This is a guest post from Gerry Johnston. Johnston is a 32 year old writer from Ireland. He currently writes about La Liga for www.laliganews.co.uk. Gerry has been a Barcelona fan since 1996; you can follow him on Twitter @gjsportsblog.
Much has been made of Barcelona’s summer with words like crisis and disaster being the most used adjectives to describe what went on at Camp Nou. However, are things really as bad as is being made out in the media and by the grief loving element within Barcelona’s online fan base?
There can be no doubt things didn’t go as the club planned this summer or in fact over the last twelve months or so but for the purposes of this article let’s take a look at some of the main factors so we can consider if things are just as bad as they are being portrayed.
One of the biggest issues at the club right now is Josip Maria Bartomeu and his board. Off the field, Bartomeu’s tenure has been nothing short of a disaster and we are now starting to see his incompetency filtering through to the product that steps onto the field for games.
The Sporting Project
In many ways, it’s difficult to know where to start but let’s look at the sporting project. Ideally you will want a first eleven, a number of capable replacements and some talented youngsters to fill out the squad and to get some time on the field to help them develop so when the time is right they are ready to step into the void left by their older teammates who can slide back into the capable replacements role before eventually moving on or even better finding a role somewhere else within the club so they can pass on their experience to the next generations. Can anyone say that’s the case at Barcelona? The squad to me looks like a bit of a mess.
Barcelona seem to have a strong first eleven, maybe two solid back ups and then a lot of guys somewhere between not being great cover but not young enough to be considered “talented youngsters.” It’s the latter that are absolutely killing the club. They are all guys around the 24-26 age range and while they won’t play a lot of football they are earning vast amounts of money while blocking the path for younger players coming up behind them.
Defensively there’s Thomas Vermaelen and Lucas Digne. Vermaelen is on a big wage and instead of off loading him we have sent Marlon Santos out on loan to Nice. I hear many saying he’ll get more experience there but what he’s really getting is experience of a lower standard of football and club. How can you learn to be Barcelona level if you’re not there? Would he learn more about being an elite footballer from training with and watching world class stars every day with maybe half a dozen to a dozen appearances in all competitions or will he learn more at Nice? For me it’s straight forward and being in France isn’t the best thing for his development.
There are similarities in midfield. Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta are elite footballers. Ivan Rakitic is much maligned but in my opinion the fans are being extremely harsh in their treatment of the Croatian. He has been as much a victim of poor tactical acumen from Barcelona managers as Iniesta and Busquets but is treated worse than those two. Maybe it’s the fact he’s not a product of La Masia or just that his ceiling was never as high as Busquets or Iniesta’s but in my opinion he remains an important and integral part of the first eleven. Outside those two we have another batch of guys who aren’t good enough to be considered good back ups nor young enough to be future prospects. The likes of Andre Gomes, Paulinho, Denis Suarez, Rafinha and Arda Turan wouldn’t really be missed if they left and I’d much rather see Sergi Samper or Carles Alena picking up those minutes.
Up top it’s clear that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele are the starters but there is an enormous gulf between those three and their replacements with Aleix Vidal (Ernesto Valverde seems to see him as a right winger), Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu a notable drop in class from the starters.
Bartomeu and his Board
Squad issues and sporting project aside there are many other issues with the Bartomeu regime. The Neymar situation hasn’t helped things nor has how the club reacted in response to it particularly with regards to Philippe Coutinho, Jean Seri and other potential replacements that failed to materialise. The Messi and Andres Iniesta contract debacles have also led to many Cules losing faith in those controlling the club with two of Barcelona’s and indeed football’s greatest ever players now just four months away from negotiating exits from the club on free transfers. The thought is enough to give even the calmest of fans palpitations and it is a disgraceful situation for such a huge club to find themselves in. Perhaps this is a direct consequence of their mismanagement of the squad. It is well known that Bartomeu’s board have been teetering around the 70% of income being paid out in salaries and perhaps if they didn’t have so many older, yet average players in the squad the wage bill would have more room for manoeuvre.
La Masia and Youth Development
Another point that has upset Cules is La Masia but I am not necessarily on board with this as La Masia hasn’t produced a lot of gems in recent times although I will accept that this may be a consequence of this boards policy to sell players with a buy back arrangement in place. This may be a factor as I warned in the case of Marlon that Barcelona players at other clubs aren’t learning how to be Barcelona players but instead how to play for and be at the level of the clubs that they have moved too. The point I would make is Thiago Alcantara aside none of the guys who have moved on are keeping me up at night. Many are touted to be the next big thing but Thiago is the only truly world class player to come out of La Masia in a decade. Many Cules will get a bee in their bonnet about Alex Grimaldo but the jury remains out on the left back. He is extremely injury prone and has only made 16 league appearances for Benfica so for me he’s not a stick to beat the board with.
The Valverde Factor
Another big factor on how Barcelona will do this season lies in what Ernesto Valverde brings to the table as the new manager. I have to admit the former Athletic Bilbao manager would have been well down the list of men I would have brought in to replace Luis Enrique as I believe players who play at the elite clubs sometimes need a big name who can command respect and get the best out of them. That said Valverde is the man in the hot seat for now at least and will naturally receive the support of myself and the hundreds of thousands of Cules worldwide.
It’s difficult to judge the manager’s reign so far as he has pretty much been the ringmaster in a circus up to now with all the transfer shenanigans going on behind the scenes. The Super Copa was obviously disappointing but in terms of the clubs priorities it’s not very high up there so it can be forgiven. In the league he has started with two wins, albeit they weren’t exactly convincing but with everything that was going on off the pitch six points can’t be sniffed at. However, the real business begins this weekend and he now has the squad at his disposal that he will have to move forward with until January at least so Barca are now firmly under his control.
The early games of Valverde’s reign are showing some positive signs with the return of the pressing game which was particularly evident in the opening weekend victory over Real Betis. So often under Enrique Barca were the victims of teams pressing them but in that game Barcelona got after the opposition and had a lot of success when Betis resorted to playing long, aimless balls forward which Barca dealt with easily. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were excellent when pressing and I don’t think many fans would be annoyed if that was to be one of the ways this Valverde side are remembered. Arguably, the biggest challenge the new boss will face and probably any man who manages Barcelona is how to solve the “Lionel Messi problem.”
Many will no doubt ask how having the best player ever to play the game can be a problem but in truth that’s a one dimensional way of looking at it. The priority for any Barcelona coach has to be how you set the team up to get the best out of Messi but also to set the team up in such a way that they are a strong, cohesive and solid unit. This is not a criticism of Messi in any way and in fact I have no doubt that Messi is long past the notion of personal achievements being important and to him all that matters is winning football matches. The big problem is where do you put him and where do you put the other ten so they can give as much support while also doing the business at the other end of the field by keeping the opposition out?
There are probably four options for Messi nowadays. You either play him on the right wing, centre forward, as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1 or in midfield. What’s best for him and what’s best for the club is probably the million dollar question and we can only pray Valverde has the answer.
In truth I think Messi can play any of the four positions without any drop in his own performance but the issue is what gets the best out of his colleagues and provides a balanced team capable of winning the top prizes in the game?
In recent times Messi has featured on the right of the front three and he has excelled there. The problem arises when he comes inside and abandons that flank. In the days of Dani Alves and his Duracell powered performances he was getting up and down the wing every game. Alves was a threat on the overlap but his engine also allowed him to get back to defend. Recently Sergi Roberto, who was the first choice right back, was reluctant to go forward as much so the team lacked width and with him not being a natural right back he was often caught out and the fact Messi often failed to track down didn’t help the man who came through La Masia. Messi is 30 years old now so is it too much to expect him to cover defensively when so much is expected of him in attack? It’s a tough balance and for me I think we look unbalanced when he abandons his position so it might require a change.
If Messi goes back to his old central role or false nine as it’s known the question becomes what do you do with Luis Suarez? Suarez is certainly industrious enough to play out wide but you’re obviously losing his predatory instincts in the penalty area which would be a blow. For the false nine to succeed you need players overlapping the forward which Suarez and Dembele would undoubtedly do but Barca don’t tend to have midfielders who pass the attackers so I’m not 100% it would work. If it was to succeed you would need the midfielders to get more involved in attacks and although I’m not totally convinced I think it could be a better option than having Messi out right as the overall balance would be better.
Messi could of course go back into midfield and I have no doubt if he did he would be the best midfielder in the world but again I don’t think it’s in the team’s best interests. Messi has been and still is Barcelona’s biggest goal threat and the further back he goes the more he has to do to score. There’s also the fact that he would have more responsibilities in the defensive side of the game and part of me thinks that it would be a shame to waste his talent in that way.
The fourth and final option would be for Barcelona to change to the 4-2-3-1 that Valverde preferred during his time with Athletic. This would obviously be a big difference for Barca who have generally played 4-3-3 for much of Messi’s career but it might just be the best option going forward. However, it certainly isn’t without it’s problems as Barcelona have a ridiculous amount of central midfielders and with only two starting there’s going to be a lot of guys unhappy at less minutes which to be fair probably needs addressed anyway. There’s also the question of who plays wide? Dembele would occupy one wing and Messi would take the central role behind Luis Suarez which leaves one place vacant. Is Gerard Deulofeu good enough to be a regular starter? Would Valverde consider someone else for the role? Regardless of what the new manager does there appears to be both positives and negatives but the one thing that will remain constant is Messi will be the most important player he has and if Barcelona are to succeed then they will need Messi in a position where he can inflict as much damage as possible on the opposition.
The Madrid Challenge
While much of this summer’s media coverage has focused on the negatives the club really aren’t in as big a state as has been suggested. They only lost out on the league title to Real Madrid by three points and the same people who are knocking Barca are portraying this current Real Madrid side as one of the best ever. Whether that’s true or not is a different debate but there is no doubt that Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane are a very good side that play to their strengths well and had an incredible level of depth in their squad last season so for Barcelona to be a club in crisis and only finish three points behind them suggests that if they can sort things out quickly there’s no reason why they can’t provide a credible title challenge.
As good as Real Madrid are, have they built on their position of strength? For me they haven’t. Pepe and Alvaro Morata were two very good players when you consider they weren’t in the clubs first eleven. Both when on top form could be described as world class players but both have moved on and not been replaced by anyone close to that level. Real’s big signings of the summer were Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos. Theo seems like a talented player but any time he takes to the field he will be weakening the Real Madrid side as Marcelo has been by quite a distance the best left back in world football over the last year or so. Ceballos is another extremely talented footballer and I think he will one day be among the world’s best but in terms of helping Real Madrid defend their titles I don’t see him getting too involved.
Dembele: Better than Neymar?
The Neymar transfer made a lot of headlines during the summer and I for one was absolutely gutted the Brazilian saw fit to leave the club. In my eyes he was the player most likely to end Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s dominance in the Balon d’Or/ FIFA Best Awards and losing a player capable of being the best in the world is not where Barcelona want to be. That said Ousmane Dembele is a very good replacement. He’s still very young and still developing so hopefully he too will go on to be considered one of the best players in the world one day. One of the biggest criticisms Neymar got was on that his finishing could be poor. If Dembele can be a better finisher than the Brazilian then his pace and Messi’s range of passing could be an absolute nightmare for La Liga’s defences.
Another advantage Dembele has over Neymar is his nationality. Generally, things like nationality should be of no importance but nobody can deny that Barcelona tended to look a little bit sluggish after international breaks last season. I am of the belief that this was a result of the front three players being exhausted after making cross-Atlantic trips to represent their countries in the notoriously tough South American World Cup Qualifiers. Replacing a Brazilian with a Frenchman might just ease that a little bit as half of his internationals will be played in France so travel will be a lot less than what Neymar had to endure.
There’s no doubt that things are not perfect with Barcelona for now but we are not a million miles off being a good side. If the issues behind the scenes can be resolved, we get competent people in key roles at the club and the manager shows astute tactical acumen then there’s no reason why Barcelona can’t enjoy a successful season and push towards a third La Liga crown in four years as well as reach the latter stages in the Champions League and maybe even win our sixth Champions League.