The FC Barcelona money gr … pre-season was a rousing success. The club stuffed dosh into its coffers, players got a chance to tour the U.S., act like and meet celebrities, and have public, televised training sessions against other teams. And most crucially, no injuries.
As we enter the prelude to the regular season, with the Gamper Trophy (and a Davi Alves umpteenth homecoming) looming, there are still a great many questions for a team returning home with fluffed feathers. Let’s deal with some of them, along with some observations:
1. The fiscal risk is worrying
There will be people who will tell you there is nothing to worry about, that FC Barcelona is a money machine, etc. But there is much to worry about with a month to go in a transfer window in which much has been risked. Yes, the team was strengthened immensely for essentially the cost of a Coutinho. But back then, the club had the money. It does now, with the help of some generous benefactors. The numbers are still eye-popping. Trophy parades will make people forget how eye-popping the numbers will still be, even if all this risk pans out and titles return. Yet the numbers will still be eye-popping.
Barça took risks, and strategically sold parts of the club’s future earnings in exchange for immediate gain. Levers for everyone. And either the numbers aren’t in fact as bad as they have been made out to be by the club, or they have a plan for continuing to walk that high wire. The future will be fraught, for culers inclined to worry about fiscal management, SADs and debt loads.
2. Lewandowski will be fine
Question the fee paid all you like. Question his age. But don’t question his quality. The ball didn’t go in, but Lewandowski showed everything you want to see from your forward. He’s already learning to link up with teammates, is pressing defensively and is almost constantly in the right place to score goals. The goals will come. He’s also an intelligent player who reads the game in a way that facilitates his work. He affects matches, moves defenses around and makes life easy for his front line mates. Every last bit of that is good.
3. Dembele will always have questions
The Frenchman was brilliant in pre-season, but that was pre-season. It was a rebuilding Juventus, Real Madrid and a couple of MLS sides. His talent is without question, and his reliability is improving. The complexity is that his highs are so high that his normal makes him look broken. He’s becoming more of a rheostat instead of a toggle, which is good. If he can remain among the goals, adding to his already prodigious playmaking capabilities, the risk that Xavi took in January, and then continuing to fight for Dembele, will have paid off handsomely — for manager and team.
Like or not, and many don’t even now, Ousmane Dembele can change a match. Last season in limited minutes he was electric. Many assumed he was playing for a contract. He got the new deal at a 40 percent pay cut, and was better in pre-season than he was last season. Promising signs for a player who seems more complex than he is, provided we understand that he is likely to never fully realize the potential offered by his immense talent. Injuries and false starts robbed us of a lot of that. If he shows up at anything like his norm — not the golazo machine — making smart decisions, tracking back, driving play, creating, he’s set for an excellent season. And Xavi seems to trust him to create on the fly, so look for fewer of those half-runs, then a sad dump off to a midfielder.
4. Raphinha is legit
The Brazilian isn’t as talented as the player many believe he will be battling for a starting spot in Dembele, but he’s smart, sharp and effective, with a flair for associative play and defensive work that will quickly make him a lineup fixture. He can also score goals. Barça will be at its most effective keeping opponents pinned back. Raphinha will be essential to that task.
It’s also worth noting that the most impressive attacking trio in pre-season we saw against N.Y. Red Bulls, with Raphinha and Dembele flanking Lewandowski. This is good for a number of reasons, most notably that it gives Ansu Fati all the time he will need to heal and return to full powers, without any “Ansu saves the world” pressure. People will need to stay calm about Fati, and let Xavi work the young talent back in. It’s a long process.
5. The best midfield doesn’t include De Jong
Sadly, neither does the best Barça back line. The Dutchman is on the outs at FC Barcelona, and rightly so. Entering his fourth year, there are still those asking whether this will be the year that he finds a way to fit into the system. Meanwhile, Pedri immediately slotted in. An improved Gavi is showing him up, and even though Kessie isn’t as ultimately talented, he’s proving a better fit for how Xavi wants to play. Add Nico Gonzalez to the rotation and the incumbent Busquets, and De Jong looks to be odd player out. Rumors persist about his potential transfer. After the last match, Xavi flat out said that he doesn’t know if De Jong will stay.
He looked better in the back line than he did in midfield, even if he evinces the same defensive flaws. But now that Kounde has been added, even the possibility of De Jong becoming football’s highest-paid fifth CB appears grim.
De Jong still doesn’t just keep the ball moving. He always wants to do something with it. That’s good when it works, but sometimes you just scream for him to dump it a few meters to a waiting teammate. At some point, playing your game when it still doesn’t fit the team context becomes Quixotic. And the windmills always win.
6. Defensive questions remain
All those transfers and the fullbacks still suck defensively. Juventus took full advantage and other teams tried to, with varying degrees of success. Dest and Alba aren’t up to standard, and neither is Sergi Roberto. Araujo is an excellent defensive right back, but those who crave attacking flair from that position are left wanting. Alba isn’t as good going forward, worse defensively and lost another step to Father Time.
On the up side, Alejandro Balde has demonstrated that he deserves to stay with the first team as much as possible. He improved quite a lot since last season, when being moved on was more likely than him sticking. He isn’t ready to full-time trouble Alba, but by next season he should be. Gobs of pace, smart in attack and knows how to defend. There hasn’t been a name offered up as a potential fullback transfer that makes me not want to see much more of Balde.
Kounde is the question mark. Now that Barça has added one of the best CBs in La Liga, what of the rest of them? Umtiti is looking for a new forever home, Eric Garcia is still playing like he’s 5’7″ instead of 6’+. Soft and lost is no way to go through life for a CB. Christensen has proved to be the reliable partner, and should see lots of time. This is good, because Pique, who was booed during every match on the tour, should have been booed. His worst outing was in the last match, where to say he looked rough would be kind.
Three at the back? More transfers? How will the club solve what is still a defensive conundrum, especially when you roll out a slowwwww midfield as Xavi did against Red Bulls. If you figure the XI includes Araujo and Kounde, only Christensen has looked to be up for the task. Still a month left in the transfer season, however.
7. What of Torres?
That left side of attack is suddenly like a cutting contest, and Ferran Torres picked a bad time to be knocked. The club didn’t buy Lewandowski to share time, and Aubameyang will slot into that role when such things are required. Fati looked bright and sharp as he rounds into full fitness. Laporta snarling about Torres not scoring goals doesn’t exactly make for comfortable sleeping if the club dropped 55m on you in January and already you’re looking like the odd man out.
Smart people talked about his elite movement and associative play. Dumb people like me talked about how he can’t even seem to hit an open net, loses almost every physical challenge against a defender and needs to improve in defensive work rate. He’s on the hot seat this season. Not in trouble yet, but if that light doesn’t click on, it’s going to be a long season for him.
8. Folks gotta go
Depay, Umtiti, Pjanic, Puig, Neto and Braithwaite are all on the “find a new home” list. So is De Jong, even if nobody will come right out and say that publicly. Moving seven players, three with big salaries, in a month is going to be complex, particularly as none of them is going to make it as easy as Mingueza did. The club could face some hard decisions by the end of the window. Letters of release? Not registering someone? Dark days await for some folks.
It’s impossible to know what kind of season Xavi’s team is going to have. It has strengthened the attack in a way that makes that group one of the best in Europe. It also added an improved Nico and Gavi to an already action-packed midfield, and Kessie is looking to be one of the smart moves of the entire window. And then there’s Christensen and Kounde to strengthen the back line.
The best teams have strong, reliable second units. Last season the dropoff from starter to sub was precipitous at almost every position. That isn’t the case this season. Alemany is to be commended for a fantastic transfer window, one of the best, if not THE best, in European football. The right fullback addition might solidify that ranking.