There’s a high probability that FC Barcelona will not be able to do what they want this summer. Beyond the usual market factors and constraints, Xavi Hernandez will probably arrive at training on the 1st of September, look at the young and old faces warming up, scratch his head and lament that they weren’t able to bring in an extra defender or a better forward. Sporting Director Mateu Alemany will have to make concrete choices on signings in the knowledge that it will leave Barcelona’s squad weak elsewhere as a result.
Now if the great big dots can be joined, Robert Lewandowski appears to be their prime target this summer. It’s a deal that hinges on Bayern Munich more than anything else, but it appears the Pole has been settled on as the player that can transform a talented team into a competitive one. Alemany, along with Jordi Cruyff and the racket of voices in the boardroom, have convinced themselves that the 33-year-old can stand in the middle of the rocky rapids and lend a hand to their young talents to cross to the other side when the water begins to rise.
There is a certain logic to that. During the third of the season in which Barcelona found a rhythm and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished the chances created, they were catapulted from a struggling top four side to clearly the second best team in La Liga. Even inflicting the heaviest defeat of the season upon the best team in Spain and according to results, Europe. The retort from Chamartin at the time was that Real Madrid were missing Karim Benzema – that’s exactly the point with Lewandowski.
As much as anyone that is attainable for the Blaugrana, there can be little argument that Lewandowski has a track record of coming up big in those decisive moments. Barcelona are more than one player away from making the leap though. While Alemany, Cruyff and Joan Laporta, slumped in their chairs and locked in debate, work out where they can strengthen (with or without Lewandowski), there is one signing that should be considered above all other priorities – a personality.
Whichever profiles may arrive, if Barcelona can unearth a natural (and affordable) leader, they must move what they can to bring them in. A player who can arrive and immediately assume a central function within the dressing room. Above all, a player who can impose standards. The signing of Dani Alves shows the desperation to fill that void, even if he struggles to reach those levels himself. By the end, Luis Suárez had the spikiness but not the physique to be beyond reproach, like Alves. In El Clásico, Barcelona showed that their ceiling is high; for the month following it, raising themselves from the floor was the issue.
Xavi can shout and strain from the touchline, but having a dominant speaker over the thin white line can transfer his words into actions. It’s a proposition that sounds too facile for the intellectualised world of graphs and analytics behind a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet Real Madrid demonstrated that character can be just as decisive with a squad that is no longer the most expensive nor guided by a manager within many people’s top tier. Not even Florentino Pérez’s.
Gavi has shed blood for his team, Ronald Araújo thunders around the pitch and anyone who has played football will confirm that Pedri has guts beyond most. It is not as simple as a lack of passion. It’s simply that none of Barcelona’s younger talent yet has the authority to round the rest into a line behind them.
Nobody is more experienced in terms of winning trophies than Alves and you don’t have to go far down the list until you reach Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Gerard Piqué. In spite of his extra-curricular activities, the latter is still waiting for someone to prove they are more essential to the defence than he is. As much as Pedri’s absence was devastating from April onwards, the last time Barcelona lost a match with Piqué in the side was the 20th of January.
He, like Busquets and Alba, is not someone who sweats the small stuff however. Piqué might be the cleverest in the class, but he is not a source of intensity. It’s never been a secret and only in the last five years has it been asked of him. The relationship between Piqué and Carles Puyol has been openly acknowledged to have been beneficial on the pitch. Both were intelligent enough to recognise that the other had something that they lacked.
Regardless of whether this mythical signing replaces one of the veterans or eases out one of the newer recruits at Camp Nou, it’s a presence that is necessary rather than a position. What Puyol had that others don’t is a charisma. A brazen, honest gravitas that gave others the belief that they too could come through adversity.
One phrase from Carlo Ancelotti early last season that struck a chord was that he wanted his defenders to be ‘pessimists’. It’s hard to centre on a single player at Xavi’s disposal who would include that in their character reference. Perhaps the last who could was Javier Mascherano, Puyol’s successor and another ideal foil for Piqué’s moxie. It’s hard to argue with a player who has literally torn his anus for the cause.
Mascherano, like Puyol and like the defender Ancelotti seeks, was the voice of pessimism amongst a collection of footballers that have been taught to try things. The little boss [El Jefecito] was the embodiment of his nickname, ordering creatives around him. Vocal and constant about being so, he kept his own players on their toes before the opposition caught them out.
Somehow, through some fashion, whether it be achieved with their hook or their crook, Barcelona must find an edge again. Amongst the money and the talent that Barca have been haemorrhaging, character has been flowing out of the side in recent years too.
So when Barcelona are weighing up where to place their final pennies this summer, signing some should be their prime consideration. If Joan Laporta is perplexed between two players, he would do well to choose the rock and the hard place first.