With just days to go before the competitive start of the 2012/2013 season, FC Barcelona has made only one solitary acquisition for the first team, left back Jordi Alba. This is the least summer business, in terms of number of players, the club has done in 19 years. Considering the vast number of rumors since the season ended in May, including but not limited to Jordi Alba, Thiago Silva, Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente, Jeremy Toulalan, Laurent Koscielny, Alex Song, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Daniel Agger, Theo Walcott, Didier Drogba, Gareth Bale, and Robin Van Persie, some observers will be surprised with the lack of movement. Sadly, many have not come to terms with the inexactitude, even absurdity (Walcott?) of transfer stories, and comment sections still boast (saddening me) the grandiose plans of signing Thiago Silva, Bale, and Van Persie as if transfer fees, wages, amortization, and less tangible but equally important aspects such as squad stability/harmony and player adaptation to a new country/team do not exist. I am not one surprised by FC Barcelona’s single signing, as the minimal market movements over the summer were predictable, and in my opinion spot on.
The ascendency of FC Barcelona since 2004 to the pinnacle of European football is obviously a result of many factors, a golden generation of footballers surely one. At the core of everything however has been stability and direction, in the dressing room and above, which the club lacked since the era of Joan Laporta began. Even under Johan Cruyff, his relationship with the former president Josep Lluís Núñez created a volatile environment. However no element can be more stressed than what gets mentioned as the “Barça philosophy”. This is what all journalists and writers intimate with the club consistently name as the key to present glory. The philosophy culminates during 90 minutes on the football pitch in the formation, style of football, and type of players, however to arrive at this point is no simple feat. FC Barcelona recruit a very specific type of player, at both the youth and professional level focusing far more on mental, even characteristic attributes and technical abilities than physical strength, particularly for the youth additions. A heavy importance has additionally been placed on Catalan players and La Masia promotions. This has not always been the case, as FC Barcelona pre-Laporta were no stranger to wasteful transfers devoid of proper consideration, plan, and purpose. Even in this recent era the club has not been perfect, in hindsight the likes of Keirrison, Henrique, and Martín Cáceres were particularly wasteful, and to a lesser extent (as the logic seemed sound) Dmytro Chygryinskiy and the mercenary extraordinaire Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Make no mistake, this club has always spent large sums of money on transfers, the difference now is FC Barcelona spend much smarter within the lines of a formal plan. Prime example is the summer of 2000 where the club spent nearly 100 million Euros on Marc Overmars (40), Richard Dutruel (4), Gerard (24), Alfonso (16.5), and Emanuel Petit (15). The next summer Geovanni was bought for 21 million, and shockingly Philippe Christanval for 21 million. I shudder looking at those names and numbers and compare them to their impact and importance. The reason, along with manager stability, new signings have been infinitely more successful of late is they have been selected based on particular needs and examined to ensure they have specific abilities that integrate with the FC Barcelona playing philosophy. Why buy a square peg to fit in a round hole?
The trend has only sharpened of late: still a lot of Euros spent but precisely focused. Under Pep Guardiola the club spent (in Euros millions) 92.7, 92.5, 73.5, and 58.5 in each successive season beginning in 2008/9. In 2008, 53% went to Alves and Keita (money extremely well spent) while in 2009, 53% alone was on Ibrahimovic (understandable logic). In 2010, 83% of total transfers was spent on just two players, David Villa (40 million) and Javier Mascherano (21 million), and in 2011 nearly every (94%) Euro of the total 58.5 went to the bringing in Alexis Sánchez (26 million) and Cesc Fàbregas (29 million). Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that in 2012 100% of first team strengthening went to just one player, Jordi Alba. 53, 53, 83, 94, 100. The trigger to purchase is now only pulled when needed, not simply to spend for spending’s sake. FC Barcelona is secure in its plan and identity, the days when a new man is brought in seemingly only to appease fans and the unscrupulous press are over. This is in stark contrast to nouveau riche clubs like Manchester City and PSG. Void of true direction, one with an itchy manager in Roberto Mancini whom comically constantly complains about squad size, these clubs have and will continue to encounter severe transfer fee wastage.
Bigger Isn’t Always Better
I will always believe a smaller squad is superior to a large one. Why? Mainly because firstly, less rotation equals a consistent line up that creates homogony, form, and momentum. There is a reason commentators often say Barça players seem to have eyes in the back of their heads. They clearly don’t, but the on field relationships they have built over many matches together produces a predictability of movement and thought that allows them to trust that if a ball is sent there, it’s likely that Messi or even Alexis is already running into the space. Manchester City, bulging with strikers, used significant rotation upfront last season, and it nearly cost them the league, clearly affecting the post January form of Agüero and Dzeko. They did win, but boy can they count their luck. If Manchester United had not squandered at home a two goal cushion (TWICE) against Everton, the blue side of Manchester would be very different right now. Secondly, it creates togetherness and harmony in the dressing room. When each and every player feels valued, feels like they have a purpose, it eliminates jealousy, unhealthy competition, and other negative feelings towards teammates. Players are viewed more as human athletes than functional assets. The genuine emotional support and belief in one’s teammate is cited in multiple sources as a foundation for Barça’s success.
I also have personal reasons, chiefly being the wastage of talent. Nothing irks me more in football than talent, particularly young talent, rotting away on the bench, there just in case. The Thiago Silva or Vermaelen rumors particularly sat poorly with me. Vilanova has three world-class center backs to work with, all better than any of the mentioned possible additions, which already means one blaugrana will play backseat to the preferred duo. It’s spoilt and wasteful to have a fourth elite center back simply to be there in case two of Puyol, Mascherano, or Piqué get injured. Yes, it can happen, it has happened, but it doesn’t always happen. So if they all remain fit for the majority of the campaign, then a top class player good enough to start in other elite sides is resigned to sitting in the dugout waiting for the next Copa Del Rey match. It is a strategy I will never agree with. This club has shown that in times of need, the versatility of ability in players they recruit allows shifting of positions and formations that accommodate. It’s not always ideal to have Busquets at the back, but having that happen 4 or 5 times a year is preferable to spending tens of millions of Euros to recruit a player that essentially is only called upon in dire circumstances. Look at the likes of Nuri Sahin, Adam Johnson, Alex (former Chelsea), and Kaka to name a few. And England wonders why their national team does not prosper. They need just look at someone like Adam Johnson, talent wasting away.
Below is the official 2012/13 squad:
Goalkeepers: Victor Valdés, José Manuel Pinto,
Defenders: Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Adriano, Eric Abidal, Andreu Fontás, Marc Muniesa, Martín Montoya, Marc Bartra
Midfielders: Cesc Fábregas, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago, Sergio Busquets, Ibrahim Afellay, Jonathan Dos Santos
Strikers: David Villa, Alexis Sánchez, Lionel Messi, Pedro, Isaac Cuenca
That’s 26 official first team players. But there are other missing men: Cristian Tello, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Deulofeu, and Rafinha, almost all were heavily involved in preseason (impressing), while others were off winning the under 19 Euro or participating in the Olympics. That’s Barça’s ace in the hole: La Masia. This club does not need or want excessive sized squads because they can always, and with confidence, promote from within. I know, they don’t always look or perform world-class straight away, yes it’s frustrating. But it’s because they are inexperienced and still learning, and they will never ripen into the gems of the future if not given the chance, if not entrusted by the club. The success of La Masia is multifaceted, but the reality that these youngsters truly believe they will be given their chance, like their heroes before them have, breeds belief, motivation, and loyalty. This is true from Barça B to the Infantil or Alevin teams. Even at Barça, where 68% of the squad is home-grown, more than double that of the next best (does that not swell your heart with pride?), some still have to look elsewhere (Romeu, Torral) because of barriers to enter. Imagine we did just buy Bales, Silvas, and ‘RVP’s year after year, what then happens to Bartra, Montoya, and Cuenca? I’ll tell you. Either they drift to smaller clubs or in terms of the younger guys, the Sampers or Dongous, too often they simply never realize their potential and leave professional sports. This happens in so many other clubs, not because these players lack ability or talent, but more a result of mismanagement and lack of belief in their future.
A smaller squad, supplemented by the academy is the strategy that FC Barcelona is likely to follow for the foreseeable future, and if the politics remain stable, it could be a very long term plan. It’s proven to work. The club will not win every single league or Champions league, and that isn’t because the squad is short. It’s because, that’s sports: teams win and imagine that, they also lose. Some years injuries catch up, in all years luck plays its roll, sometimes detrimentally (Chelsea anyone). This squad strategy has brought upon historic success, so why does anyone expect that because last year Barça was not all conquering, they would abandon their plan and panic spend? This is why I predicted and felt very confident all summer that the club would buy only one or two reinforcements because it was in line with the trend and because it’s all that was necessary.
In short, nothing really. This set of players is as competent and talented as any Barça squad. It’s plenty deep. A pillar to depth at FC Barcelona is versatility. Above I’ve grouped players as defender, midfielder, or striker but that is not accurate, even fair. I would wager to bet that the versatility in this squad is unrivaled now and ever. Alves, Mascherano, Alba, and Adriano are all “defenders” whom actually began their careers as midfielders or even forwards. It’s unjust to call Fábregas and Iniesta just midfielders or Alexis and Messi mere strikers. Up, down, left, right: no football team has players as capable with multi-position. It’s an immeasurable advantage.
Examining each position, aside from the man between the sticks, which with Valdés is perfect:
Right-Back : Alves, Puyol, Adriano, Montoya
Left-Back : Alba, Adriano, Puyol, Montoya, (Abidal)
Center-Back: Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol, Bartra, Fontás, Busquets, Muniesa, (Abidal)
Holding-Mid: Busquets, Mascherano, Fábregas, Thiago, Sergi Roberto, Dos Santos
Left/Right Mid: Xavi, Iniesta, Fábregas, Thiago, Afellay, Adriano, Alves, Alba, Rafinha
Front 3: Messi, Alexis, Villa, Pedro, Cuenca, Afellay, Iniesta, Tello, Deulofeu
Maybe it’s just me but that appears plenty deep. The least stacked position is right back, with 4 options. There is a lovely balance of world-class starters, high level core players, and exciting, competent youth. It’s the right mix of veterans to lead the team, but also guide and mentor the younger talent. If the rumor mill got its way, Barça would have recruited starting players from other clubs, put them behind our starters, while in the process blocking the progress of our Masia hopefuls.
Where would some of the other players suggested fit? Song, Silva, Vertonghen, Agger, Koscielny, nor Martínez start over Mascherano, Piqué, or Puyol. And each one of them would cost 10 million plus minimum. In Bartra we have a player tooted by the club’s coaches that cost nothing to buy, earns a marginal wage, and will give everything for the Barça cause. Piqué was myopically and harshly criticized last season, when just 12 months before he was rightly lauded amongst the best in the game, so please none of this sell Piqué nonsense because over his entire career Gerard has shown better capability than any of the alternatives. Bale, talented as he is, lacks the passing ability and vision to slot into the midfield, as the Welshmen does not play left-back anymore. I’ve already quite rightly laughed off Walcott. Martínez is debatable, personally, I think he is overrated and has less technical ability than required. I’ve seen him ripped at centerback by top forwards. I’ll be much more pleased for Javi if he settles in a club that will better utilize his ability and allow him to play enough to utilize his potential.
Now two weeks remain before the transfer window shuts, so plenty time for metaphoric egg on my face. But aside from Alex Song, which as I write it now appears his signing could be confirmed soon, I very much doubt another big money move will happen. I watch a lot of Arsenal, 85% of their games I’d guess, certainly all their big matches, and I’m a bit baffled with purchasing Song. Not because he’s a poor player, he’s actually quite good and much more technically able than people recognize. He was the player with the most direct assists to Van Persie last season. My issue is around his function. Song is theoretically able to play both as a centerback and holding midfielder which fits the Barça theme and reported wishes of Vilanova. The reality is Song showed no interest at Arsenal in playing those roles, particularly the defensive midfield role Arsenal have desperately needed post Vieira. His strengths came out going forward, not when sitting deep and defending. Lastly, he’s overpriced at the figures being reported.
In my opinion, if the chequebook was opened again, it would be written out to Athletic Bilbao for Fernando Llorente. The proverbial plan B (having the big, physical lad in the middle) is a tactical variation that in specific circumstances has its merit. The plan crashed and burnt with Ibrahimovic, but Llorente isn’t Ibrahimovic. The Basque man is neither arrogant nor egotistical, that was evident just observing him in ‘Polkraine’. The man never played a minute, despite many pundits predicting he would and deserved to start, but he was always the first to congratulate the goal scorer with the sincerest of smiles. Added to that, he isn’t just a big brute who can header it in, Llorente has an unbelievable work rate, is a calm finisher, and competent passer. I believe at Barça he would find a good fit if he entered with the mentality of Mascherano, accepting he is not going to start but hungry to learn and claim his place. He wouldn’t need to start every game, therefore not excessively cutting the playing time of a Pedro or Cuenca while providing real value to the team. Sadly, I don’t see this transfer happening.
Irrespective of what happens in May 2013, I believe, in mind and heart, Tito Vilanova has entered the new season with a supreme squad that exemplifies the FC Barcelona way of doing things. I believe in it because it’s proven and because it exudes longevity and sustainability. I believe in it because I do not ever want to see FC Barcelona be the type of club that spends 70 million Euros on a FIFA World Player of the Year that is reduced to a bit part player, constantly slogged off unfairly, in his 3rd season playing less minutes than Thiago Alcântara. The likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City have spent more on building huge squads, and they have won less than Barça recently, effectively proving that there is no ideal squad strategy (big or small) but indicating that this way works for us. It is the Barça way. Més que un club, it’s not an arbitrary slogan.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer