Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, Seydou Keita.
When you consider three names that loom large in team folklore, only one of those is the one on culer lips at present. But the profiles of all three have been sorely missing from FC Barcelona, a significant part of the reason that even though the team got great results under Luis Enrique, it didn’t have the kind of stability that its supporters crave.
In the wake of a misery-slaked crapshow of a transfer window that began so brightly but ended in a blind haze of unrequited rage, it can be difficult to calmly assess what happened. There is value in — as usual — separating the club we love and the team we support from the board that runs the joint, an entity that lacks the stability that the football team craves, a notion demonstrated by two of its three transfers.
What’s interesting is that such stability is, even now, said to be rooted in the midfield, which is like having only one link of a chain. Lots of talk about Xavi and Iniesta, precious little about the others. Security came from Abidal calmly closing down then making the exact right decision to feed Xavi or Busquets. Security came from having what was in effect a fourth midfielder in Davi Alves. Security was Keita, roaming around and putting out fires in midfield, helping with the press and possession control as well as adding muscle when needed. Xavi and Iniesta could be magic because teammates had their backs.
The augmentative qualities of those three players is something that the team has gained in the past two transfer windows. Absent nothing else and inclusive of nothing else, it’s one of the reasons for a whiff of optimism as this new season (already two matches old, to be fair) begins. Now that the transfer window has closed, a tempest of activity that concluded with more questions than answers and a team that still has holes, dead weight and what-ifs, a look ahead is fraught with complexity.
For FC Barcelona supporters, loving the team is a lot like rooting for truffles — amid all the mud, crap and filth is, potentially, something delightful. This season is no different even as, in the context of the club’s board, devotees of the show “Saturday Night Live” might liken it to being chauffeured by Toonces the Driving Cat. A crash is inevitable. As we separate board from club from team, let’s have a look at the last, and its prospects for this go-round.
Last season the club added Samuel Umtiti to the roster, a player who has been brilliant and added that much-needed Abidal profile. He shuts things down, making the right decision on and off the ball, and has become an integral part of the way Barça builds attacks. This summer window needed to fill in the rest of those gaps in addition to paying attention to midfield, that crucial zome from which so much flows.
In picking up Nelson Semedo in the window for a fee that looks a bargain compared to the madness that has transpired in the wake of the Neymar departure, the Alves question was answered. It is impossible to overstate the value of this move, should harbingers become reality. The RB for Barça is an attacker, a defender, a Messi playmate, a source of balance and creativity. That player also needs stamina to get up and back as well as pace for problem solving. As with Umtiti, Semedo is that exact right player. He doesn’t just solve the RB dilemma, either. He helps with midfield command and control, and his presence means that the Barça midfield gets stronger as one of its best mids in Sergi Roberto can return to where he is most effective.
Further, when Rakitic is playing he won’t have to babysit Sergi Roberto at RB, and Busquets won’t have acres of space to cover without hope of the cavalry coming.
Finally, and most controversially, the club has added Paulinho, a player who aside from price, age and source of origin, looks to have sorted the Keita question if his play for Brazil is anything like what he will bring to Barça. Paulinho roams midfield like a Vegas floor walker, putting out fires and applying effort where required. He also has a nice shot, including from distance and is capable of the kind of control and footwork that mark him as a Brazilian. Whether supporters will give the player a chance given the circumstances of his arrival, is unclear. But on paper, he answers an important question.
This all means that Barça should be better (albeit far from perfectly) equipped to play the kind of command and control game that new coach Ernesto Valverde seems to want. The reasons are simple: Barça is crap without the ball, a basic fact that hasn’t changed since Guardiola made this admission years ago. What is different is that this team needs the ball more than ever, even as last season the way that it played seemed to belie that reality, with long passes, lost balls and willy-nilly verticality.
Biggest about Barça now is that Neymar is gone. A curious thing for those who watched him last year and this would be the question bubbling just under the surface: It was involuntary, but might now have been the right time to let the Brazilian go? If possession matters, a less-risky player is needed. If his game is as good as it is going to get, the time is right. If attitude matters, again, the time is right. Without question the club lost a massive talent, the second-best player in the game. But the club added in the current transfer window Ousmane Dembele, who more than a Neymar replacement migjht be the exact player that Valverde needs to complete his idea of what the team should function as.
Dembele is a creator, quick and fast as well as dynamic. He is also a fertile source of chances for teammates. For those who watched him at Dortmund and who understand his profile, he is in effect a Neymar/Iniesta hybrid who is less risky with the ball than his Brazilian counterpart. Again, on paper, it looks to be the exact right decision for the exact right player.
The front three becomes Messi/Suarez/Dembele. The dynamism is retained and crucially, because of the potential effect of Paulinho, Suarez won’t be as isolated because the Brazilian’s midfield work will mean less tracking back for Dembele in the matches that feature Paulinho in the XI.That same work ethic should free Messi from as much desperate donkey work (as opposed to a controlled press).
Hysteria is the common theme for the Barça transfer window but in Dembele, Paulinho and Semedo, they might have gotten it right. If it all works, Barça will be just as creative, more balanced (rather than left focused as Neymar increasingly became the catalyst) and Busquets’ creative destruction will become even more of a factor with Paulinho present.
The XI will eventually be Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Raktic, Sergi Roberto, Dembele, Suarez, Messi.
With more playing time, Sergi Roberto will eventually displace Iniesta in the XI. Not only has time not been kind to the Illusionista, but in the kind of dynamic Total Football ancestor Valverde looks to have equipped his team to play, Iniesta won’t be able to cover the ground necessary.
It’s after the XI that questions arise. If Andre Gomes, who escaped attention on deadline day, can continue the trajectory he showed late last season, his signing will begin to make sense and he becomes a versatile squad player. The same for Paco Alcacer, who showed in his subbing for Suarez that even if he isn’t scoring goals, his omnipresence on both ends of the pitch liberates other players and helps the entire group become more creative. Denis Suarez has been playing with the kind of fire that should let him show off his talent. He is also versatile, capable of performing on left wing or in midfield, where he is developing a chemistry with Messi.
The team also gains a match changer in Gerard Deulofeu. He was never going to be a starter, but his injection of pace and dribbling can, late in matches or in the XI against lesser sides, provide depth and the ability to rest players.
The odd thing is that with all the questions, if some of them are answered positively, culers will be supporting a team that will be in with a shout for the treble. Last season’s difficulties were as much mental as anything else. There’s no other way to explain the same silly errors, and dropped points against teams that should be gimmes in contrast with the best record in the game against top-six sides. Focus will be key this season, one that will be balanced on a knife edge.
Also helping Barça is that its eternal rival is weaker, having lost Morata, James and Pepe, principally. Yes, Real Madrid is still a great team but Valencia showed that anything can happen in a league full of skilled players and compeititve bottle. It’s hard to stay at the top. Barça showed it, we can expect Real Madrid to show it as well.
Now for the difficult part of expectations. On paper, Barça has the second-best team in world football. The race will be between the other teams and Valverde bedding in his program. If it works properly, a treble isn’t out of the question. But just as likely is no silver, as injuries and players not measuring up to expectation take their toll.
The XI will deliver. The question will be can the bench, a group that looks quite solid on paper. If vaporware becomes a useful appliance, sky is the limit for FC Barcelona.
By: Kevin Williams
Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images