Money and football. Nothing sets supporter tongues wagging like money and selling to buy. A transfer — the thing that makes the Next One the one that will be The One That Makes Everything Great.
Ivan Rakitic is in the news right now, sort of. This is a player who loves Barça, and wants to stay at Barça. This is also a player that has allegedly been told by the club that his contract can’t be revisited because we have to pay essential players. So his extravagant wages can’t become more so. More crucially his buyout clause, set at 125m back in those crazy days when money meant something, is now — 125m, a pittance.
Rakitic is also 30. “125m for a 30 year old who can be replaced? Sign me up!” It’s fascinating.
What makes a player valuable? A lot of it is perception and how supporters view him. Iniesta is irreplaceable. We wept when he flitted off to Japan where everybody is his size, he gets kicked a lot less often and can go back to scoring golazos for fun. Irreplaceable. If you look at the fundaments of what Iniesta could and couldn’t do, he wasn’t irreplaceable in his dotage, rather than in his pomp. But it’s Iniesta. Bite your tongue, blasphemer.
Rakitic runs, helps defend, babysits wayward right backs, enables Busquets, plays box-to-box when the situation demands, scores goals in and outside the box, takes shots from distance when opportunities present, helps with possession. Rakitic has also been singled out for derision in parts of the social media fanbase for not really being about What Barça Does. For many, the day when he leaves will be a happy one, and with ten days left in the window, the idea of PSG coming in with 125m for a 30-year-old player has tongues wagging. Replacements such as Rabiot are offered. A poll by TotalBarça mused about a straight swap, Thiago Alcantara for Rakitic.
Here’s a fun test: look at every player on the roster and decide if they are irreplaceable. Look at what the player does. Not perceptions, or ideas of what he can’t do, but what he in fact does. The template is how much would the team suffer if that player went away, and can the system shift?
Most lists would include Messi, Busquets and Ter Stegen. Messi because duh, Busquets because his understanding of what Barça needs is fundamental, his skill in executing those things nonpareil. Ter Stegen is the best net minder for the way Barça plays, and objectively one of the best keepers in the game. Could Cillessen, given enough time in net, be as useful? Is there another keeper out there who we aren’t considering because Ter Stegen is perfect for the style?
Now what about a market opportunity? Ter Stegen’s clause is (only) 180m, which seems crazy low now. Gulp. PSG could pay that. What if they wanted to? The reaction would be automatic. No. Hell no. It’s Ter Stegen. Rakitic? People would bite PSG’s hand off.
Busquets’ clause is now 500m. What if someone offered it? That’s 500m for a 30-year-old DM. Market opportunity. Busquets is essential. Has been for every Barça and national team coach for almost a decade. But he’s 30, soon to be 31. Gotta start playing without him sometime. What about now? Is he irreplaceable? “Of course he is, you fool.” How long will he be able to do what he is doing with the facility that he does it, and what could be done for the 500m that his moving would bring in?
His transfer is inconceivable because we look at players through a number of lenses. He is Busquets. He’s of the club, a tie to the glory days, of links from lower divisions to the first team. The way he plays the game is sublime and if you want to play Barça football, you need Busquets. But 500m, right? For a 30-year-old DM. It’s the constant challenge to the way we think about players, a notion with echoes of my 2014 question about whether someone would consider selling Messi for 250m, and buying Jackson Martinez, Marco Reus, Oliver Torres, Kun Aguero and Ilkay Gundogan. My mentions still light up from time to time as someone resurrects that old Tweet. And now that we know what Messi has become, what those five players have become, that question is crazy in 2018. But in 2014 people were talking about whether it was time to sell Messi and whether it was possible. And talk about players, even with crazy clauses, will continue because the Neymar transfer made any and everything possible.
We look at players and their value through things other than that actual value. There is emotion in there, and aspiration. Look at how giddy the Arthur transfer made supporters, because he is a player who plays The Barça Way. “Xavi” escapes lips in reverent tones. The idea of having someone to do all of that other stuff, the scut work, while players such as Arthur or Puig make us slide off our seats in orgiastic frenzy, isn’t significant. “Lots of players can do that.” Can they?
We talk about Xavi and Iniesta as essential but rarely Abidal, the man who made so much possible. “Pfft. He doesn’t get forward enough. Alba is a lot better.” We saw what happened in a system where Busquets had to cover too much space, and how much the team suffered. Ah. “Stupid coach should change the system.” Nelson Semedo is another one. “He’s pretty good, but … ” The “but” concerns things are are systemic. Some players get a pass, others don’t. Players who are deemed replaceable don’t get a pass, even as the pass isn’t solely related to play.
Looking at what players do and their value to a team is difficult because even the way we see a match has nuance. A 4-0 win is disgusting because Rayo had more possession. A 2-1 win against a vicious rival is flawed because, “Where’s the midfield?” As we evaluate players and what they do, it’s so hard to strip everything away from everything else and look solely at the job and its context. That situation is also, of necessity, coach-related. Was Busquets as essential for Luis Enrique as he was for Valverde, or Guardiola? What then?
Here is one possibility: In a brutal world, where an evaluative template of legitimately essential is applied, might the only Barça player to be deemed irreplaceable be Messi?
Non-essential players are discarded for market opportunities. A gangly Colombian never-gonna-be for 35m? “125m for a 30-year-old? I’d bite their hand off.” “500m for a 30-year-old? Not if it’s Busquets. There isn’t enough money to buy him!” We know that Semedo lacks things that Sergi Roberto has. In that context he is always going to be lacking. But often, things that one player does, exist in an incumbent or idealized context. “He isn’t good because he can’t do what so-and-so does,” is quite often what it comes down to. In that universe, where a player defines his own standard, how can we ever evaluate players? It is probably impossible, in the here and now.
Rakitic is replaceable. The system would have to shift to account for his absence, but he is. The cruel part about football is: So is Pique, Umtiti, Busquets, Alba, etc, etc. In discussing essential players, we just point to Messi. Everyone else? A system can adapt, or there are players close enough in skill set where things can be accounted for.
Markets are crazy. Rakitic might well be sold, even as FFP makes the likelihood of that impossible, even if the player wanted to leave. And the team will adapt. Because coaches, systems and players do what they do, as does money. But this is true — true for any player except Messi.