June 20, 2011

Summer Transfer Thoughts

I thought this was needed, after the endless debates over twitter and repeating the same stuff over and over. This will mostly collect and expand on transfer-related things I have already tweeted; but of course not everyone will have seen it all twitter and this way it’s easier. It turned out quite long, but it’s very relevant and I hope you’ll all read and enjoy. Alright, here we go!

First, let’s talk about the squad in general and what areas need to be strengthened. Now, with the squad the way it is we’ve had an incredibly successful season, winning the Liga and Champions League despite having to deal with a lot of drama and injury issues along the way, and this same squad, as it is, has the capacity to be fine next season without any drastic changes. That said, it will be for the better to have a little more depth in the squad, more options for backup/rotation, especially, as many like to insist, because we have six competitions next season. 

But let’s pause to take apart this six competition claim. We have the Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League of course, then there are the follow-up Cups as a result of winning the Liga & CL last season: The Spanish Supercup, Uefa Supercup and Club World Cup. Now, I know we like to dramatize things a lot here at Barca, but honestly, I would hardly call the Supercups ‘competitions’. At least none that warrant a dire need to add depth to the squad. The Uefa Supercup is one match, the Spanish Supercup is two; and granted, the latter becomes more heated because our rivals are Real Madrid, but it remains, in essence, two legs played prior to the start of the season, more a part of the preseason than anything else. The only one that should really have us ‘worried’ is the Club World Cup, because it’s an actual tournament that will disrupt the normal season, not to mention the traveling involved – it’s all the way in Japan.

So let’s not get all in over our heads with claims like “we’ll never make it if we don’t sign Sanchez, six freaking competitions!” Cool it. The squad isn’t that shallow. 

But I’m getting to Sanchez. Going back to the squad in general… let’s start from the start. Goalkeepers? Not an issue. Victor Valdes is the most incredible keeper we could ever hope for, grade A, first class, yada yada, I don’t even have to tell you how brilliant he is. I think most of us are more than satisfied with Pinto as second keeper as well. Nothing to see here, moving on. 

Defense. Ah, the defense. I think we can agree that defense was Barca’s weakest point last season, what with all the injuries. We missed Puyol far too much because of his knee problems and felt his absence greatly. The fact that Barca lost only five matches all seasons all of which were matches that our Captain missed, speaks volumes. It’s not the same without him there to marshal the defense, and even Pique, wondrous centerback as he is, seemed lost at times without Puyol at his side. 

Akin to the extent that we missed Puyol is how much we missed Abidal. His diagnosis alone was a huge blow to the team and fans alike; in the wake of dealing with the threat of cancer, I know all that was on my mind was wanting him to come out of it alright. But I think all of us – team and fans alike – found strength in Abidal’s strength, and the season pauses for no one so it was time to think about replacing Abi on the pitch. 

That wasn’t easy either. Abidal has been an enormous player for this team, incredibly solid defensively and above all, at a consistent level. He was our irreplaceable leftback, satisfactory substitute centerback, indispensable part of the defense.

So how do you replace that? How do you deal with two enormous blows, in his absence and Puyol’s, at the same time? And it wasn’t long before Adriano – having stepped up to the plate and shown his worth as another fantastic asset to the team – joined them on the injured list. 

There was no simple answer; we went through the season as well as we could with a patchwork defense, one that called for fielding Maxwell and Milito, who I can not but describe as shaky and undependable, as well as utilizing Busquets and Mascherano in defense instead of midfield, in addition to the emergency promotion of Fontas from the B-team. All in all, not really the ideal defense.

And yet the club announced that they’re not looking to sign a defender this summer. Consequently, everyone called them crazy. But I for one can understand why the club/Pep would take this stance. I’ll tell you why; but before I can do that I have to talk about the midfield. 

There’s no arguing the fact that Barca’s game stems from it’s midfield. Possess the ball, distribute the ball, win back the ball; have as much control of the ball as possible. That’s how we roll. And that’s what the midfield is for. And they do a brilliant job of it – Xavi, Iniesta, Keita, Mascherano, Busquets. And Thiago. Never, never forget Thiago. The explosive talent just emerged from the B-team, Thiago is fast becoming an untouchable part of Barca’s squad. Pep gave him call-ups aplenty during the season and it was apparent that we had a star on our hands; and anyone who wasn’t convinced by what they saw during the season has only to watch the U-21 Euro taking place now. Thiago is enjoying a rapid rise to fame as he gives performance after mind-blowing performance for Spain, packed full of all the creative-assisting-passing goodness that we at Barca so revere. A future Xavi if you will, with some dribbles and flourishes thrown in for effect. Yes, Thiago is untouchable, and among all the ludicrous transfer rumors we’ve heard so far, the most nonsensical are those that suggest we would possibly sell or trade Thiago. We’d have to be downright batshit crazy to even think it.

That being the main reason why so many are so against signing Cesc. Eek, yes we’ve arrived at him; an inevitable part of summer transfers with Barca. Simply put: If we sign Cesc, where does that leave Thiago? We can’t have him benched or have his development stumped by the fact that Cesc is there and Cesc is starting instead of him. No, and especially not if signing Cesc would require us to fork out 40 milllion; why do that, when we have Thiago?

What we have to own up to is that frankly, we don’t need Cesc. At all. It’s never been about us needing Cesc so much as us wanting Cesc. He’s a Masia boy, he has Barca DNA, he belongs with us, Barca is his home, yada yada. We’ve heard it all a zillion times at the least. But where, in all that, is the real need for him to be part of our squad?

No doubt Cesc is a brilliant player. No doubt he would fit right in at Barca. No doubt he would be a wonderful addition to the team. But he’s not necessary. He’s not. A year or so ago we talked about Xavi getting old, we talked about sooner or later needing a replacement for him because Xavi is the one that makes Barca tick. And we talked about Cesc being the man, the absolute perfect successor for Xavi. But guess what? Thiago arriving on the scene kind of invalidates that now. Why pay 40 million for what you already have? Granted, Thiago is young and still needs to work and grow to reach the level of Xavi or Cesc, but this kid is the business and there’s no doubt that that’s where he’s headed. If Xavi were in rapid decline we might talk about an urgency to bring in Cesc, but he’s not. And by the time our midfield maestro really has run his course, you can bet Messi’s golden balls that Thiago will be ready.

And yet. And yet, even as I type this, even as I believe this, as I know that Barca won’t be worse off if Cesc doesn’t come – I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like for him to come. He’s one of my favorite players, always has been, and I’m prone to be dazzled by the prospect of having him on the team. Because it would be phenomenal. So here’s where I try to validate signing Cesc:

Going back to what I said earlier, about my understanding that the club would not feel a need to sign defensive backup, this is for two reasons. The first one is that what happened last season was exceptional. Abidal’s setback was a special case, not likely to be repeated, just as it’s not likely that we’ll again have to suffer Puyol, Abidal and Adriano all being sidelined at once. Puyol should supposedly be more or less on top of his knee trouble by the time the new season kicks in, and Pep is also depending on the promotion of Fontas; and when push comes to shove we still have Milito and Maxwell, who right now aren’t looking like they’re anywhere close to being sold. And there’s the B-team, that boasts some really gorgeous defenders. I for one would be gleeful to see Bartra get a bit of time on the first team. And of course, there’re always Masche and Busi, who have proved dependable as emergency defenders, especially Masche; which brings me to the second reason, and the one that I tie to signing Cesc:

If we really are that much in need of defensive backup, let Masche and Busi (though Masche moreso) fill in instead of worrying about signing someone. It’s not that bizarre an idea; I know they are essentially midfielders (albeit defensive mids) but think about Rafa Marquez. Remember that he started out as a defensive midfielder. He still plays defensive mid for the Mexican NT I believe, but Barca needed him to be centerback so that’s what he did. And did it beautifully, I might add.
If Masche and Busi – or even just Masche – rotate with the defense as well as midfield, that frees up more playing spots in midfield and thus makes the inclusion of Cesc more viable. Playing time for both him and Thiago won’t be as much of a problem, especially after you factor in that injuries will happen and Xavi will need more rest; that is if his tendonitis doesn’t act up again. 

Not to mention that more playing spots in midfield can be freed up by having Iniesta rotate with MVP up front, since he can play as winger. We’ll need to have backup/rotation options for our attacking trio as well, and there’s no reason not to utilize Iniesta there. 

Which brings us to the attack. Of course, Iniesta by himself is not enough. Nor does anyone really deem Bojan/Jeffren sufficient backup; with one or both of them most likely leaving on a loan or sale this summer. There’s Afellay, who I picture as having the role of winger more than attacking mid for Barca, but Ibi still has some way to go. No, the options we have are not enough; everyone’s demanding that Barca sign a striker, a high profile striker to rotate with MVP, someone the likes of Giuseppe Rossi or Alexis Sanchez or Neymar.

But I’m none to keen on any of those options when they all cost between 35 and 40 million. Right now the media is crowing non-stop about a deal to sign Sanchez for 35 million, then it’s 38 million, then it’s 35 + Jeffren or 35 + Soriano. 

Are you freaking kidding me?

We can talk about six competitions, we can talk about fatigue, we can talk about needing to rest/rotate Messi, Villa and Pedro, but at the end of the day those three are still going to be our basic attacking trio, and anyone else is just going to be backup. And guess what? You don’t pay 35 million for backup.
These amounts that are being reported for Sanchez, with people also saying that his price is likely to go up after the Copa America, are ridiculous for Barca to pay. They’re nearing on the amount we paid for Villa – 40 million – and we spent that much on Villa because he was an essential signing for an essential position, replacing Ibra who replaced Eto’o. Who is Sanchez replacing? Right, no one. I repeat: You don’t pay 35 million for backup.

Now let me make something very clear, before anyone attacks me with arguments that Sanchez is this and this and he will add to the team that and that: I am not against Sanchez. I am against his price. Sure he’s a great player with loads of potential and could add pizzazz to the team, but if it’s going to cost 35 milllion then that’s not the kind of signing we should be making. No matter what, Messi, Villa and Pedro are going to remain our essential starters, and any attacker we sign is going to spend more time on the bench than on the pitch. That’s not a role you pay 35 million for. That’s not a role you sign Sanchezes and Rossis and Neymars for. 

What I find most ridiculous is that those three have to be our only options, as if they’re the last three viable attackers in the world. Guess what? They’re not. There are loads of great attackers out there who don’t cost 35-40 million.

Case in point? A kid called Willian. 

Shakhtar’s talented winger is priced at 12 million. Even if his club were to heft that fee, how much could they go up? 15? 20? 25 would be pushing it, and that’s still way better than 35 million. Willian has the skills, the potential, the right dynamic for Barca, and best of all, the right price. Perfectly perfect for our rotation needs. 

Willian’s been linked with Barca, not crazily the way Sanchez or Rossi have, but enough during this transfer period to make me believe it could happen, almost as much as I believe it should happen. Frankly, the club ought to snap him up before someone else does (he’s been linked with Arsenal as well; if he ends up going there I’m not sure I won’t shed a tear or two).

And if we’re still not satisfied with our attacking options after that – well, there’s always Jonathan Soriano.

I feel very strongly about Soriano and about the need to give him a shot with the first team; perhaps because so many of you so readily dismiss him as not being worthy simply because he’s 25 years old.
When a player on a B-team ends up as Pichichi of the entire second divison, with a staggering 32 goals, who the hell cares if he’s 25? He’s playing awesomely and that’s enough to earn him at least a shot with the first team. The fact that people should write him off based solely on his age is ridiculous. Some will insist that if he were really worth it, he would’ve bloomed long before he turned 25. To those people I say, make sure you know what you’re talking about before you start talking.

That argument could have been valid had Soriano been raised in Barca’s youth system like the rest of the B-team. He wasn’t. Before joining Barca B he was a first team player for Espanyol. I repeat: first team, as in he took a step back to join Barca B – who were then in the third division. 

Soriano had a rough time of it with Espanyol. They dragged him out on loan after loan and never gave him a real shot, and in the end let him go without renewing his contract or caring to look into taking offers for him. 

Barca, as Soriano puts it, ‘saved his footballing career.’ Not one to be daunted by his bad experience with Espanyol, he came to Barca B and started over. His first season with Barca B saw him score 36 goals (31 league goals), finishing among the top scorers in all four sections of the Segunda B and leading Barca B into promotion to the Segunda A, the second division. He scored another 36 the next season (32 league), claiming Pichichi and leading Barca B to finish third place in the league ranking – an incredible achievement for a B team in the second division.

His history with Espanyol and his performance with Barca B over the past two seasons invalidate any claims of “if he was really good it would’ve shown before he was 25.” Last season, only the rule claiming that players over 25 can not be called up from the B team to the first team if they haven’t been called up from the start of the season prevented Pep from calling him up (he did try). 

Soriano may be 25, but he’s at the top of his game and at the very, very least, deserves to join the first team for preseason. Call it a trial; he deserves to have at least that shot to show he’s got what it takes to be part of the first team. 

I mean, when Nolito decided he wanted to leave Barca B and join another club, he was offered a first team contract. He’s only one year younger than Soriano and Soriano’s performance has been more impressive. So why is Nolito first team material and not Soriano? 

As for Soriano’s own willingness to join the first team – he doesn’t share Nolito’s stance. Nolito left because he saw no future for himself at Barca, insisting that he needs to go somewhere where he’ll get more playing time and make more money; seeing as he’s married with his own family as well as his parents to support, and no one can blame him. 

Whereas Soriano… well, he did an interview for Sport recently, and… you should read it for yourself. He talks about his time at Barca and what the future may hold for him, and the more he talks, the more you feel that he’s just so grateful to Barca and completely at peace with whatever may happen. If Barca decide he should find another club, then he’ll accept that and leave in hope of other opportunities, though he will miss Barca very much. If Barca decide to give him a shot with the first team, he will relish it and give it all he’s got. “I’ll be grateful for any opportunity Guardiola gives me,” he says. A couple of months ago, as his soaring season with Barca B neared it’s end, he said, “I’m fighting for the first team.” More than anything he just wants to play football, completely at peace with wherever that may be. He was close to quitting the sport before Barca ‘saved’ him; now he says he wouldn’t dream of leaving it.

Okay, not to careen off topic any more than that, basically the point is I really like Soriano. Skillswise, personalitywise, everythingwise; this guy deserves a shot with the first team if anyone does. 

Whew. Summer transfers, who’d’ve thought I could have so much to say. Just a few more random notes:

- Quick overview of how Villa’s been for Barca. A lot of people say that he hasn’t been up to par and hasn’t met expectations and hasn’t been much better than Ibra was. The truth is that neither one of them was going to be absolutely brilliant from their first season on the team; Barca plays a very unique system and it’s not easy to fit into it if you weren’t raised here. For an attacker especially, it takes adaptation. It takes a lot of work. I think the main difference between Villa and Ibra was that Villa was willing to work and Ibra wasn’t. Villa did a great post-season interview where he talked about how hard it was, how he had to re-learn basics and adapt to new fundamentals. Ibra on the other hand, after the bitter way he left Barca, declared that the club knew who he was when they signed him and they should’ve adapted to him. Uh, I’m sorry, NO. Villa explained how he took Pedro as a reference and learned from him… I don’t think Ibra would be caught dead saying he watched and learned from Pedro. Sure Villa had some rough patches, but it was all in the adaptation process. He ended the season on a magnificent note (let’s not even think about how Ibra ended his season here) and next season, you can count on him being more fully integrated, a brilliant part of the team.

This is why we have to be very careful when making new signings. We’re very homegrown, we have a set philosophy and anyone who comes from outside the club has to work to adapt. That’s why it’s firstly about attitude (why Pep rejected Neymar) and secondly about having similar style and potential to fit in. Ibra had neither; I don’t know what the club was thinking signing him.

- A quick word on Bojan. I think it’s a shame he never succeeded with the first team after spending four years on it, but I don’t see him as a total flop. He just lacks confidence, and Pep continually benching him and only subbing him on for the last five minutes didn’t help. 

Think back on the final four Liga matches of 2010, after we got knocked out of the Champions League and had nothing left to fight for but the Liga, with RM only 2 points away from us, making it crucial to win those last four games. They were four hugely important matches, must-wins if we were to win any trophy that season, and against the likes of Sevilla and Villareal; and what did Pep do? He played Bojan. That was when he finally realized Ibra was just not going to work, and he showed confidence in Bojan by playing him for those four make-or-break matches, and consequently Bojan played gloriously and scored 4 goals in 4 matches. See, just a little confidence is all he ever needed.
Last season injury got in his way just when he was beginning to shine, a huge shame. And now the U21 team is benching him. I just feel so bad for him. But he can’t go on this way, he needs to be somewhere where he can get constant playing time, so much as I hate to see him go it’s for the best. I would love to see him head to Roma; Lucho would take care of him.

- A note on Cesc’s current stance. Basically his comments on the matter were to the effect of – and I’m paraphrasing here – “Everyone knows I want to go to Barca, I don’t have to keep saying it, but it’s not up to me, Wenger is the boss and he knows what I want, he’ll decide.”

Look, I think he’s trying to be reserved out of respect for Arsenal; he wants to come to Barca but he doesn’t want to hurt his team or his fans. That said, I don’t think his teammates or the fans would really hold it against him too much. His own teammates have actually been quoted as saying he should go to Barca since that’s what he wants. It’s mainly Wenger who is stubborn about keeping him, and Cesc seems unable to put his foot down in front of the man who he says was like a father to him. He wants to please everyone, that’s his problem; he seems to be hoping that Wenger will have a change of heart and send him off to Barca with his blessing, without Cesc having to be forceful about it. But I don’t know the likelihood of that happening, and as many have said, Cesc ought to man up to what he wants or it’s not going to happen.

If we end up not signing Cesc, I’m not going to be depressed over it. Like I said, we don’t need him, but having him on the team is an amazing prospect. As for the matter of the cost, 35-40 million is a lot, but Cesc isn’t really worth less than that. He’s a proven great and not just someone with ‘potential’, and we know that the role he’ll play at Barca will be a great one, we know how beautifully he’d fit in. And, I think I rather sympathize with him a lot. The endless dry spell at Arsenal without winning anything, playing for Barca being his dream… and the fact that he has idolized Pep since he was a kid, similar to the way Iniesta has; I can only imagine what it would mean to him to play under Pep, to have Pep as his manager. 

Okay and I’m getting too sappy right now lol. Wow, this turned out long. I hope nobody got bored and stopped mid-way. So, now, tell me. Your thoughts?

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