If there was a slogan for Barcelona’s summer transfer windows, it would be to “expect the unexpected.” As with what has become the norm over the years under club president Josep Bartomeu, Barca have been linked with numerous talents from across Europe coupled with some questionable and head-scratching rumors.
With Andres Iniesta off to Japan, the transfer of Paulinho to China and the inevitable departure of Andre Gomes, the focus this year is on the midfield. Arthur was recently brought in, and the club is actively surveying the market for another midfielder or two in hopes of revamping the position.
The latest player linked to a possible move to Barca is PSG midfielder and French international Adrien Rabiot. Barca are very familiar with Rabiot from Champions League duels over the years. Most notably, Rabiot featured in the famous 6-5 aggregate loss to Barca in the 2017 Champions League Round of 16 tie. Rabiot had one of the most impressive performances by a midfielder against Barca in the first leg and followed it up with a forgettable display in the second leg.
Now with many potential Barca transfer deals, there are reasons for and against the player joining the club. In Rabiot’s case, there are several pros and cons that make the whole situation a complicated one.
The case for Rabiot to Barcelona
At just 23, Rabiot has already emerged as one the main focal points for PSG as of late. Since making his debut for PSG as a 17-year-old in 2012, Rabiot has appeared in over 200 games for the club in all competitions while winning 16 trophies.
Rabiot has enthralled PSG fans with his exquisite passing displays. Since he alternates between playing as a central and defensive midfielder, he has a heavy passing workload on the pitch. Last season in Ligue 1, Rabiot completed 92% of passes while recording three games with at least 100 passes completed.
Regardless of whether it is as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation or a defensive/holding midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, Rabiot has done well in dictating the direction of play and distributing passes out wide or inside. While he might not take a considerable amount of risks to open up play, his passing maintains the structure of PSG’s formation.
This sequence is to an extent emblematic of his role and play style for PSG. Rabiot completed six passes while moving across the pitch in an effort to balance out space and provide support for the ball carrier when needed.
Under Unai Emery, Rabiot was not just a passer that distributed the ball in the midfield while in possession but also had a considerable amount of defending responsibilities. When PSG do not have possession, Rabiot is tasked with pressing and moving around the pitch to not allow the opposing team to get comfortable while in possession.
For example, Rabiot, alongside with Thiago Motta, played the double-pivot role in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 2-0 win against Lyon in Ligue 1 last season. Through much of the game, Rabiot held his ground as Lyon struggled to generate any serious goal-scoring chances.
On this play, Rabiot is able to quickly intercept the ball, win back possession and dish out a pass to Mbappe who is making a run on the right wing.
If signed by Barca, Rabiot likely will not play the central defensive midfield position as much considering Sergio Busquets, Arthur and Sergi Samper (if not sold) can all play the position. As a high volume and high efficient passer, Rabiot will be best suited patrolling the midfield and providing support for the forwards upfront.
The case against Rabiot to Barca
Aside from his playing ability, there are glaring red flags from Rabiot. Before the board can even consider putting together the framework for a transfer, Barca would evidently have to deal with one of their biggest off-field nemesis -- PSG team officials. Last year, Barca botched an attempt to sign midfielder Marco Verratti and it only created tension between the two powerhouse clubs. PSG responded by completing a transfer deal for Neymar in a move that had Bartomeu and the board in panic mode.
Since there are no release clauses in Ligue 1 due to LFP rules, Barcelona would have to directly negotiate a deal with PSG for Rabiot. He is a player that could be sold in the range of €35-50m but in today’s inflated market, PSG will be sure to take advantage of it by offering him for a much higher price.
As it stands, new PSG manager Thomas Tuchel is planning on featuring Rabiot for the upcoming season, so the only incentive PSG will have to sell him is if they bring in a replacement or would have to sell him in order to comply with the FIFA Financial Fair Play rules. Nonetheless, Barca will have a difficult time in attempting to bring in Rabiot.
The other concerning factor for Rabiot is the potential problematic issue of his attitude and character. In May, Rabiot lashed out at Didier Deschamps for excluding him from France’s World Cup squad and more importantly, he refused to be named to the standby reserve squad. Although nothing major has surfaced aside from this incident, it is something to thoroughly watch for because Barca do not need the distraction of a disgruntled player. Rabiot and his mom, who is also his agent, will also be in the lookout for higher wages and a new contract since his current one will expire in 2019.
Now while Rabiot has excelled at his role for PSG, this brings up the question of what value would he bring to Barca. He is not the type of player that can make long runs up the pitch and force himself into space to open up play nor is he one that will overmatch opposing defenders with his speed.
Rabiot is highly skilled as a passer but is not the type of talent that can single-handedly change the complexion of games within seconds. This is due to his lack of contribution in the attack, whether it is building up play in the middle third and creating goal-scoring chances in the attacking third. Primarily in quick build-up plays last season, Rabiot had the tendency to stay behind while Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe push up front with approaching support from Marco Verratti and the full-backs.
One questionable concern of his is how he handles a high press from opponents. In Ligue 1, teams do not usually press against PSG and challenge the player that holds possession because it would leave them vulnerable to open space for PSG to exploit.
For Rabiot, he was tested on this trait and in others during the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid. Although he did score a goal, he did not dictate play in the midfield. Rabiot was lazy at times in tracking back, did not battle to recover possession and allowed Real Madrid players to essentially jog past him.
As seen in this play, Casemiro holds possession tight space down the sidelines. Rabiot comes in with a poor challenge by just sticking his foot out and then completely gives up on the play.
Later in the game, PSG gain possession but Marcelo steals the ball to jumpstart a counter-attack. Instead of tackling or pressuring Marcelo, Rabiot just stands in the way as Marcelo passes the ball to Modric and immediately receives it back while Rabiot watches in dismay.
Rabiot was also dispossessed nine times over the two games in the tie, including on this play where he lost possession in tight space.
It was discouraging to see lack of effort and ineffective pressing in what was arguably PSG’s biggest game of the 2017-2018 season — especially after months of playing subpar competition in Ligue 1.
While he is an exceptional passer, there are certainly some question marks as to how he fares against physical and tactical teams considering how this has lacked overall in Ligue 1. And in the case that Barca return to the 4-3-3, Rabiot might not be the best fit for their style of play considering he has not proven to be a creative midfielder that can open up passing lines and be a force while in the attack.
Ultimately, Barca would need to decide if it is really worth going through the potential headaches and troubles to bring in Rabiot or if they are better off spending more for a talent like Thiago. Even if Barca sign him, the hope will be for him to not to become another passive midfielder that is isolated while in attack and slows down the game with passes that do not amount to anything.
If signed, this would be a high risk and high reward transfer for Barca. If Rabiot performs well, then he could end up becoming a long-term contributor for Barca.
But if he struggles and becomes a burden for the team on and off the field, the coaching staff and board will have to deal with an issue that would undoubtedly receive widespread criticism. It would only lead to Barca having to try and sell him in a year or two but it won’t be an easy process.