to be almost “unplayable”. It being a LB or LW, one marquee signing is a must.
2b. Add depth, versatility and athleticism to the forward line.
3. Add new weapons to our arsenal (set pieces and long distance shooting)
4. Slightly increase the roster size in order to lower the risk of injuries and the potential impact they might have
Shortly after successfully completing the election campaign, our new president guaranteed €50M for transfers. More recently on February 9th, Vice-President of finance Javier Faus stated that the transfer budget will be in the €40M ballpark. It is interesting that the transfer budget seemingly shrunk even though the shirt sponsorship deal has been signed in the meantime.
Yet some details are still unknown:
a. How did they determine the budget? Are the proceeds from future expected sales already accounted for?
b. If so, what is the valuation for selling the loanees and possibly a starter?
c. Zlatan’s transfer. If the expected funds from this transaction are going towards the transfer budget, is it going to be only the first payment or the lump sum (rumored €24M). Is there an option in the contract that allows Milan to include a player in the deal and reduce the cash outlay?
Management would be wise to look for additional funds through:
- Salary reductions (I’m struggling to understand why exactly Villa is paid as much as Xavi and Iniesta on the top of the €40M we already sunk in)
- Cut the on loan players without perspective (Hleb, Henrique, Keirrison)
- Trim the fat (Maxwell, Bojan, Jeffren, and even Keita) for €20M+ in transfer fees and salary savings
“For the CF position in particular, the focus should be on athleticism (height and robustness), maturity (to cope with limited minutes and expectations), proven track record, and consistency.”
This player is scheduled to have limited minutes and will be introduced mainly:
- Against very defensive teams
- In the 3-4-3 alignment. Such system would accommodate both Messi or Iniesta at “false 9″ and a more physical striker.
This formation would confuse the opposing defenders and present them with a dilemma. To lose shape (step up to block shots and/or prevent Messi dribbling) or stay back to cover the striker and allow Messi to shoot. Either way, they will have to contract to the middle which would in return leave greater amounts of space on either flank for a winger and a quality, offensive-minded LB to exploit by either hitting a useful cross, one higher than 6′ off the ground that someone is actually able to connect to, or go straight for the goal.
I Higuain (23, 6’1″), Llorente (26, 6’5″)
II Forlan (31, 5’10″), Nilmar (26, 5’11″), Kanoute (33, 6’3″), Trezeguet (33, 6’3″)
III Moving Villa to the middle (only in 3-4-3)
For the record, I value Higuain very high. Good on the ball, sturdy, and fast. Most importantly, he keeps things simple and is fairly comfortable with his weaker foot. He rarely holds the ball too long or tries to make an extra dribble. Add the age and durability, sans the current back issue, and you have yourself a very competitive, long-term solution. Madrid would be right to pay Capello a hefty bonus for recruiting and developing a player like that.
It is always fun to fantasize. Life, however, is not a video game. Higuain and Llorente are too young and too good to have limited minutes. Even at Barça. High salary demands and the interest of other clubs further rightfully complicate things. I would authorize paying the premium only in case “we” have excess cash and other major roster improvements had been made at a discount.
The team would also have to start playing in the 3-4-3 alignment more often, something that Rijkaard had been experimenting with, most notably at Anfield trying to offset the 1-2 first leg loss.
Consequently, the options I am looking at are Forlan, Kanoute and possibly Nilmar if the required fee is reasonable. Lacking height, Forlan would be acting as a “Larsson” with more confidence, the most recent Golden Ball winner, and the minimal adaptation process. His above-average long-distance shooting would be a great weapon to add.
Kanoute had an obvious impact in “our” most recent trip to Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. He would bring more height and probably the least amount of drama in regards to the playing time due to his character and the required investment.
Once again, a less pricey option would be advisable considering the expected playing time and to avoid putting too much pressure on the player. The transfer amount can hamper his production level.
The player currently occupying the position, Villa, is a work in progress. Compared to the beginning of the season the improvement is evident, but he still lacks consistency.
What I would like to see at the position is someone who can stretch the opposing defenses by dribbling quickly and successfully to his left followed by a useful cross to the box. Picture Messi playing at the left and look at the first half of the most recent USA – Argentina friendly for the hands-on explanation. Villa is cutting almost exclusively to his right (80%+) and doesn’t trust his left foot nearly as much as he should.
An additional player would provide much needed depth to the front 3. The team’s only option at the moment is Bojan. Not something a smart manager is likely to rely on. Ideally, “we” would be able to field a Pedro equivalent: a hard-working, consistent player who keeps it simple at an affordable price.
I: Kun Aguero (personal favorite), Rossi
II: Mata, Jesús Navas
This list excludes Pato and Neymar because I have them scoring slightly lower thanks to higher uncertainty about the adaptation process and level of contribution. Let me be clear, they are both exceptionally talented, but the latter one would be a long-term investment with the uncertain outcome due to his reported character. It would also force us to enter a bidding war and pay a premium.
Taking into consideration that there is no guaranteed starting spot, the acquisition shouldn’t warrant a big expenditure. Mata and Navas emerge as the most logical options. Mata is not what you would call a high profile player. Pep has praised him and it is easy to see why: a Spaniard familiar with La Liga and some of our players from the time spent with the Spanish National Team.
Navas is a player that mimmicks Pedro to larger degree only he is even faster. An additional flexibility would come from being able to move him to the either side when neccessary. As for the negotiations, playing for Sevilla at the moment, it would give us the opportunity to use Caceres and some others as a makeshift weight.
The alternative? In case the team doesn’t increase the threat coming from the LB position, I would approve to commit more funds and pursue Kun or Rossi. With Villa being close to 30 and limited ability described above, a smart acquisition here would have both immediate impact in terms of depth and variety as well the long-term effect once that player gets more familiar with our system and develops the timing with the mid-fielders.
Now that the “Alves saga” is over, the defensive needs are easier to assess. The main question would be: are we bringing this guy in to be a starter? If so, how long is it going to take for him to adapt and start producing? A detail allowing us more flexibility is that it is all but certain that Abidal will be in top physical shape and hungry in August. That is going to allow the potential newcomer much needed calmness and time to develop.
a. Abidal starting
b. Adriano starting
c. Make an acquisition
The individuals I have identified as potential targets are Clichy, Coentrao, and Bastos (not necessarily in that order). I had limited time available for scouting and I do allow there is a prospect already playing in La Liga that I had overlooked.
I have Clichy (25, 5’8″, 154) ranked slightly higher due to his athleticism and familiarity with EPL opposition he brings. Also, he would probably be cheaper to acquire than Coentrao. A detail of minor importance, I was very impressed with that cross he hit at Camp Nou last year. A first touch cross that had both a tremendous spin and velocity, right on the money. As close to being perfect as ever. A cross that brings a smile to every striker’s face followed by a rhetorical: “Why can’t every cross be like that?”
Coentrao (22, 5’10 1/2″, toothpick) has cultured left foot and scores more often. He would probably be able to adjust more quickly than Clichy since he is more familiar with the language and culture. On a down side, I am worried about his build. He looks very thin and fragile and as such is more likely to get hurt, be pushed around, and “dive”. Let’s also not forget the absence of common sense concerning the valuation Portuguese clubs place on their players. A bidding war resulting in paying a premium price is a likely occurrence.
The advantage Bastos (27, 5’10″, 156) has is the experience playing for a high quality side like the Brazilian National Team. I also believe he would be the easiest one to have flexed up field in the time of need. Kinda goofy looking and would complement Alves in that department. The relatively good relationship we have with Lyon after acquiring Abidal should help us craft a favorable deal.
Having a player like Abidal on the same roster would prove beneficiary to either Clichy or the Brazilian. Not only does he speak the same language, he has actually spent considerable time playing at the position and was recruited from the outside. Such input is very valuable when entering a new environment and is likely to speed up the adaptation process.
The system “we” have in place doesn’t require the defenders to be exceptional tacklers or have tremendous presence in the air. Focus is on the ball handling skills, mid to long range passing, vision and understanding of the system (positioning). The latter one would take considerable time for any newcomer to master. Look no further than The Ukrainian. A individual with well-above-average intelligence, he struggled. As a general rule, preferably all the defenders would be able to communicate in the same language and quickly.
A lot depends on what happens at the LB position and if Abidal will permanently slide to the middle. Now that Fontas is promoted and pending what Milito decides to do, the only adjustment I would make is to bring back Caceres and/or Henrique. I don’t see any other prospects that fit the profile and the budget. One of the Bilbao’s defenders could possibly be worth a second look and Zubizaretta would likely give us an edge in negotiations.
(Never have I seen Bojan as tensed. Look how determined he is to make sure that ball travels another yard)
Caceres is doing very well at Sevilla and has enriched his experience by playing against the Serie A opposition. He is likely more mature and confident than when he originally joined us. The move would also give us an additional option at the RB when Alves is not available or the opponent requires a more physical approach.
Henrique might be ready but I think he is out of favor with Pep. There are some questions about his confidence level too.
The related depth chart would look like:
RB: Alves, Adriano, Caceres
CBR: Pique, Puyol, Caceres
CBL: Abidal, Puyol, Milito, Fontas
LB: Adriano, Abidal, Acquisition
This gives us n!/(n-r)! = 3,024 permutations minus specific player’s inability to play on the opposite side (ex. Alves, Abidal) and different position (ex. Adriano in the middle, Fontas at RB).
Then there is Cesc Fabregas. The valuations have been thrown around by sources of questionable credibility but the truth is we don’t know the transfer fee at the moment. Is management planning to throw in some loanees/surplus to ‘sweeten the pot’? Does Cesc have a personal agreement, much like Villa and El Jefecito, with Wenger to leave this summer and under conditions not closely related to market forces?
Sometimes it sounds like Sandrusco is out there trying to buy himself a boy toy. You forget that Pep said in no uncertain terms how highly he values Cesc and the feeling seems to be mutual. Both Presidents have acted not on their own but by following instructions from the staff.
As for Cesc himself, he doesn’t strike me as someone who is going to question the limited minutes he is most likely to get during his first season (pending injuries by Xavi and Iniesta). And I think he would accept the same salary or even make a concession like the Captain of the Argentine National Team did. A virtual guarantee of winning silverware every year, a “dream come true” of coming back to Barça, proximity to friends and family, familiarity with the culture and huge upgrade in terms of food and climate, women too, should help him cope with coming off the bench and a lower paycheck.
(Snooki was pissed so she turned her back to the camera)
- Fabregas is somewhere between Xavi and Iniesta. He’s more athletic with better dribbling, distance shooting, and finishing than Xavi, but isn’t quite as lucid as Iniesta. The team could count on at least 5 goals coming from the mid-field position. Certainly more than what Xavi is producing at the moment.
- He would also bring familiarity with EPL opposition, a valuable asset to have come spring and the Champions League knockout stage.
- Last, but not the least, he was raised at La Masia and has great relationship with our captain and some other team members. Cesc would be able to slot in and have a high level of production almost immediately. This process usually takes weeks, or months in some cases, for a newcomer.
If the fee is under €30M including the potential makeweight and the player accepts the Level III salary then I say the management needs to seriously consider making the deal.
On the down side, this acquisition would negatively impact Thiago’s and Afellay’s progress and playing time. It will be interesting to see Pep’s reasoning now and what kind of timetable he had set for these two youngsters.
As usual, the market is insensitive to one’s wishes, plans, and spending power. Availability and the forces of supply and demand are dictating terms. Some adjustments might be absolutely necessary and all buy assured to yield great benefits. That, however, means little in itself if the player is not available or requires a significant cash outlay. If such needs can’t be satisfied in a prudent manner–or satisfied at all–the management should look to take care of what is next on the priority list.
One thing is certain: the acquisition can’t include both a huge transfer fee and a huge salary unless he is a Messi or Iniesta equivalent. The players listed, with a possible exception of Kun Aguero, are definitely not worth such effort.
Better cost management, planning ahead of time and not trumpeting our interest would go a long way in making the necessary adjustments possible.
T. Johnson is studying finance at an US institution.