The summer transfer window is like a can of mixed fruits for football followers. Unless you’re a rare creature who likes just about every fruit inside the tin, it’s very likely you’ll come across a piece you wince at, while some others send you into ecstasy-like euphoria.
When a certain transfer rumor gains adequate traction, fans’ opinions are never unanimous; the jury is split, indecisive, and left cacophonically altercating over whether the course of action is right or wrong. The obvious lack of football and the particular withdrawal symptoms of watching beautiful football (something you’d be very used to as a Culé) doesn’t help either.
Of course, when a transfer is eventually finalized, no matter how questionable it is there’s always this sense of excitement amidst the hullabaloo that may or may not arise as its aftermath.
This summer transfer window for Barcelona however has bared more likeable fruits than the previous; Robert Fernandez has surprisingly carried out several competent signings in discretion, and none have been Douglas-quality acquisitions. More importantly: none of them have given anyone further reason to believe that Barcelona is turning into a "dad’s army."
Not all Culés are acquainted with some of the transfers we’ve made, and many resort to watching YouTube highlights of the new signings to evaluate what they could and couldn’t bring to the team. Let’s put it out there once and for all: there’s a massive discord between what you see in highlights and what happens through the course of the 90 odd minutes a footballer can play in a match.
For this reason, I’ve decided that - having the pleasure of watched all of our signings on a very regular basis over the past season - it would be convenient for many if I give my opinion of what each and every one of them brings.
I’ve listed in ascending order of who I believe has the most potential to cause major displacements in the starting XI (your opinions may differ, and that’s okay).
First up, it’s none other than the guy whose name everybody loves.
Once you go beyond jejunely giggling at the commentator calling his surname whenever he touches the ball, Samuel Umtiti’s becomes a ubiquitous defensive presence because of his astounding skills on the ball and precocious level of concentration.
He stands at 181 cm (5’11" for the metrically challenged) – a rather average height for a centerback, but his leaps immediately show that he’s a defender in the mold of Puyol. More so than Puyol, the left-footed 22-year-old Frenchman is extremely athletic, with lightning pace that grants him extra margin to be a bit adventurous and play higher up the pitch than normal - a convenient necessity for him at Barcelona. His imposing mesomorphic build makes it difficult for the strongest of strikers to shrug him off, and he tends to utilize it without exaggeration in the 18-yard box to protect the ball and slow down the opponent’s onslaught.
Despite his imposing physique, Umtiti’s discipline on the pitch is reminiscent of a Zen master. Cool and calm under pressure, Samuel utilizes his physical attributes in a manner well within lawful bounds, and has made a reputation for playing with a clear head and non-aggressive intent. He hardly commits bookable offenses, and is a fairly clean defender despite his physicality on the field.
This mental strength to remain calm translates into his technical characteristics as well; Umtiti is an adept controller of the ball who makes the right decisions with his passes. His cerebral and methodic approach to defending and passing allows him to carry the ball forward to midfield with confidence, and his vision and past experience as a left-back grants him the necessary arsenal to execute defense-penetrating passes into the opposition box.
When it comes to personality, Samuel is well-beyond his years in-terms of maturity. A humble, hardworking player, he was often the leader of the backline at Lyon, organizing the offside trap, instructing the fullbacks where to receive his passes, and demanding higher levels of concentration whenever the defense faltered. This incredible maturity is a staple feature that is bound to make him not just a fan-favorite, but also a player who cannot be ignored by Luis Enrique.
Is there any apparent weakness to Umtiti’s game? Believe it or not, there’s very little he does wrong on the pitch.
Barcelona fans have coveted for a capable CB signing since Pique was acquired in 2008, and I am very confident that bar any catastrophe or managerial mishaps, Umtiti will turn into a world-class CB and cement his place in the starting XI sooner rather than later.
For these reasons, Umtiti stands on the top of my list as the player most likely to become world class and cause major displacements in the starting XI by the end of the season.
I’ll make an honest confession: I wasn’t a major fan of Lucas Digne during his time at Roma. The reasoning had little relation to his actual abilities, but was a by-product of his inability to effectively adapt to the defensive nature of Italian football; Roma fans often criticized Digne for being too defensively meek to feature in the Serie A, desiring more "grinta" and less forward-going ambition.
What you can elicit from his tenure at Roma is that Digne may not be a versatile fullback - nor a defensive one. However, it was unfair on my part to conclude that he may not be Barcelona quality solely from his ineffectiveness in an Italian team that has more affinity for aggressive fullbacks .
Going back and analyzing his matches with Roma, it’s evident that Digne was a square peg in a round hole. His best traits are on the ball and when playing in half-space – two variables he did not have the freedom to enjoy with desired consistency in the Italian capital. Digne was asked to play more reserved and let the ultra-pacey wingers do their work, offensively reserving himself as a small hub on the wing through whom the ball would transition from defense to attack.
With Barcelona, Digne will be given the liberty to play to his strengths. He doesn’t have the incredible pace of Jordi Alba, but his ability on the ball, passing, timing of runs, and (most importantly) contribution in the final third is eye-catching enough to raise our flying squirrel’s tail in alert.
For probably the first time since he signed for Barcelona, Alba is being seriously challenged for the left-back spot. When not half-asleep, Alba’s defense, pace, and overlaps are a real asset. However, he’s not a consistent presence across the entire flank, as the moment he overlaps during a possession build-up expectations are lowered due to his inability to cross the ball effectively.
This is where Digne trumps him. In addition to his crossing, Digne provides creativity in the final third through his vision and dribbling. His link-up in preseason is an appetizing teaser of what he could offer with regular playing time.
Another very special and unorthodox trait Digne possesses is his immoderate leap for a player of his size. Digne isn’t significantly tall, standing at a respectable 178cm (5’10"), but he has the uncanny ability to consistently win aerial duels against players much bigger than himself. On average, he won 2.3 aerial duels per game at an impressive 64% success rate last season with Roma. Those stats are almost an exact copy of Gerard Pique’s!
This would make Digne vital against teams who will look to utilize cross-field long-balls to their right-wingers – another edge the Frenchman would have over Jordi Alba.
I don’t expect Alba to make it easy for Digne to replace him this season, as I can see our driver license-less starting left-back up his performances with Digne breathing down his neck, but I can say for sure that the drop-off between Alba and Digne won’t be even a small fraction of what it was with Mathieu and Adriano.
Andre Gomes is a quiet, gigantic midfielder whose introversion is fairly evident as he makes his way onto the pitch. He stands on his reserved spot and seems to be in a self-induced distant reality as the referee blows his whistle and the ball starts to ping around. Suddenly, when the ball comes to his feet, his eyes widen, his reflexes sharpen, his muscles activate, and a surge of energy passes through his feet.
He starts to dribble, starts to pass, and creates moments of magic out of vacuum. Opponents are bewildered by the sudden activation of this towering automaton; every time he is on the ball, there’s a sense of verticality and directness that encapsulates the team he is playing for.
Gomes is largely an impact player – a player who over the course of the match can display inconsistencies due to his innate tendency to occasionally hibernate. However, like Pogba, and much like Zidane in his prime, he has the ability to turn the game around from midfield with a mixture of brilliant passing, dribbling, and finishing.
Gomes under Valencia was a threat for his injection of pace and power in midfield, but instead of using it imposingly the way Pogba does, he chose to use it in a more elegant manner like Zidane. His quick one-touch passing and ability to hold on to the ball allows him to perform one-touch passes, but Gomes is often seen hungry to move the ball forward as often as possible. This he often chooses to do with his dribbling or his great vision, two traits that, along with his strong physique, probably piqued Luis Enrique’s interest during the manager’s quest for a midfielder.
At 23 years of age, he is still fairly ripe in central midfield, and playing for Barcelona he will have to add an extra spark plug into his system to improve his off-the-ball contribution. Luckily, he made a sensible choice to play with Iniesta and Rakitic - two players who epitomize the combo of hard work and technical prowess. Iniesta in particular will play a massive role in his development into a lethal successor who can unleash our front trio as quickly as possible on opposition defenses.
I don’t expect him to seamlessly fit into the squad at the start, nor do I expect him to replace Iniesta or Rakitic as a starter this season, but I do expect many to be completely awe-struck by some of his performances. Hopefully, the Don can guide Gomes to become his successor as the dribbling, vertical CM that he himself once was.
Denis Suarez needs little introduction to most Culés, as keen eyes have followed him for three years since his transfer from Manchester City to Barcelona. Despite being a well-known commodity since his Barca B days, the jury is still yet to decide what his exact suited position would be in the first team.
For over 2 years Denis has largely played as an attacking midfielder or winger (wide midfielder). Many have felt he is a natural replacement for Iniesta, others have suggested his best position at Barcelona would be as a substitute for Neymar. Luis Enrique on the other hand has played him as a right central midfielder during the preseason, close to Messi and, quite surprisingly – largely in the position occupied by our beloved Croatian.
To say Denis has done good would be an understatement. His chemistry with Messi has been admirable, and his vision and passing range has indicated that, for the most part, he has the ability to play in the midfield.
However, Denis’ best traits are his ability to stretch the play and cross the ball from wide positions. He spent his time on the wings at Villareal, where he used trickery to beat his marker and send intimidating ground or aerial crosses for strikers to intercept. At Barcelona, if he is to be deployed as a central midfielder, he would likely swap positions on a regularly basis with Messi on the right wing, stretching play and combining together to maintain with as Leo goes central towards the box.
This could also in theory counterbalance the relative offensive ineffectiveness of a right-back like Roberto, who would be exempted of his duty to stretch play and only require to perform occasional overlaps and majorly concentrate on defensive shrewdness.
The real problem though is Denis is very unlikely to be a part of this tactical maneuver on a very regular basis, as Rakitic is almost completely irreplaceable in the starting XI. Aside from this one clever strategic use of his skill-set, the only other position Denis could play is left wing – a position rightly owned by Neymar.
Unfortunately for Samper, it seems he is more likely to leave on loan to Valencia than he is to ever gaining respectable minutes at Barca. It’s not his fault that the best DM in the world is so consistent and so integral to the squad, and his case is further exacerbated by the availability of the second-best DM in the world as well (Mascherano).
Samper has a bright future ahead of him, and in my opinion he could’ve stayed had Luis Enrique decided not to use Denis Suarez in central midfield. However, with over 7 different players aside from him available for the three midfield spots, it seems like Samper’s only chance of gaining respectable minutes is by going on loan.