The five-year wait for the Catalan giants to sign a central defender is over but the capture of Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia is indicative of wider problems at Camp Nou
By Paul Macdonald
After four summers of threatening to do so, Barcelona have finally, at long last, signed a centre-back - the first purchase in that position since Dmytro Chygynskiy from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009.
It was hardly worth the wait.
The arrival of Jeremy Mathieu from Valencia for an excessive fee of €20 million (£15.8m) feels like nothing more than tokenism, an upgrade in height (an area in which Barca have struggled in recent years) but in reality nothing more than an additional body. And the fact that they have opted for this signing, at that price, for a 30-year-old is yet another significant change in direction from what made the modern Barca so revered.
The doyen of the perfection of the past few years, founder of a project that was 40 years in the making, Johan Cruyff's scathing criticism appears more legitimate with each passing day. Speaking to a Croatian newspaper in April, the Dutchman sneered: "Barca are vulnerable because of catastrophic failures in the last four or five years. I'm not surprised that there isn't continuity. There isn't a plan. There aren't rules."
It's unlikely that there will be a tickertape ceremony to welcome Mathieu to Camp Nou. After the Neymar debacle, Sandro Rosell's departure and what fans feel is an accelerated erosion of the club's values, former centre-back Rafael Marquez seemed to sum up the consensus of opinion: "I don't think he has the profile to play for Barcelona and even less so for this price."
The transfer is a dubious one on many levels. Firstly, his age. The most expensive signing of a defender aged 30 or over in history, almost doubling what Real Madrid paid for Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 - and he would win the Ballon d'Or that year.
What's more, he has signed a four-year deal with the option of a fifth - lengthy considering his relatively modest top-level experience. And to top it all, his release clause last summer was €10m (£7.9m) before signing a new deal in July. At that price, and a year younger, the deal might have been more palatable.
Secondly, Mathieu is a left-back by trade and was even employed as a left winger by Valencia. Only in the past two seasons has he regularly featured in the centre and will still probably begin the campaign as the club's fourth best in that position after Gerard Pique, Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano. The overriding concern has been the shoehorning of the likes of Sergio Busquets, Alex Song and Mascherano in alongside Pique or Bartra - essentially taking players out of their natural habitat. It's difficult to recognise the difference here.
Then we must bring Luis Suarez into the equation. A £70m integration into a team who scored 148 goals in all competitions in 2013-14, with all the baggage that he brings with him, seems to be a monumental and avoidable risk made all the more galling considering the middling option taken on Mathieu. Barca have had the opportunity to prove how serious they are about building a team again. There are options out there, many of them. Mateo Musacchio delivered another excellent campaign for Villarreal, is 23 and would have cost less. Matija Nastasic may well be surplus to requirements at Manchester City but is 21 and has years to develop.
|BARCA SIGNINGS IN THE POST-PEP ERA
And that's where future Barca and the previous incarnation disappear on diverging paths. From a club drilled on the philosophy of La Masia, developing their own prodigious talents to supplement superstar signings, they now appear more keen to follow the Real Madrid doctrine. Buy world stars, and ask questions later.
Suarez wasn't necessary, in the same way that James Rodriguez wasn't necessary for Madrid, but the precedent appears to have been set. Neymar, Messi, Suarez ... and whoever else we have left. Cesc Fabregas, Thiago, Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol - the Catalan heart of the team has dispersed. Xavi, an ageing legend, looks to be retained. At every turn, logic and long-term consideration seem inconsequential.
Luis Enrique may see this summer of huge upheaval as necessary change.
"We are going to do it my way, no doubt about that. I am not going to do what everyone else might tell me. Results will tell the tale of whether I got it right or whether I'm crazy," he said.
Make no mistake, this will be his team. But will it still be Barcelona?