He’s probably the greatest player to have ever graced the game. With all respect to the likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol and other stalwarts of the current Barcelona side who have been around for quite some time now, the Argentine is the reason why this team is also arguably the greatest in history.
But the one aspect of the little forward’s magical contribution that most football lovers have ignored, with or without purpose, is that though very much rewarding in terms of trophies and recognition, the club has wasted millions of dollars in its pursuit of finding a support system for the four time Ballon d’Or winner upfront.
Over the course of the last three seasons prior to the ongoing campaign, the Catalans have made it a habit of signing one top class forward every summer to work in tandem with their 25-year old star to make an already sharp attack more lethal by spending enormous amount of money that could have been utilized to strengthen other areas of the squad as their weakness at the back stands more exposed than ever before.
If the tradition started with the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic back in the summer of 2009, it continued with the arrival of David Villa the following summer and Alexis Sanchez in 2011.
And no one’s come cheap.
When Ibrahimovic was signed in the region of some €70 million, it was perhaps more about making a statement to counter Real Madrid’s star signings of two of the best players on earth of that time in Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo. So, if the Bernabéu would be home to the former Milan and Manchester United stars, Camp Nou could be equally proud of hosting two of the best forwards of this generation in Messi and Ibrahimovic. It was a simple case of tit for tat.
As brightly as he may have started out initially, Messi’s wish to move towards the centre to play a more prominent role in Pep Guardiola’s three man attack pushed Zlatan onto the wings and very slowly onto the bench and the stands as he struggled to cope with Barcelona’s style of pass and move football out wide as the Argentine lay siege to his favoured position in the heart of the attack. It was a move that benefited the team, but as far as the club was concerned at €70m, Ibrahimovic was an overly expensive benchwarmer.
What happened next is history and has been drilled into everyone’s head like the alphabets of English, but despite the Swede’s presence David Villa was signed in 2010 for a staggering €40 million and mind you it was a deal that was struck even before the transfer market had been opened and Ibrahimovic was not sold until AC Milan came knocking in the last few days of the same window.
Sent back to Milan (albeit this time to the red-half of the city) initially on loan with an obligation to buy for a mere €24m, Ibrahimovic’s sale was described by President Sandro Rossell as the worst piece of business the club had done and there cannot be a counter argument to that. That was a good loss of close to €50 million and a certain Samuel Eto’o who had been exchanged with Inter as part of the deal, baffling from a pure financial point of view.
|Barcelona's million dollar babies brought in to support Messi over the years|
|Player||Appearances||Goals||Assists||Seasons played||Transfer fee paid|
|Zlatan Ibrahimovic||45||21||13||1 (2009/10)||€70m|
|David Villa||103||44||11||3 (2010/11 - present)||€40m|
|Alexis Sanchez||73||20||13||2 (2011/12 - present)||€37m|
|Total||219||84||37||4 (2009/10 - present)||€147m|
Unlike the giant Swede, however, Villa was told in no uncertain terms about his role in the team that he would have to adapt to playing on the wings; a pretty different role to what he was used to both at Valencia and Spain with whom he had been very successful as a centre forward. That the Spain international had none of the egoistic attitude like his predecessor which helped tremendously as he was more than happy just to be a part of a world beating side which would go onto to win the Champions League that season defeating Manchester United at Wembley in May 2011. Villa even scored in the final and was instrumental in Barca’s success that season until his season ending injury in December that year.
The physical demands of being a winger and the constant running and adaptation to Barca’s tiki taka football took its toll on the striker as he injured his tibia missing out not only on the rest of the season but also on another career defining spell with the national team as Spain lifted the Euros for the second time in four years last summer in Poland and Ukraine. He may have returned to the thick of things, but the fact that he has struggled this season to hold down to a first team place is amongst the worst kept secrets of La Liga. So much so, that teams are unwilling to even shell out €20 million for his services despite his class and capability of leading any side to glory even at the age of 31. His stocks have fallen and as we approach the next transfer window in the summer, undoubtedly they will fall further.
Then came Alexis Sanchez for a staggering €37 million in the summer of 2011 and it seemed that the trio of Messi, Villa and the Chilean striker would simply make Barca unplayable in the continent but a year on and while the Argentine has enjoyed his best year at the Camp Nou, the other two have simply vanished from the scene. Having come at the back off a scintillating season with Udinese forming one of the most explosive counter-attacking partnerships with Antonio Di Natale at the Friuli back in Italy, Sanchez was hailed as the one for the future by the critics unlike his predecessors who were signed at their prime. But despite a bright start to his career alongside the greatest player on Earth, he has struggled to come to terms with playing to the speed of the Argentine and the overall style of football at Barcelona.
But while Messi and Barcelona continue to have a good season (despite the recent slump which may all but wrap up an otherwise brilliant season) the former Udinese striker is closer to the exit door and like Villa will in all probabilities looking for potential suitors to continue his career with Juventus looking to bring the Chilean back to the peninsula. But thanks to the injuries and bad form of both players, Barcelona will never recover the amount invested in the duo and that is not hard to comprehend.
While none of the above deals were criticized at the time of their signings, and rightly so because they without doubt were extremely rich in quality, what Barcelona perhaps have failed to learn is that they don’t really need expensive centre forwards to support Messi but perhaps natural wingers and more importantly those who can easily adapt to his and club’s way of playing. Pedro has supported the Argentine well this season like in his first season with the club, and with Iniesta and Fabregas they already have enough pedigree not to forget the La Masia graduates in Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca who are waiting in the wings.
If there is one area where they desperately need re-enforcements and more so now, it’s at the heart of the defense. Carles Puyol is not getting any younger, while Gerard Pique has struggled both for form and fitness this season. The writing was on the wall a couple of seasons back when €24 million Javier Mascherano was slotted in as a centre back due to his inability to find a place in the midfield and though a brilliant makeshift solution in the Champions league winning campaign of 2010-11, he was never a permanent one.
|Carles Puyol | The lack of signings at the back has come back to haunt the club in recent times|
While their problems on the left hand side of defense were well and truly covered by the signing of Jordi Alba last summer, not a single central defender has been signed despite the continuous calls for the same by critics and fans alike. Messi has been so brilliant upfront supported by a world-class midfield that perhaps the management never really felt it was paramount to cover the tracks at the back, but the recent errant run of conceding goals even at home and a possible elimination at the hands of a young Milan side on Tuesday so early in a competition they have dominated for almost half a decade will bring regrets about their dealings over the past few summers.
That they admired Thiago Silva was no open secret until the Brazilian was sold to high-spending Paris Saint-Germain but the admiration could have turned to action had they been a little pro-active and who knows he wouldn’t have cost them the €46 million he cost the Parisians thanks to their good relationship with Adriano Galliani, the Rossoneri vice-president, alongside the defender’s desire to play for the best side in the world. Instead another €20 million were splashed on a certain Alex Song who has made no more than eight league appearances this season.
Another interesting aspect of this great side is that because of their peculiar way of playing only those who have graduated from the famed La Masia academy have managed to make a telling impact on the club’s fortune since their golden run started back in 2008-09. Everyone else from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Ibrahim Afellay and Alex Song to Javier Masherano has struggled to find a permanent place in this team over the years to add to the woes of the currently struggling duo of David Villa and Alexis Sanchez despite the high price the club has paid to reach far greater heights. It’s no wonder that even today with the exception of Dani Alves the starting line-up consists of players who have graduated from the youth academy.
But whatever the case, the ruthless spending to find supporting actors to support Messi has proved to be fruitless in the long run and it’s high time the money is invested wisely elsewhere because Messi in himself is a force to reckon with and does not need star presence around him to take this team to newer heights. The best part is that he doesn’t even get injured and is still only 25-years old with many more years of brilliance ahead of him, hence they do not even need a replacement. But it should not veil the fact that defensive re-enforcements are urgently needed and that’s where the money should have and needs to be spent.
He may have been raised in the youth ranks, but certainly having Messi around in the team has cost Barcelona a fortune in needless signings.
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