April 29th 2008: The Barcelona players trudge off the pitch at Old Trafford, a few pausing to thank the away fans for their support, but most keeping their heads low as they head down the tunnel. The team’s performance summed up their entire season. They had dominated possession only to give away a silly goal due to a lapse in concentration at the back. With the opposition sitting deep, Barcelona looked lost and totally out of ideas in the final third and were left, just like at Anfield a year earlier, searching for a goal that was simply not coming.
Two months and close to ninety million Euros later, a new, fresher team awaits pre-season training. With the departure of several members of the old guard (Gianluca Zambrotta to Milan, Deco to Chelsea, Edmilson to Villareal as well as Lilian Thuram and Santiago Ezquerro out on frees) the team has lost of a few of its ageing egos, so many of whom having become increasingly lacklustre over the past two seasons. Still however, there remains an elephant (or two) in the room.
Pep Guardiola made it clear in his first press conference as Barcelona manager that there was no place in his squad for either Samuel Eto’o or Ronaldinho, the two biggest stars of the double winning season. The case for the sale of the latter is obvious: ‘Gordinho’ is evidently un-motivated, un-loved and, if rumours are to be believed, cares more about partying than football. A few weeks ago, a solution seemed certain with his sale to AC Milan almost confirmed. Now, however, the amateurish way in which his transfer has been handled (the top brass declaring he is not in the club's plans but then demanding in excess of twenty million euros for him) has led to Milan believing that they can now get the two time former World Player of the Year on the cheap. The standoff between the two clubs means it is looking increasingly likely that Ronaldinho may remain at the Camp Nou for another season.
In the case of Eto’o however, there can be no question marks about the player’s work rate, commitment, or even his form. It seems as though the decision to remove Eto’o from the squad is not being made for footballing reasons, with the motives probably being both fiscal and political. Barcelona need the money from the sale of Eto’o in order to purchase more players - that much is obvious. Why the club desire this is another matter entirely as Eto’o ended up being the league’s top scorer in terms of goals/minute ratio (averaging a goal every 94 minutes).
It seems that the current board feel that Eto’o is seen as one of the key members of the squad who has let them down over the past few years, and they are therefore keen to distance themselves from him (though if events over the past few days are anything to go by, it hasn’t helped them much). The only case that anyone can build up against Eto’o is that he does not lead the line particularly well against burly teams, who sit back against Barcelona, a team like Manchester United for example. This was also evident against most of the British teams Eto’o has played against and if Barcelona want to mount a serious challenge for the Champions League, then perhaps Eto’o should not always lead the line. However, that is not to say he should be sold. Eto’o has a huge amount to offer the team, provided that he doesn’t get injured for five months at a time. With Eto’o seemingly not interested in a move away from the Camp Nou any time soon, it could transpire that he too could remain in Barcelona for a while yet. One thing is certain: he is not a man to be bullied out of the door.
Now to discuss the fresh faces coming through the door of the Camp Nou. With the defence last season being Barcelona’s main barrier to winning games in the league, it is encouraging to see that the powers that be have sought to remedy this area. The team’s most high profile signing as yet this summer has been the acquisition of Daniel Alves from Sevilla for a rumoured thirty million, rising to thirty five million euros. Though many would agree that this is a tad over-priced, Barcelona have received probably the best attacking right back in the world. Alves offers Barca some much needed width, something that has become a rare commodity at the club since the departure of Ludovic Guily (with Messi, Ronaldinho and Henry always preferring to cut in from their wings onto their stronger foot), and this will allow the team to stretch opposition defenders more. A slight concern is his questionable defensive game, but if he can improve in this area, then he could end up fully justifying his inflated fee.
It was at the centre of defence that the club looked most frail last year and for this reason the club have gone completely over board with the purchase of not one, not two, but three twenty one year old centre backs. Whilst Henrique (who is soon to be bought from Palmeiras for eight million euros) will probably be loaned out to gain experience in Spain, Martin Caceres (twenty million from Villareal) and Gerard Pique (a rumoured six million from Manchester United) will certainly be members of the first team squad for next season, leaving the club with no less than seven players available to play at centre back next season. How Guardiola keeps all these players happy remains to be seen.
In midfield Barcelona have strengthened with the purchase of Seydou Keita from Sevilla added to the ‘soon-to-be-confirmed’ transfer of Alex Hleb from Arsenal. Keita adds some much needed dynamism to what was a very static Barcelona midfield. As well as this, against physical sides it means that with the employment of both Toure and Keita in a double midfield pivot, Barcelona will be able to hold their own. The signing of a utility player such as Hleb seems to underline a common theme in Barcelona’s transfers so far: the acquisition of both flexibility and depth in a squad which was drained of both for much of last season through injury (highlighted by the teams inability to replace Messi – something that Hleb may have been bought to do). This new depth offered in both midfield and defence means that when players are off form or injured then can easily be replaced with ‘like for like’ players.
However, there is a very thin line between having a big squad to provide healthy competition and having a big squad that causes resentment from players who are not picked for long periods. Therefore it is perhaps questionable that Barcelona still have two more players lined up for purchase: a left winger and a new number nine. Whether Hleb (or Iniesta) is employed to fill the huge hole left by Ronaldinho, or whether that job is given to a new natural left winger, for example Valencia’s David Silva or Chelsea’s Florent Malouda remains to be seen.
What does remain certain however is that Barcelona need a target man for those teams who are difficult to break down. Who this will be depends greatly on whether or not Eto’o will be sold, Adebayor and Drogba remain likely candidates if Eto’o goes, but who comes in if Eto’o doesn’t leave is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, Barcelona need someone other than Gudjonsson to fill that role.
The work done by Barcelona in the transfer market so far has been good, on paper. However a great deal depends on whether these signings gel, and on Guardiola’s as yet unproven ability as a manager. Barcelona certainly have the squad to win both the league and Champions League next season, but whether they can avoid more nights like that of April 29th is still debateable.