Once again it has been an immensely successful season for FC Bacelona. Two trophies already in the bag - the Spanish Supercup and a third successive league title. There is also the little matter of reaching the final of the Champions League - the second time in three years. Irrespective of what happens in the final against Manchester United, it has been by anyone’s standards a great season. Yet, a team is only as good as its last match and soon the current season will be over and everyone will have to start again from scratch. Can Barça maintain this run of success? And what changes to the squad will be needed it the club is to continue winning titles.
Barcelona are pretty much unique among the top clubs in the world in that they deliberately run a very small first team squad. Excluding goalkeepers, they only have 19 players for the 11 outfield positions. This has been the Barcelona way for a couple of decades or more, ever since the arrival of Johan Cruyff as manager way back in the late 1980s. And on the whole it has worked. However it does place a lot of strain on the 19 players. And sometimes the team is left short of key players as happened in season 2006/7, when injuries to Eto’o, Deco, Messi, Edmilson, Iniesta among others left the team limping to the finishing line in the league, which they tied on points with Real Madrid, but lost on the head to head results. It was almost the same this year. Though Barça have won the league quite convincingly they have lost their cutting edge over the last couple of months.
This has been due to a combination of injuries and loss of form by key players. The defence has been the most affected by injuries with Puyol and Abidal out for most of the second half of the season. Maxwell and Adriano have also been unavailable for much of this time. Though in theory Barça still had the option of Milito as cover for centre back, Guardiola hardly ever used him and never in any of the key matches. Another option is to bring in players from the B team, but it is most instructive that Guardiola never used that option, at least not until the league was more or less won. What he did do was to recycle his defensive midfielders as centre backs. First Busquests, then Mascheranno was used in this position. And Puyol, just back from his injury was pressed into service as an emergency left back for the crucial games against Real Madrid. This shows the extent to which the squad was exposed during the latter part of the season. Somehow they managed to get away with it, in large measure because the rest of the team managed to dominate possession of the ball and keep it well away from the defence. Still a very risky situation to be in. And one I am sure Guardiola with not want to repeat.
Another cause for concern has been the sharp decline in goalscoring over the last couple of months. David Villa has not scored in something like 14 league games, while Pedro has also had a bit of a goal drought. Even the great Messi has not been scoring with his usual free abundance. What has made this worse is the lack of experienced alternatives up front. Bojan, who is still only 20 years old, is their most experienced reserve forward, and he has also been unavailable through injury. Jeffren is another youngster, but with very limited first team experience. He also seems prone to injury and does not seem to be a prolific goalscorer anyway. The other option available has been Ibrahim Affellay, who arrived from PSV during the winter transfer window. He has played well when used, but like Jeffren, does not look like a player who will score 20+ goals a season. And this is precisely what Barça lack. A proven, reliable goalscorer who can substitute for Villa or Pedro and indeed challenge them for a first team place.
This then would seem to indicate that the priorities for Barça for next season are to strengthen the defence and the attack. Which will make the transfer talk all the more interesting as just about everybody assumed that their star signing would be midfielder Cesc Fàbregas. However midfield non longer would appear to be the main priority, through additions would be welcome even there. There is also the small matter of the cost of signing Fàbregas. Arsenal seem intent on holding out for €40-45K which would use up just about all of Barça’s transfer budget. While this budget may rise, especially if they can offload some fringe players, this does not really change the equation, as these fringe players would need to be replaced and anyway, given their difficulties this season, Barça may want to increase the size of their squad.
This has already been reflected in the local press in Barcelona where the name of Giuseppe Rossi, the Italian striker who plays for Villareal, has been regularly linked with a move to Barça. Rossi, who is 24 years old has played in Spain for the last four seasons and this season has scored over 30 goals for his club. However Villareal are not likely to sell him cheaply and already the figure €30-35K has been floated in the press. No doubt other names will appear in the list of possible signings. So I would expect at least either Bojan or Jeffren to leave over the summer to be replaced by a more experience striker. The key point is any replacement, at least one with proven experience of regular goalscoring, will cost mucho dinero.
The same applies in defence. With Milito almost certain to leave and Guardiola’s reluctance to use either Fontàs or Bartra in important matches, a new central defender is almost a certainty. What makes this even more urgent is the fact that both Puyol and Abidal, already the wrong side of 30 have missed much of this season through serious injuries. So at the very least I would expect to see one experienced central defender to arrive in the summer. There does not seem to be front runner for this position at least not according to the press. However, whoever does come will not come cheap.
All this of course leaves the prospect of Cesc Fàbregas returning to the Camp Nou an increasingly unlikely event. Which would be bad news for Guardiola. For though the midfield has performed wonderfully well pretty much all season, there is the usual shortage of players in this area. Xavi and Iniesta are the only two experienced creative players in the squad. Keita, who has contributed much to the team, is a different type of player, less skillful on the ball, but his physical presence and height offer an important and useful alternative. Busquets, who usually plays as the holding midfielder, can play further forward and is a very skillful player in his own right, though not quite in the same class as either Xavi or Iniesta. However I would expect that Guardiola will continue to use Busquets primarily in a more defensive role. The great hope for all Barça fans is that Thiago Alcántara will fulfill his immense promise. Only 20 years old Thiago has already made quite a few appearances for the first team and has been promised a place in the first team squad for next season. Thiago is a very talented and gifted player, though he can be a bit reckless at times. Not a facet much favoured by Guardiola. So long as both Xavi and Iniesta remain fit and well, then no doubt Barça can get by another season mainly relying on these two, as Thiago gains more experience and becomes a more mature and reliable player. So unless a great deal of extra money becomes available from somewhere I do not expect great changes in the midfield for next season.
This season has not yet ended and already the anticipation for the next is palpably there. Can’t come soon enough.