It Is As It Ever Was: FC Barcelona 2023-24 Season Preview

This is Part 1 of a Season Preview.

The beginning of every season is a chance to reaffirm our hopes, to convince ourselves that this year is the year, and that we are not, in fact, fools for believing yet again. Lucy will not pull the football away at the last moment this time.

For someone who is a member of and closely follows a major club in Europe coming off a league-winning season, it probably sounds pretty, err, rich to fans of much smaller teams for me to be saying something along the lines of “I hope I can care about this season.” I acknowledge this, but also acknowledge that following Barça for the last, err, ever has been taxing. We’re not a club that looks upon success and says, “Let us calmly build up on this.” No, we must tear it down and it must be done in such a fashion as to cause maximum drama.

It is as it ever was.

And so, let us talk about this club, this team, these players, this season. It’s what we came here to do and it’s what we’re going to do.

First, the obituaries:

Our French prince of swish has gone, Samuel Umtiti and the club ending his contract by mutual agreement (and some amount of money) and Big Sam going off to Lille where I hope he has the time of his life and continues the journey back to regular playing time that he was on at Lecce last season. He was never going to play for us again so it is good to get his salary off the books for this season and future seasons as his contract ran through some time in 2092 or something. His legacy is that he played 133 matches for the club, the majority of them in 16/17 and 17/18 before his knee injury and subsequent decision not to have surgery. In those 2 seasons with us, he was genuinely incredible and I miss him at his peak. May you dance your happiness once more.

Alex Collado, he of the 2 appearances for the club, has gone to Real Betis on a free while the club retains some amount of future transfer fees. At 24, he was simply never going to make it at Barça, especially after struggling to get enough playing time on loan at Granada and then being injured for a just under a third of the season on loan with Elche in 22/23. Unfortunate because you never like to see careers stutter and fall apart, but a good move for him and for Barça.

After a rough loan year in Valencia full of injuries Nico Gonzalez moved to Porto for €8.5m. Give that he is just 21 and seems fairly talented, you would like to think he would command a higher price, but Nico’s injuries (including a stretch where he missed 12 matches for Valencia between January and March), his somewhat stagnated development, and Barça’s lack of leverage, have combined to push that number down. It’s fair, especially with a buy-back clause (€30m before June 30, 2025) and a 40% “value added” clause for a future transfer. I admit that I had (very) high hopes for Nico in 21/22. He made 37 appearances for the club in 21/22, but only played 1,110 minutes in the league (27 appearances, 41 minutes per on average, 12.33 90s). He actually played more minutes in 26 appearances for Valencia last season, but couldn’t find a sustained rhythm and didn’t look like the type of player who could take over the pivot role or displace any of the other midfielders Barça had available. He is young, physical, and versatile. The question is whether he can up his game and become the player a lot of us thought he was primed to become when he first showed up.

After just one season, Franck Kessie moves to Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli for €12.5m. I have multiple, competing thoughts about this move. First, we will always rejoice at Kessie’s goal against Real Madrid in the home clasico, that pretty much assured us a league victory. Yes, it was a glorified tap-in, but it was one that we so desperately needed on an emotional level that I will celebrate it even if the true work was done by Lewandowski’s backheel and Balde picking his head up and firing in a low cross. Another thought: Kessie came on a free and moving him for any amount of money is profit for accounting purposes, a thing the club desperately needs and which saves us his salary too for reinvestment. A third thought: bringing in a player who isn’t necessarily a good fit to then dump them out a year later sends a bad message to anyone thinking they should move to Barcelona and make a go of it. There isn’t a resolution to this tension, at least not yet; Kessie wasn’t around long enough and wasn’t impactful enough for me to form any kind of a fan bond with him, so I feel somewhat like a Business Fan here when my primary thought is I wish we would have gotten a larger fee. There is a conversation to be had at a different time about what Xavi’s integration of Kessie could have been like, but for now, it is nice to have a little change in our pocket as we face the league’s registration requirements. Kessie’s squad spot can be taken by Gundogan, who is an undoubted upgrade (although a shorter term one than Kessie could have been given the age disparity).

What upgrade are we going to convince ourselves of for Ousmane Dembele? The specific terms of the deal are a little fuzzy, but after 6 season at the club, Dembele’s buyout clause was activated and he has gone to PSG. Sounds familiar enough that it reminds a certain section of fandom of Neymar’s departure, but that is where the similarities end. Neymar left to find new heights, while Dembele has gone to find a measure of peace and a new beginning. The “loss” on the transfer for the club is gargantuan, but from an accounting perspective it’s probably a profit (it depends on how his fee was amortized, but usually it’s over the contract length). What matters more to me is that the player was dynamic, destabilizing opposing defenses and providing an array of options to build an attack around. But the flip side of all this is obviously the injuries: 185 appearances across all competitions in 6 seasons represents about half of the available matches. The most matches played in a season was 44 in 2020-21; the least was 9 the year before in 2019-20. Frenkie de Jong was signed in 2019, 2 years after Dembele, and has 183 appearances. This comparison is not particularly random in that de Jong is 3 days older than Dembele: they’re both 26-year old high profile signings whose trajectories may not match presentation day expectations. The narrative that we constantly hear is that Dembele is a mercurial winger whose hamstrings are made of Twizzlers and scotch tape, but when he was on the field Dembele provided fairly incredible attacking statistics: 97th percentile in assists, with 0.44 per 90 minutes played, and 72nd percentile in non-penalty goals (stats from FBREF). Those 24 goals and 34 assists are basically what Ivan Rakitic had with Barça and he was lauded (until fickle fans found him smiling instead of fuming after a loss). What I think of Dembele is, of course, immaterial now, but he was so fun to watch that I was constantly rooting for him even has he yet again suffered an injury relapse, as he once again tried too hard on the field, as he once again forced a pass through the defense and it was intercepted and taken the other way for a dangerous counter. But then of course. And you begin to believe again. That’s what I think about.

I have never known what to think of Jordi Alba, not really. He is so frustrating when he forgets his defensive duties, but, as the kids say, scores only bangers. He could disappear for long stretches, mistime tackles, misplace passes, generally be a whole cyclone of whirling arms and legs without end product, and then produce sublime cutbacks. He was in the conversation for best LB in the world for a little while, but it also seemed at the same time that he was the worst LB in the world. Give him all the accolades. Shoot him into the sun. I convinced my daughter to name her stuffed squirrel doll after him. I yell his name in anger and shake my fist at him. His connection with Lionel Messi was (and remains) telepathic and it won us I have no idea how many matches. Messi’s departure naturally reduced Alba’s output, but it felt like more than that: Jordi Alba’s legs are no longer the legs he had when he first arrived and he can’t make up for any deficiencies like he used. Father Time remains undefeated. It was Alba’s time to go some years ago, but Bartomeu extended him through his 35th birthday anyway. I too would have signed on the dotted line where Jordi inked his name on the contract, but it should not have been offered. Another contract termination cost the club a decent chunk of change, but it was the right call since another year of his salary was not going to do us any good. It was time.

Time, then, is the thing I think about when I think about Sergio Busquets. Seeing the back of this gangly man who change the game by going unnoticed is an emotional stew I was not prepared for. It was, like with Alba, time for him to move on, his contract expiring and his legs losing what little was left of their speed (never great at the best of times). What was once the great octopus in the center, grabbing anything that came near, was now a defensive liability and a sieve in transition. There wasn’t adequate protection available from the squad to hide his decline, even if that decline started so high that you could be forgiven for letting him ride it out at the club of his life. A man who seemingly could manufacture time, was suddenly out of it. Where he could whirl and extra seconds of possession appeared as opponents flew by, were caught flat-footed, were lost in the wake, now he was the one straining to reach the ball, tugging on a shirt to catch up, exhorting teammates to cover more ground. When he first appeared, jumping up from the B team with Pep, I thought he would be a backup to Yaya Toure for a decade. There wasn’t room in our immense midfield for this man whose legs were Bambi-thin. I’ve been wrong before, but perhaps never quite this wrong, in this way. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good, it was that the gulf between “good” and “Sergio Busquets” was taller than Mt. Everest. He was an institution in midfield for 15 years. 722 appearances. 19 major trophies and 13 minor trophies. He won a World Cup and the European Championships somewhere in there. And, at one point, I advocated for giving him the boot. I do not regret this stance because I do not believe that he said mucho morro way back in 2011, during that infamous run of clasicos. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but it is probably important to point out that whatever the actual act was, it does not appear to have been repeated. We can celebrate his achievements if we remember that these are not heroes, but humans whose skills and flaws are magnified. Time comes for us all, even if we think we control it. Fair thee well, our midfield maestro whose greatest skill was being invisible when it mattered most.

And so: the season ahead.

Our 2023/24 Schedule:

3-Sep-23              @Osasuna
17-Sep-23            Real Betis
19-Sep-23            UCL Group Stage Match 1
24-Sep-23            Celta Vigo
27-Sep-23            @Mallorca
1-Oct-23               Sevilla
3-Oct-23               UCL Group Stage Match 1
8-Oct-23               @Granada
22-Oct-23            Athletic Bilbao
24-Oct-23            UCL Group Stage Match 3
29-Oct-23            Real Madrid
5-Nov-23             @Real Sociedad
7-Nov-23             UCL Group Stage Match 4
12-Nov-23           Alavés
26-Nov-23           @Rayo Vallecano
28-Nov-23           UCL Group Stage Match 5
3-Dec-23              Atlético Madrid
10-Dec-23            Girona
12-Dec-23            UCL Group Stage Match 6
17-Dec-23            @Valencia
20-Dec-23            Almería
3-Jan-24               @Las Palmas
13-Jan-24             Osasuna
21-Jan-24             @Real Betis
28-Jan-24             Villarreal
4-Feb-24              @Alavés
11-Feb-24            Granada
18-Feb-24            @Celta Vigo
25-Feb-24            Getafe
3-Mar-24             @Athletic Bilbao
10-Mar-24           Mallorca
17-Mar-24           @Atlético Madrid
31-Mar-24           Las Palmas
14-Apr-24            @Cádiz
21-Apr-24            @Real Madrid
28-Apr-24            Valencia
5-May-24             @Girona
12-May-24          Real Sociedad
15-May-24          @Almería
19-May-24          Rayo Vallecano
26-May-24          @Sevilla

From CL Matchday 3 to CL Matchday 4 is going to be a ride and a half, regardless of who we’re facing in European competition. There will be narratives galore, calls for Xavi’s head, recriminations, someone saying the tactics are wrong even if all 4 matches are 5-0 wins for Barça (“cupcake league!” “unfair draw!”). What matters to the club is qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League and, secondarily, competing for the league title. The inverse is true for me, as it always has been, but I appear to increasingly be in the minority. Splashy competition wins are better than sustained excellence, I guess.

A quick prediction before the season officially kicks off: Barça will win the title again, will make R16 of the CL, and the semifinal of the Copa del Rey. And we might even win whatever the supercopa thing is in Saudi Arabia, although if we don’t, I don’t care.

Up next in Part 2: new signings, financials, and the path forward. And maybe a few references to bygone eras no one remembers.