Xavi Hernández has revitalised Barcelona.
The Catalan has taken over a side that was directionless and flailing under Ronald Koeman and turned them into a cohesive unit playing with confidence and aggression.
That’s been reflected in their results, most notably their 4-0 rout of their great rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu just before the international break.
But while Barcelona are heading in the right direction they still face an integral summer.
Recruitment was smart during the January transfer window but it needs to be even smarter during the summer. Kylian Mbappé is probably trading Paris for Madrid come the end of this season and recruiting the best player in the world has a transformative effect.
But one would have faith in Mateu Alemany, the man chiefly directing Barcelona’s transfer business, to make the right moves. The noises coming from Camp Nou right now certainly suggest that he’s thinking along the right lines.
Barcelona’s financial situation means that they’re targeting primarily low-cost, soon-to-be free agents. Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie both appear to be locked down, while it’s understood both a right-back and a left-back are also on Barcelona’s list.
But there’s also scope for more serious investment.
Their chief expense is expected to be on a centre-forward, with Borussia Dortmund marksman Erling Haaland their clear first-choice. But that operation is complicated by the intensity of interest and financial muscle of Madrid and, principally, Manchester City.
They’re also keen to strengthen at right wing as it appears unlikely that Ousmane Dembélé is going to renew his contract and will instead leave Barcelona at the end of this season. Whether he actually will or not is unknown – things change fast – but reports coming out of Catalonia have hinted they’ve already lined up a replacement if he does.
That would be Raphinha.
Born in Porto Alegre, the Brazilian is 25 years of age and plays his football for Leeds United in the Premier League. He joined them in the summer of 2020 when they were promoted to English football’s top tier and has emerged as one of the most exciting footballers to watch in European football’s most competitive league.
Raphinha has made 59 appearances for Leeds, contributing 15 goals and 12 assists across all competitions. He was integral as they finished their first season in the top tier of English football since 2003/04 in a very respectable ninth place, and while they’ve struggled collectively this season his class has never been called into question.
Raphinha has become a fully-fledged Brazilian international since he joined Leeds – he’s since earned seven caps for the seleção and scored three goals – and has been playing on another level to the rest of his teammates at Elland Road.
“He’s been playing at a Champions League level from the get-go,” Joe Donnohue, a sports journalist who covers Leeds closely, told Football España. “His touch, poise, creativity and confidence are all first-rate. He’s a level above anybody else in this Leeds team and he’s genuinely unfazed by anything.
“He’s been playing on the right of a 4-3-3 while in possession and on the right of a 4-1-4-1 while out of possession. He’s very good at cutting infield onto his preferred left foot, typically at the edge of the penalty area.
“For me, personally, the aspect I like the most about his game is the intensity with which he plays. He’s routinely the player with the most high-intensity sprints in the hardest-working team. He doesn’t shirk tracking back and presses well in the final third.”
The word on the street is that Leeds will sell Raphinha for €25m if they suffer relegation to the Championship this season – they’re currently 16th in the league table, seven points clear of 18th-placed Watford and the relegation zone. If Leeds beat the drop, however, they’ve reportedly slapped a €75m transfer fee on their prized talent.
“€75m probably isn’t his market value but that’s what he’s worth to Leeds,” Donnohue said.
“They’re going to have an incredibly hard time replacing him. But Barcelona offers a nice sublot to his career arc; his father is childhood friends with Ronaldinho and the two families have a good relationship.”
One of the most interesting things about Raphinha is how he has a real edge to his game. Brazilian players are often painted as fairweather footballers, guys who can turn it on when the lights are bright and the attention is on them but not when the going gets tough. Men capable of sublime skills but not hard-edged competitors like their Argentine counterparts.
That’s a mistake. Football España has lived in Brazil and knows firsthand just how tough life in that beautiful, intoxicating country can be. Not as well as Raphinha does, of course.
“It really is the Wild West, man,” Raphinha told The Players’ Tribune about futebol de várzea, a key tenet of his youth in Porto Alegre. “It’s like a network of independent matches and tournaments organised by the local community.
“The level is a lot lower than at the academies. Any player can just turn up, you don’t even need a contract. You play on clay. Burning heat. Dust and sand. Someone will bring a ball from home. Often there are no nets, just the posts. Bibs? Forget about it. One team just plays shirtless. And these players are the rejects, man.
“They play with anger. They play to survive. They play like their lives depend on it.
“The death threats [he and his teammates received during várzea tournaments] were just threats. We knew it was the home supporters trying to get into our heads. But you would often see the bosses in the community stand around the pitch with guns. You could be about to score when a random gunshot would go off. Let me tell you, it can kind of put you off! The fireworks too, man.
“That’s why I always say that if you can play in the várzea games, you can play anywhere. A big European final? Don’t care. A stadium with 90,000 people? Bring it on. I’m still very proud that I played in so many várzea tournaments. And honestly, I loved it. Those games made me so tough. When I play now, I want to be booed. I want the pressure and the intimidation. That’s what gets me going.”
Players of a character like that are rare to find and that’s exactly the type of man – the type of competitor – that Xavi and his team want to bring to Camp Nou. But that’s not the only reason. Raphinha brings a certain quality and technical quality that is exactly what La Blaugrana need right now, even more so should Dembélé depart for pastures new.
“Raphinha would be an amazing signing, especially if Dembélé leaves,” Domagoj Kostanjšak, a sports journalist and analyst who covers Barcelona, told Football España.
“Ever since Barcelona’s interest in Haaland has been made known I’ve been clamouring about the need for a creative third forward. Even if Haaland isn’t signed Barcelona are still going to chase a similarly robust number nine who needs to be fed to be effective.
“Ansu [Fati] is creative but not enough; just like Ferran [Torres] and [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang, he’s also better as the beneficiary of a creative profile rather than operating as one himself, if that makes sense. So a front three of Ansu, Haaland-type-nine and Ferran would lack that self-sustaining creative presence to feed the other two.
“It’s something that can be compensated by having a high-output midfield and full-backs but despite Barcelona having quality in those positions I’m not sure they have enough juice to sustain that hypothetical front three.
“This is where Dembélé comes in; he’s the perfect counterweight to those other two forwards. And if he doesn’t renew then Raphinha fits that profile to a tee, albeit with slightly less overall potential. He’s creative and an excellent dribbler who will shoulder that creative burden nicely. In the right setup, he could easily produce +20 goals and assists.”
The Dembélé situation does seem to be a key element to Barcelona’s pursuit of Raphinha.
They signed Adama Traoré on a loan deal until the end of the season during the January transfer window and agreed an option to buy for a fee of €30m with Wolverhampton Wanderers, his parent club. But it seems that in the absence of a part-exchange involving someone like Francisco Trincão or Riqui Puig that deal won’t happen.
Raphinha does seem the smart move; he fits, in more ways than one. But whether he’s genuinely of interest or simply a tactic to show Dembélé that Barcelona can survive or even thrive without him is significantly less clear. As with all things, time will tell.