When Barcelona fans look back at last season, they will remember it for winning their 22nd Primera Liga title and getting past the 100-point mark while doing so. The rest of the footballing world will remember it for the 7-0 mauling they were handed over two legs by Bayern Munich.
Sadly, what has happened over the course of this summer can best be transpired as bittersweet. While Azulgrana fans will be exultant over the arrival of Neymar to Catalonia, which is already home to an inhabitant from Planet Messi, they will surely be distraught over the recent resignation of Tito Villanova, who vacated the position of Barcelona boss earlier this (Saturday) morning due to a resurgence of the throat cancer that saw the entire footballing world unite in solidarity for the Spaniard.
As heartless as it may sound, however, one of the things Senor Villanova and Co would have had to do is strengthen the Barcelona squad, which truth be told, does look dangerously frail in certain areas of the pitch.
The departure of Thiago Alcantara and the possible exit of Cesc Fabregas – who has been courted by Manchester United, having submitted to the Camp Nou outfit a £30 million bid (if you believe Sky Sports) – leaves the creative midfield department of Barcelona’s midfield a lot more threadbare than it was last season.
But while this conundrum in midfield has only recently arisen, a long-standing problem that was the foundation of Barcelona’s woes in their Cup campaigns is the lack of seasoned centre-backs to share the load with Gerard Pique and the ever-increasingly absent Carles Puyol.
Against Bayern Munich, rookie centre-back Marc Bartra was drafted into the back four alongside Pique, and what followed without the leadership of Puyol needs little reminding. Without the experienced club captain to guide them, the Barcelona defence were dissected four times (it could have been a lot m0re) and a repeat performance followed at the Camp Nou.
At 35, Puyol’s days in a Barcelona shirt are surely numbered, and while Martin Montoya and Adriano do provide some padding out wide, the Barcelona cupboard is bare when it comes to centre-backs and therefore needs to be re-stocked at the earliest. Vincent Kompany and Thiago Silva have been linked to the Catalan capital in the past, and while they would not come cheap, would be excellent additions to the Blaugrana rearguard.
Captains at Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, the duo have plenty of experience playing at the highest level and have the physical presence, tactical nous and leadership skills required to play alongside Pique at centre back and provide some much-needed steel to a spine that is beginning to crack.
But the duo are expensive. PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi recently said he would spring for Leo Messi if the Spanish side did move for Silva, and while Kompany remains perfectly happy at the Etihad Stadium, it would take a large amount of money to move the Citizens to part with the Belgian, who forms the bedrock of the Eastlands’ side’s defensive foundations.
There are, of course, cheaper options. Martin Caceres spent three of his formative years at Barcelona and could be tempted with a move back to Spain. At 26, the player is mature enough to rejoin the side that clearly valued him very highly when they forked out 16.5 million Euros to sign him from Villarreal and slap a 50 million Euro release clause on him.
With plenty of experience in Spain, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Godin is another viable option. Having helped the Mattress Makers to third place in La Liga last season, Caceres’ Uruguayan countryman has shown that he can handle pressure at the top, having also turned out in Europe for both Atletico and Villarreal.
Then there is Dutch centre-back Stefan de Vrij of Feyenoord Rotterdam. The Dutch are the original creators of technically skilled, ball-playing centre backs, and the Netherlands international would surely jump at the chance of playing with Barcelona.
Another Dutch-schooled player, Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur, could be seen as a viable alternative, but given that he is vital to Spurs’ plans of finishing in the top four next season and is very happy at White Hart Lane, would need the right price to tempt him to Spain.
But while the centre-back question has bothered Barcelona for some time, the presence of a question mark in central midfield is one that is very new to them. Given that they are so central to Barcelona’s tiki-taka game and the telepathic connection they share with Messi, both Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are very hard to displace from Barcelona’s starting XI.
Thiago was, of course, well aware of this, and that was the reason he was keen to re-join Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich once his old mentor had called on his services. Barcelona, of course, knew how talented he was (his performances for his country at the recent U-21 Euros add credence to that) and were scrambling to put together a new deal for him.
A World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, Thiago Alcantara’s father Mazinho knows how important it is to accrue game time at this stage in a footballer’s professional career and has okayed his son’s move to Germany in the hopes that he will feature with the Bavarian giants. Given that Guardiola has been pursuing the 22-year-old since February.
Now that Barcelona have lost the player who had the team’s highest pass accuracy (93%, which saw him complete more than 1700 passes), they would surely be keen or holding on to Cesc Fabregas, who left his adopted home at Arsenal as he sought to re-join his boyhood club in an attempt to play under Guardiola, a man he idolised.
But the 26-year-old – who attempted the most through passes last season – has piqued the attention of both Manchester United and his former club Arsenal, whose manager Arsene Wenger has admitted that the club have been placed on alert, given the buy-back clause they inserted into his contract when he returned to Barcelona in 2011.
David Moyes, who has replaced the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, had looked at Thiago as his first major signing of his tenure at Manchester United, but having lost out on him, seems to be pulling out all the stops to bring in Fabregas. Whether he will actually move to Old Trafford is unclear, but he will surely want more game time than is currently being afforded to him.
Several players have been linked to the club, including Chelsea’s Juan Mata. Of a similar mould to Fabregas and Iniesta, the former Valencia midfielder has everything he needs to succeed at the Camp Nou. Jose Mourinho, though, would be loath to sell one of the players on whom he hopes to construct Chelsea’s future successes. That and the rivalry that is seen as the natural order of things between Real Madrid and Barcelona would mean that the Portuguese, who was sacked by Real before returning to Chelsea, would flatly refuse to sell them one of the Blues’ star players.
Another player linked to them is Mathieu Valbuena. At 28, the player is ready for a long-awaited move away from his native France and in him, Barcelona could find a player they would be able to snap up, given his versatility and control on the ball.
As always though, there are cheaper options. Juventus are looking to offload players and, for the right price, could let go of Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant – like Fabregas – has seen as much action from the bench as he has from the start of a game – and for the right price, the Italians would not mind letting him leave.
AC Milan are another club looking to trim their wage bill and bringing Antonio Nocerino to Spain might be a good idea if Barca do want to strengthen in midfield.
All this, of course, means that both Javier Mascherano and Alex Song are brought back into the holding midfield role, alternating with Sergio Busquets to ensure the club have depth in every position.
For against the likes of Real Betis, Mallorca and Celta Vigo, Barcelona can afford to play a couple of players out of position and still manage to win a game. They are that good. But their Day of Reckoning – some might argue – had been coming for some time and it is a good thing that it did come to them on the highest of stages for that will only underline how quickly they need reinforcements.
For all that to be accomplished, however, they first need a new coach.