Now that what turned out to be a fairly complex summer transfer window is over, arrivals and departures complete, it’s time to assess the squad Xavi will have, whether it’s ready and if so, what it’s ready for.
People who rate such things are lauding the club’s window, and for sound reasons. It added one of the best forwards in the game and the best centerback in La Liga. It also filled in quality depth at centerback, and got stronger in midfield with the addition of Franck Kessie. The club braintrust did fantastic business with free transfers, grabbing a trio of players who are all of high quality in Kessie, Bellerin and Christensen.
The finance-based necessity of the Aubameyang transfer leaves the attack a bit less deep. But the other transfers out have all helped the club improve. It was quite a nice window.
Grumps like me, however, are noting that the squad still isn’t ready to compete at the top level, not only because of the team’s devotion to an outmoded manner of playing, but fullbacks are still deficient. The team added Hector Bellerin and Marcos Alonso. And leaving aside the nauseating past of the latter, those two players don’t quite elevate those positions on the team to a degree sufficient to compete at the very top. The problem with that is that wing play — fast, dynamic wing play — is a fundamental tenet of modern football. That’s a sandbox that Barça isn’t equipped to play in.
The fullbacks on call are Alba, Alonso, Bellerin and Balde. None of them would start for a legitimate Champions League contending side (no, Barça isn’t). Alba is psychologically washed and physically he’s on the final rinse cycle. There’s a reason his name popped up in the dregs of the window as a potential exit.
The other problem with the fullbacks is that none of them are really defenders, even as Bellerin is the best defender of the bunch. Couple that with a sloth-like midfield pinned on Busquets and Pedri and you have a successful counterattack just waiting to happen. The other mids, with the exception of Kessie, are also slow and defensively bereft. Without 100 percent possession, defensive deficiencies on the flanks combine with defensive weakness in midfield to create a situation that Xavi likely wishes was different. How he manages those complexities will be key in his team’s ambitions this season.
Some have the blaugrana as Champions League contenders. My view is not yet. Not quite. There are still too many problems in a squad that will likely advance out of its group, but the hustle won’t be an easy one.
The other difficulty with the team as it sits is that if the forwards aren’t scoring, the occasional Pedri golazo notwithstanding, where do goals come from? Gavi? Nope. De Jong? Not on existing form. If a defense decides to put two on Dembele, walling him off and closely marks Lewandowski, Raphinha alone isn’t enough to be decisive. Might Kessie be a solution? It’s something viable to consider in his modified Paulinho role. But Xavi’s team is too slow, particularly in the midfield, too vulnerable on the flanks and lacks sufficient scoring diversity to be a legitimate Champions League contender.
The team does, however, have enough quality to be a favorite to hoist the Liga title, and that’s saying something. We also shouldn’t forget that this team is light years better than last year’s squad, which pulled out some late-season magic to finish second in the table. Is it good enough to make magic? A lot of things will have to fall into place, along with exceptional injury luck, even as this last bit seems unlikely given that World Cup comes in the middle of what is already a jam-packed season of fixtures. The depth will serve Xavi well, as will not settling on a fixed XI so that when subs are needed, they aren’t standing, blinking at the glare of necessity and a step off match pace.
All that said, let’s break down each addition:
Franck Kessie: An extraordinary bit of business in picking him up on a free from AC Milan. He’s a fast, fluid, fluent midfielder possessed of underrated skill on the ball. His role at Barça is quite similar to that of Paulinho, but when he is deeper in midfield his defensive abilities also shine. He should, given his skill set, be in the starting rotation picture more than he is likely to be.
Andreas Christensen: Another free transfer, from Chelsea. He has proven to be a smart, capable defender who is also quite fluent on the ball. He adds important depth to the back line. He will get more playing time than many might have suspected. It remains to be seen how his head is at the big moment.
Robert Lewandowski: Did FC Barcelona overpay for a 34-year-old forward who is likely to bag 20+ goals this season? Yes and no. Theoretically, yes. In practice, no. The team needed a reliable goalscorer and Lewandowski is among the best in the game. His associative play is also exceptional. A massive addition that improves the team mentally as well.
Jules Kounde: Gazumping this transfer from Chelsea was a sterling bit of business. He’s one of the best young CBs in the game. He is also the exact profile the back line has been needing since Umtiti went into physical decline. Before Kounde the team lacked a bridge from back line to midfield, so the mids had to do too much. No longer. He’s also an excellent proactive defender. Another massive addition who solves many problems with a single transfer.
Raphinha: Another smart transfer, even at the Premflation rates. This is a rock-hard winger who isn’t as ultimately talented as Ousmane Dembele, but he always, always puts in an honest shift. He’s also an influential player in ways that Dembele won’t ever be because of his immense work rate. Improves the attack to a bliss-inducing degree, even as the system being played limits his ultimate usefulness, as it does with Dembele. It sticks both of them in the ooze.
Hector Bellerin: A free transfer from Betis who really is an upgrade at that position for Xavi. He should easily sit the circumstance-based incumbent, Sergi Roberto. He is better in defense, an underrated quality of his. He will also make the right side of attack more fluent, while having enough pace to not get caught out on counters. This is likely to be a better transfer than many suspect. He was one of the best fullbacks in the league last season at Betis.
Marcos Alonso: Footballing-wise, he’s an old fullback who was never much defensively and is even less now. This transfer makes absolutely no sense given that Jordi Alba refused a move and Alejandro Balde is in his pomp, even as he isn’t quite ready yet. Was Xavi thinking that side needed a veteran presence that isn’t psychologically washed? Likely. Morally, this transfer disgusts me to my very core.
Pablo Torre: It’s hilarious that people are calling him the “next Pedri,” when the current Pedri is just now old enough to legally drink booze. He’s one for the future, a very smart move for an excellent price. Expect to see him feature some with the first team, which is why Xavi didn’t want to send him on loan. This young player is stuffed with quality. Comparison wise, he’s a combo of Pedri and Gavi, a no-nonsense, glib gem of a midfielder who is creative and smart on the ball. He doesn’t really improve the squad now, but in a season or two, he will be in the mix.
All that said, after an action-packed window, is Xavi likely to have a gala XI? Hopefully not. That squad is too deep, the talent sine wave too tight at most positions to argue for a set XI, even as there are names you will see more often than others. The hope is that rotation happens at every position except keeper. Xavi has the squad to do it. But, the XI most likely to be seen in big matches?
Araujo Kounde Christensen Alonso
Pedri De Jong
Dembele Lewandowski Raphinha
But Xavi has enough for two separate, high-quality XIs. It’s difficult to recall the last time a Barça manager was able to say that. This is the deepest squad a manager has had since Pep Guardiola, even if it isn’t stuffed with as much ultimate quality. It’s nice to see a group where an injury or two doesn’t make everything collapse, even as there are key players who will become fixtures, such as Lewandowski, Araujo, Kounde, Busquets, Pedri and Dembele.
My desires are that Xavi finds a way to get Busquets rest, while figuring out a way to shore up the flanks. Pjanic or Kessie both have the skill sets to play in the hole, and the latter will be much better against counters. De Jong never, ever should, ever be played in the hole. It wastes his abilities for one. For two, he’s routinely poor there, too soft and casual on the ball to be the penultimate line before the defense.
Ansu Fati will have a say in this season, even as the presences of his fellow forwards gives him plenty of time to ease back into full fitness, which is still some time away. Ferran Torres is another wild card. If he can find a way to finish, manage physical challenges more effectively and help in defense, he will also be in the rotation.
My rating days are over, so no rating for this window. But it solved a lot of problems, even as some key ones still linger. It’s going to be a fun season, and for me the squad, as it stands, because of the abovementioned weaknesses, is likely to finish second in Liga, with a Champions League quarterfinal elimination that will be a close-run thing.
Wild cards that might change that prediction? A fullback being better than we expect (looking at you, Mr. Bellerin), or the team finding a consistent source of goals other than the forwards. If those two things can happen, Xavi’s group can go far, even all the way.
P.S. No, I didn’t forget Memphis Depay. His absence from this narrative reflects my view of the say he is going to have in this coming season.