After finishing second in La Liga and losing in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, a relatively disappointing year up to their standards, FC Barcelona have been quite active during the early stages of the summer transfer period. They began by swooping in on two La Liga talents; first they replaced the outward bound Victor Valdes with Claudio Bravo, the Chilean goalkeeper formerly of Real Sociedad, and subsequently signed Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic, who recently starred for Croatia in the World Cup.
Barcelona has followed up those signings with undoubtedly the biggest transfer of the summer for any club, in a £75 million deal for Luis Suarez. Bringing in a player of Suarez’s caliber is a big enough story in its own right; the scandal created by his bite heard round the world only adds to the multi-faceted implications of the situation.
Another factor to consider is the pending 14-month ban against any transfer activity for the Catalan club. Barcelona have appealed the harsh sanctions imposed on them by FIFA for the illegal transfers of underaged players, but it’s presently unclear whether it will be lifted or not. This uncertainty has left Los Blaugrana in an awkward position; they must both build for the present and keep the picture of the squad one or two years down the line in mind as well. If the ban indeed takes place, they will be handcuffed with squad flexibility and will only be able to improve the team through their vaunted youth system, La Masia.
The three-pronged tandem of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and the newly-acquired Suarez give Barcelona the most lethal attacking combination in all of football, although it’s not clear where the three will play when they’re all on the pitch together. All three are best playing striker; Neymar is electric with the ball at his feet, Suarez is a cold-blooded finisher, and Messi can quite simply do it all.
Of the three, Suarez is the most likely to stick up top exclusively, which he has done for Uruguay, at times pushing fellow striker Edinson Cavani out wide. Neymar has enough pace and skill to play on the wing (which he did often this season) and Messi can play anywhere, and could drop back slightly in a more typical number 10 role. Having played a similar system at Liverpool, Suarez will fit right in to Barcelona’s quick pass-and-move style.
The inevitably scintillating combination play between the three should be nothing short of fantastic, and in reality they will probably play less in set positions, opting instead to flow freely in the attacking third. The harsh reality of the situation, however, still remains; Suarez is still suspended from any football activity until October, and given Neymar’s fractured vertebrae, Messi may be leaned on more heavily than ever at the start of the club season.
This is where Barcelona’s other recent activity, namely the transfers of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas to the Premier League, comes into play in a major way. The need to generate transfer-related revenue is more important than ever given the new Financial Fair Play rules. Combined with his strong showing with Chile at the World Cup, Barcelona smartly decided to sell high on Sanchez, receiving £23 million from the Gunners. Chelsea, meanwhile, have not just swiped Fabregas from the Catalans against their will; they’ve also convinced highly-touted 17 year-old Josi Quintero, a product of La Masia, to join them as well.
Los Blaugrana still have Pedro, along with Gerard Deulofeu, who is set to return to Barça after impressing in his season-long loan under Roberto Martinez at Everton. Deulofeu, a technically gifted forward/winger, broke out in a big way for Spain’s under-20 World Cup squad, and will play a key role in Barcelona’s upcoming campaign. This is especially true given the recent news of a Cristian Tello transfer to FC Porto. Tello, a speedy winger developed through La Masia, has loads of potential, but never got the chance to shine at Barcelona.
Barça have grappled with the problem of a rising star versus and established one before, most recently in the case of a stacked midfield blocking the growth of current Bayern Munich man Thiago Alcantara. Also a product of La Masia, Alcantara grew tired of a lack of playing time, and went to Pep Guardiola’s Bundesliga powerhouse last year, only to play major minutes on a team with a glutton of central midfielders. Xavi’s play, meanwhile, has declined, and he will leave Barça this summer for the MLS expansion side New York City Football Club. Just like Alcantara last year, Tello, and to a lesser extent, Quintero, seems destined for stardom. If Barcelona can’t figure a buy back clause into their deal with Porto, they may end up regretting it in a few short years.
It’s become clear that Barcelona’s young players yearn for opportunities to play first-team football somewhere, and equally as obvious that they don’t see that opportunity presenting itself for the Catalans. Even young defenders Martín Montoya and Marc Bartra could leave in the next few years due to a lack of playing time. While both players had up-and-down campaigns in somewhat limited playing time, they are both just 23. In the new era of FFP, keeping homegrown products has become more crucial than ever before. Barcelona’s inability to keep and play La Masia’s best has created more uncertainty for the future. And just like Sway, we ain’t got the answers. Only more questions.
As for Suarez, once he is able to play again, the transfer should help ease the load off Messi, who has played a ridiculous amount of matches across all competitions over the past several years. This way Barcelona can sit Messi without sacrificing nearly as much quality as before. There will always be a drop off when you replace the best player in the world, but Suarez minimizes that margin.
The question of the morality of the move is a completely different matter. Barcelona hopes that the change of scenery will change Suarez. For a player consistently marred by on-the-field incidents, they hope he can learn from a player in Messi who only creates magic on the pitch, and a club who stands for more than just football.
Part of the feel-good vibe has withered away from Barça in recent years, however. The change from sponsoring a charity, UNICEF, to plastering a name all over their jerseys and stadium that is associated, perhaps unfairly, with World Cup bribes and construction deaths in Qatar Airways, has rightfully had its fair share of critics. The Neymar transfer scandal, and now the acquisition of a thrice-biter, and noted racist, only brings more questions to the forefront of whether Los Blaugrana truly are “Més que un club.”
In either case, Barcelona certainly aren’t implying that the “more” part of that mantra is a psychiatric ward, which may be the only solution for the loony Uruguayan. One can only imagine the type of reaction if another incident were to take place. Now more than ever, Suarez along with Barça will be under a high-powered media microscope. That should be nothing new at the Nou Camp. The only difference is, for the next five or so years, this Barça squad will bring a lot more bite than normal.