Barcelona showing chinks in their potent but knackered armour

Barcelona v Valencia - La Liga

Tito Vilanova

Does the week start on Sunday or end on Sunday?  I ask that because either FC Barcelona started the week badly or ended an already bad week with the news of Thiago Alcantara’s departure.

He’s the first player of consequence to leave Barcelona in their current era of Spanish/European dominance and it was a bitter pill to see him join the team’s former coach Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.  It’s just another kink in the armour in what has already been a strange 2013 for the mighty Catalans.

Losing Pep Guardiola last summer to exhaustion was a blow to the club.  It was apparent that nobody wanted him to go and when Tito Vilanova was struck down by illness, many people hoped Pep would come back to replace him even if only temporarily.

I think even some hoped he would return after a year.  I never could truly understand how he could leave the team that had the best player in the world (perhaps ever), but Guardiola apparently had something to prove, or had some issues with management that were kept behind the scenes.

The first real sign that there may have been some issues between Pep and the club landed in the media this week.  Determining who was right in this ‘he said she said’ battle of statements is irrelevant, but it highlighted that there was some animosity between the two sides.   This left a lot of people wondering, me included, if Pep left because he missed his former president Joan Laporta and did not care so much for the Sandro Rosell regime?

That disdain, combined with the need for a break, might have caused the end of the Pep era to come too soon.  No fan can deny it all ended too soon.  If so, what a shame, and this week’s war of words between Guardiola and the Barca Front Office was not good any way you cut it for the club.

Last season, there was little made of anyone trying to pluck Barcelona youth products away from the club.  That’s not been the case this year with many players being talked about.  Rafinha Alacantara was the hottest commodity in the Barcelona youth system coming into last season.

Many assumed he would be the one that would rise to the first team at some point, but instead it became clear that Gerrard Deulofeu was the real star on the rise.  He was called up to the first team a few times early in the year, but didn’t do anything of relevance.

FC Barcelona v RCD Mallorca  - Liga BBVA

It’s not been the best of summers for the diminutive Argentinian

With Barcelona so dominating, he really wasn’t needed.  Later in the year, there seemed to be some straight forward opportunities for Barca to use him, but they often opted to play Cesc Fabregas or David Villa It appears going for 100 points in the league was a top team priority and it really was a shame we didn’t see more of this young star down the stretch.

Many have commented that he may be overrated and the next Bojan, a player that did not meet expectations.  I’ve also heard these same comments about Tello, but Bojan is Bojan.  Players need to be given a chance to stand on their own two feet and that appears to be what Deulofeu’s management believes also.

It appears to me that he forced his loan move to Everton.  Is this move a bad move?  In some ways yes and in others no, but it’s most certainly a gamble.  It’s doubtful that he will fall in love with Everton and fight to stay if he flourishes, but I also worry that his growth could be stunted by the style of play.

He will certainly not be playing Barca style football, but in the same sense that might help him too.  It’s a never ending debate, but I think they would have preferred the player stay in the B side if they had their way.

The club’s crown jewel Leo Messi has also come under major fire this summer.  The media is always looking for juicy stories on big stars, but Messi stays out of the negative headlines.  That’s why it was such a surprise to see charges brought against Messi and his father for tax evasion.  It seemed clear from the start that Messi himself was likely not responsible for any financial wrong doing, but it was strange how he could have people on his staff that could allow this to happen.  Whether it was intentional or not, it was a small knock on Messi’s pristine image.

Many would have thought the bad press would stop there, but it continued with the abrupt cancellation of his fund-raiser match in LA.  Messi blamed it on the organizers, but it was a wonder to many how Messi would work with people that could screw an event like this up.

Again, it wasn’t his fault directly, but he had his name tagged to the event.  Therefore, the media chose to take pot-shots at him for the folly.  It then got worse in Chicago when Messi walked directly off the pitch after giving about 70 minutes.  The amount of time played was fine, but walking right off the pitch seemed a bit arrogant.

What difference would 20 minutes of being on the sidelines or signing autographs make?  What was worse was that Messi blew off a VIP engagement post-match that was also part of the fund-raising event.  Yikes, not a good way to spend your summer vacation for Messi and reflected poorly on the club.

While Messi was battling his issues, Spain’s national team was competing in the Confederations Cup The second place finish was not bad, but the way in which it happened got the Spain haters pointing out flaws like crazy.  Spain has an advantage internationally because they have so many Barcelona players on the team, which allows the side to function more fluidly than most international teams.

FC Barcelona Celebrates Copa Del Rey Victory

Thiago Alcantara has rejoined his former boss Pep Guardiola at Bayern

Yet, those players as a unit most bear the pressure of being a Barcelona and Spanish player.  Right now those are major story lines in world football as both sides are playing at legendary standards and are heavily followed.  Xavi, Pique and Inesta not only have had to answer for the 7-0 Champions League loss to Bayern, but also the 3-0 thumping by Brazil.  That’s a lot of mental strain on the players, yet another thing the club could do without.  Nobody likes to deal with great disappointments they just wear players down.

Getting a defensive player seemed like it was going to be the top priority for the club in the summer transfer window, but the club decided that their first priority needed to be convincing Neymar to leave Brazil a year earlier than planned.  Barcelona got their man, but the acquisition of Thiago Silva at centre back has not gone as well.

My read on the situation is Silva wants to come, but maybe not this season.  The losses of president and manager at PSG indicates to me that maybe things are a bit shaky in Paris at the moment, but Silva seems unmoved for the moment.

Regardless, one would have thought Barca would have resolved this situation well before the start of pre-season so the player was engrained into the team before the first meaningful match.  Yet, we are all still waiting to see what happens.

Thiago Alcantara is not the next Leo Messi, but he does have still have a high ceiling to reach.  At times he looked like a dangerous attacking midfielder.

He was tipped to replace Xavi in the long term or shift roles with Iniesta.  There is a certain rhythm that Barca often achieves where they hold the ball up in midfield with Xavi that causes the other team chase and burn energy.  Barca stay on the front foot and if the early goals don’t come, the late ones often do against the worn down defences of the opposition.

When Thiago started for Barca they seemed more scrambled in the midfield.  He brought more of an attacking exuberance, but it came at the cost of sacrificing their clean possession and being exposed to swift counters.  I think that was a reason that he didn’t see the pitch as much as many had hoped.

I often thought he should start upfront over Pedro and Cesc because he was dangerous going forward and might provide more attacking flair At the end of the day he is a wonderful talent and that is why Barca, Man U and Bayern fought over him.  You hate to lose quality players to good sides especially when it’s to the team that smoked you in the Champions League last year and is now fronted by your former manager.

All teams come under fire.  The combination of bad luck, a few decisions not panning out, and just maybe some else is doing better right now.   What you never want to see is a pattern of poor decision making that leads to bigger problems and rifts down the road.  I think at this point in this Barca era the club needs to take a breath and regain its focus.  It’s not time to panic.

Everyone will hope that Neymar pans out, but I put expectations a year away from him truly gelling with the team This club plays a brand of football that is unique and if it was easy to learn and adapt to, everyone would be doing it.  Not having gone through the youth system means he will need time to adjust, maybe a year or two, similar to Alexis Sanchez.

If Barca are to be successful this season, it will be because Alexis has a true break out year, Messi maintains his pace, and the back line functions better.  Anything Neymar can bring will be a major bonus.

Tito will have his hands full with many tough decisions as some players are getting up there in age and the replacements have seen very little consistent time.  Management will need to step up and get a centre back to sure up the back line and restore confidence in the defence.  Players will have to focus on remaining healthy; yes you can control it to some degree.

There are lots of questions and I can’t wait for the fun ride to start.  I just hope the train stays on the tracks.

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