Based solely on the events that unfolded on Sunday in northern Spain, one could be forgiven for concluding that the magnitude of the Madrid-ward shift in La Liga’s balance of power has been overstated.
After all, Barcelona kicked off their 2017-18 campaign with a businesslike victory over a clearly outmatched Real Betis, holding the ball for 61% of proceedings and encountering little in the way of resistance.
On another (perhaps any other) day, the 2-0 scoreline, would have been far more emphatic, as Lionel Messi missed out on a hat-trick by about a foot and a half.
Yes, Real Madrid did see out a 3-0 away win in their opener against Deportivo La Coruña immediately afterward, but required two excellent saves from Keylor Navas in the opening seven minutes to avoid falling behind early, and a missed penalty in the final moments to preserve their clean sheet.
In all, it was an evening that only deviated from the script in that the Madridistas burned more calories than the Blaugrana en route to comfortable victory. It would, at a glance, appear that rumors of Barça’s imminent demise have been exaggerated.
Closer inspection, however, reveals fissures in the infrastructure, festering and neglected, beneath layer upon layer of wallpaper. These days, any conversation regarding FC Barcelona is focused squarely on the monumental retooling job at hand in the aftermath of Neymar’s shock departure.
Online, on TV, at the pub, it’s the same questions at the heart of any Barça-centric discussion: Which players should the club be targeting? Should the club make any massive moves at all this summer, lest the recent trauma, combined with inflationary pressure accompanying sellers’ knowledge that the club is both flush with cash and on tilt, lead to a catastrophic, reactionary overpay that only exacerbates existing issues? If some cash is going to get splashed, should the club pursue a big-ticket superstar, or restock the roster with multiple quality contributors? The greatest hits.
It’s worth noting, however, that while the poaching of Neymar is the cataclysmic triggering event that’s brought these questions to the fore, the issues underlying them are neither new nor particularly unexpected given the trajectories of both the club’s recruitment and player development. They’re just a whole lot easier to ignore when the greatest player of this generation is linking up with a pair of otherworldly talents to bang in 120+ goals a year. It would appear that the time has come for the administrative missteps to take center stage. Consider…
Between 1998-99 and 2008-09, La Masia and Barça B laid the foundation for one of the most dominant eras in the history of club football, graduating the likes of Xavi, Carles Puyol, Thiago Motta, Oleguer, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Pedro, and Sergio Busquets.
As with any academy, there were certainly misses along the way, but when the factory’s consistently churning out that level of quality, a box or two falling off the back of a truck doesn’t really move the needle.
Sadly, however, since the graduation of Busquets to the first team, the pipeline of talent has dried up considerably, with far more Jeffrens, Oier Olazábals, Jordi Masips, no new superstars, and far fewer first-team contributors (Sergi Roberto, Denis Suarez, Rafinha, potentially Gerard Deulofeu), some of whom – namely Thiago Alcantara, but also Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya and the dos Santos brothers – plying their respective trades elsewhere, without having been sufficiently upgraded or replaced, despite costly attempts to do so.
The trend is no less troubling on the transfer front, as efforts to sign young talent at less than stratospheric valuations have seemingly been suspended. This strategy, deployed with great effect in acquiring Yaya Toure for €9m in 2007 and in bringing Gerard Pique back to Barcelona for €5m a year later, has failed to deliver a below-market-price star to Camp Nou for nearly a decade, despite being gifted the opportunity to secure the services of Marco Asensio at roughly an eighth of the price paid for Arda Turan.
Compounding matters is the unfortunate habit of whiffing on the vast majority of big-money signings (defined here as €10+ million), with high-profile misses increasing in frequency and magnitude, with far fewer clear-cut victories to offset the missteps.
Consider that, outside of the 2014 window, which yielded a host of key contributors (Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo, hell, for better or worse, even Jeremy Mathieu), one of the world’s top goalkeepers (Marc-Andre ter Stegen), and a legitimate superstar in Luis Suarez, since the summer of 2013 (immediately predating the Bartomeu regime), the club’s only unqualified transfer successes are the no-duh signing of Neymar in 2013 (which ended well; and the acquisition of Samuel Umtiti last summer.
Unfortunately, in the summers preceding the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the club spent a total of €172.5m on Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal, Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer, Lucas Digne and Umtiti – how much of that money would one, reasonably, classify as “well spent”?
Prior to yesterday, this summer, another €82.5m had been committed to Paulinho, Nelson Semedo and Gerard Deulofeu. The new arrivals deserve an opportunity to perform, and to be assessed on the merit of their Barça performances.
Based on the earliest of returns, however –let’s acknowledge from the start that no one is replacing Neymar’s singular skill set, let alone a reasonable talent whose best spells involved running hot and cold at Everton – Deulofeu looks more like a cost effective replacement for Turan and/or Andre Gomes than a fixture in a first-team attacking trident.
Judging by the same comically small sample, Semedo looks to have a good bit of quality and an admirable willingness to get involved in attacking moves. Paulinho, meanwhile, despite the negativity surrounding his time with Tottenham, has reportedly played very well during his time in China and has recently put in some strong performances with the Brazilian national team.
It’s entirely possible that the trio slots in and contributes significantly to the next great Barça side – it’s just a bit difficult to ignore that, in the same transfer window, the same cash could have netted Davinson Sanchez, Blaise Matuidi and Niklas Sule, with enough change to splurge on a Burgui-shaped lottery ticket. Or, y’know, Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos, with enough left over for Andre Silva. Sigh.
These are the depressing realities of adopting a Galactio approach to teambuilding, at the expense of developing talent, either in-house or by snapping up star potential for dimes on the dollar, in a marketplace with numerous, more-moneyed clubs employing a similar strategy, sometimes at your expense, while whiffing on the majority of your big-money signings.
So, yes, in this, the home stretch of an increasingly monumental transfer window, it is important to discuss potential incoming reinforcements. A far more important discussion, however, is also warranted, about the reinforcement – both on the pitch and in the boardroom – of the infrastructure that’s defined Barça.
More than securing the signature of Ousmane Dembele (an outstanding start, to be certain), Philippe Coutinho (he’ll possibly be there a year from now, at a lower price) or Angel Di Maria (a solid pro – plus, any friend of Messi’s…), ensuring that “Mes Que Un Club” doesn’t slide further toward “just another big club” is the top priority.