Transfer risk and reward, aka “Betting the horses”

A devoted tout heads for the horse racing track or betting parlor with a plan. He has his racing form, his booklets full of inside knowledge about horses and jockeys. His betting isn’t a risk. It’s science, and everything makes perfect sense.

It is only the pile of losing tickets stuffed in the pockets of his lucky sportcoat that supply a dose of reality. You can bet on a horse, but for as much science as anyone wants to apply, some days that horse just ain’t gonna run.

Transfers, as we begin a new season of speculation, wanted this player got that player, club doesn’t have a long-term plan, blablabla, are as always, at issue. And it seems that Barça sucked. No club has a legitimately long-term plan, as in “in 2048, our lineup will look like this.” A club makes transfers, then reacts to whether those transfers work or not. Barça, Real Madrid, Bayern, Manchester City are no different.

Every transfer is a risk. Just as that tout will tell you that horse is a sure thing, supporters will tell you a transfer is a sure thing. Book it. What made Umtiti and Ter Stegen genius transfers? They worked out. What if Umtiti had been stressed at the vault to the Barça cauldron? What if Ter Stegen hadn’t been as good as he eventually turned out to be? Each and every transfer can be an Umtiti or a Douglas, because it isn’t just physical qualities and technical gifts, but also psychology.

I want to see the back of the Barça board like I want to see another sunrise. Both events will be beautiful. But what a board does is what the Barça board has done, which is to provide money for the technical staff to buy the players they want. Blaming a board for transfers — even one as disliked as the Barça board — isn’t entirely logical.

This isn’t to say that a board doesn’t have influence in transfers, thanks to the quality of its fundraising. But the only transfer in recent memory that the board has screwed up is when it decided to use the cash for Marco Asensio to purchase Douglas. And even that was only a stupid decision in hindsight, because the club needed to take a shot at another RB more than another attacking midfielder. The rest is history.

A lot of the seeming boneheadedness of the Barça transfer strategy was undone by circumstance. Speculatively, the transfers made sense.

Dani Alves left, Aleix Vidal was in place, with the versatile Sergi Roberto as depth/backup. Vidal didn’t assimilate properly, didn’t do what he needed to do to become immediately the player that he eventually became. This meant that Sergi Roberto — who played quite well at RB as a sub, so many forget — had to become option A, which meant that midfield depth was also lost.

Exacerbating this dilemma for the team was that Rafinha and Iniesta were fragile this season. The one player who was the answer in both situations, had to play RB because Vidal didn’t have his shit together. And that’s the risk. Sometimes, a transfer is like a game of Jenga. Because a plan didn’t work out doesn’t mean you didn’t have a plan.

Paco Alcacer is a quality player. Barça quality? Most of the time, people who fall back on that canard have no idea what they mean by it. Alcacer is the best player the club could have gotten who was willing to sit on the bench and watch Luis Suarez play. He is also the kind of striker that the club needed as a sub in the system, which is a pouncer. The goal that he scored against Alaves is a typical Alcacer goal. Like Suarez, he takes advantage of movement to find space and unleash a shot.

Gameiro? Gabriel Jesus? Any of the other names bandied about as examples of why the club is stupid or inept didn’t want to sit and watch Suarez play. Why would they? The quality of an XI can also affect the players a team has access to on the transfer market. Someone spouting a transfer rumor about X or Y player wanting to come or being available is nonsense. If, for example, you’re a left winger, why would you come to Barça? You aren’t as good as Neymar, and you aren’t going to play as much as Neymar. If you’re even close to that good, you’re going to start at another club.

But it’s easy for a rumor to get washed away by reality. In an ideal world, Barça would have Gabriel Jesus sitting in wait for when Suarez isn’t playing, and Marco Verratti in place for when Iniesta is having the vapors, Ousmane Dembele just because, and Dybala becasue it’s important to have him.

But because of the quality of the Barça XI, and because every coach will play his best players, who from that list would come to Barça to be a sub? That’s another part of the transfer equation.

The biggest part, however, is risk. Sometimes, players just don’t work out. Arda Turan kicked ass at Atleti. He had dribbling skill, fire and a willingness to do the kind of dirty workk necessary to help that team have success. He seemed exactly the kind of player who could fit in at Barça. Reality was something different. And just when he was showing signs of life, the injuries started to come and his season was a mess. But having had a chance to watch Turan live in the SuperCopa against Sevilla, that player on a continued upward trajectory would have been useful. Didn’t happen.

Andre Gomes was transferred in because of talent and need. He was a player who could play any of the midfield positions, and his age was also right. It took him time to bed in, more time than coach and player would have preferred. Some of his difficulties were also psychological, judging from the quantum leap his play took from before the Classic pass to after. That happens, as well.

If the Gomes that we have been seeing after that pass had been present all season, people would have a different view of that transfer. Again, reality and circumstance coming to bear on a team’s situation. Gomes had a very different baptism of fire than was planned because of the injuries to Rafinha and Iniesta, and Vidal lagging. Shit happens.

Even going as far back as Thomas Vermaelen, who was always going to be what he was, a one-season transfer, it made sense. He performed more than solidly when he played, and scored a crucial goal that helped Barça win the league. He wasn’t a player for the future any more than Mathieu was. But signing young CBs rather than stopgaps means that when Marlon is ready, people are screaming about stupidity because he has to go on loan since the club splashed for a Marquinhos or someone.

Umtiti has turned out to be a brilliant transfer. He was scouted, assessed and dropped into the Barça XI as though he was born to play there. He is why Vermaelen happened. Mathieu wasn’t supposed to break down as completely as he did this year, but once a player has a meniscus removed, it’s hard to predict knock-on effects. His poor season was another consequence of circumstance.

Is Barça inept in the transfer market? Did the team make bad decisions? In hindsight, absolutely. But injuries change a picture created by speculation. Just like that tout can explain exactly why a horse will win, a club can explain why a transfer makes sense.

Only a foolish club doesn’t account for injuries. But no club can account for the kinds of injuries that Barça had to deal with in domino effect. Rafinha plays becasue Iniesta is hurt, then is himself hurt. So Gomes, who isn’t ready, has to play because Sergi Roberto is playing right back, and so on. The right side of the Barça team caused a lot of difficulties this season, both in attack and defense. Vidal came on line, taking longer than he should have. Then just when he became the answer, he suffered a season-ending injury at the worst time.

On paper, Vidal is doing what he does at RB, Gomes has a chance to assimilate because Rafinha and Iniesta are fit, Rakitic can get key rest because Rafinha can sub for him, Iniesta can be platooned because Sergi Roberto is playing in his proper position.

Instead Rakitic is dragging it around even though he’s tired, Gomes has to play because who else is there, Mathieu is always just coming off the injury list and an aging Mascherano has to play more than he should be.

Circumstances don’t mean that anyone is stupid, the club screwed up or the technical staff needs to roast in Hell fire. It just means that shit happened, the all-knowing tout tears up another losing ticket and returns to his racing form.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. Sign
    A proper right back so that Sergi Roberto can go back to being a midfielder again,
    A middle aged and sharp centre back and promote Marlon,
    A deep lying creative and physical midfielder Modric type ( Sergi Roberto/Rafinha will compliment here too),
    a pacy winger.

    Sell Arda Turan, Mathieu, Mascherano, one of Denis Suarez/Andre Gomes

  2. Fact: Since Barca shipped out Douglas, we haven’t made it past UCL QF #BringBackLordDouglas.
    I think this coming season, I’d like to see Denis Suarez get more minutes, especially in the Copa, I feel like there’s a lot more to him that we haven’t really given him chance to show, I genuinely feel he could go some way to helping us fill the Don Andres void.
    Also, I’ll be praying that Rafinha can have even just 1 season uninterrupted by injury because I believe he was our best midfielder during this past campaign.

  3. I really enjoy the perspective you use to explain your points here kxevin I for one never hold Enrique in high esteem because I only enjoyed his first season in charge but reading this make me sit down and assess the situation again,in the process of doing that I realize Barca season this year is not a complete failure but rather a fail experimentation as a result of few setbacks…the writers and commenters here,are doing a wonderful job.i really do feel at home anytime I’m here

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