Barcelona's off-field circus should not distract from on-pitch promise

By Sports Desk August 12, 2022

Barcelona fans may have completely forgotten there will be actual football to play very soon.

So chaotic and draining has the off-season been for Barca supporters that they'd be forgiven for thinking they were stuck in some form of purgatory, where the club's finances are discussed and debated endlessly.

In fairness, even those who don't necessarily support Barca may have similar feelings. If you've been following the soap opera in recent weeks and months, you'll already be sick to death of the word palanca, or 'lever'.

Of course, those proverbial levers are what president Joan Laporta has been pulling to inject capital. Barca were expected to work within another measly LaLiga salary limit this season before selling off some of their TV rights at the end of the last financial year, which meant they actually turned a profit.

With the other 'levers' Laporta has activated, he claims the club has brought in €860million in two months, but obviously the deals involved will result in reduced long-term income, hence the widespread suggestions Barca are "mortgaging their future".

It's probably an understatement to say there has been a lot to take in, and that's before we even mention the Frenkie de Jong sideshow, the signings and the latest concerns about whether their new players can even be registered.

In the background, Xavi continues to plug away and drown out all the nonsense surrounding the club, and on the pitch, there are genuine reasons for optimism at Camp Nou.

A platform of rapid improvement

There was a time last season – even after Xavi's November appointment – when Barca's campaign looked to be heading for embarrassment.

After a 1-0 defeat to Real Betis in December, Barca had 23 points from their first 16 matches of the league season, their worst total at that stage since 2002-03.

But the same team – plus a few January additions – claimed more points (45) in LaLiga than any other club after the turn of the year. Sure, Real Madrid played one game less over the same period, but even if they had contested an extra match and won, Los Blancos would still have been two points shy.

Of course, Madrid's focus towards the end was on the Champions League as they never looked likely to throw the title away, so it's probably not the perfect comparison, but it does at least highlight the results Xavi was getting and the degree of the turnaround he has already overseen at Camp Nou.

 

Similarly, there were signs of classic Barca in their performances. Their 9.4 high turnovers per game was a LaLiga high after Xavi's appointment, while they also boasted the greatest average share of possession (64 per cent).

Perhaps the biggest indicator of Barca's promise under Xavi was the 4-0 hammering of Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in March's Clasico. They had lost their previous five such clashes, including four in the league, making it the Blaugrana's worst run against their bitter rivals since the 1960s.

Barca were electric going forward, carving through Madrid almost at will, while they also looked solid defensively, with Xavi's decision to play Ronald Araujo at right-back proving wise as he kept Vinicius Junior in check.

Gerard Pique responded by declaring: "We are back."

Playing the part

The improvement Xavi instigated last season was made even more impressive by the fact certain players didn't have an especially prominent role.

Pedri made just 12 appearances in the league, while Ansu Fati recorded 10. Both were hampered by serious injuries but will in all likelihood – assuming they stay fit – be key players this season.

Pedri will be the vital midfield conductor, keeping the build-up play ticking over, while Fati can provide both goals and creativity from out wide on the left. As clichéd as it sounds, the Spain forward will feel every bit a new signing if he can stay out of the medical room.

 

But it's also fair to say there are several players whose reputations have been enhanced lately – or at the very least restored.

Ronald Araujo really stepped up last season and matured into a colossus of a centre-back. Athletic, composed on the ball and uncompromising in defence, the Uruguayan looks cut out for a long career at the heart of Barca's backline.

While some might've had concerns about his ability to get Barca on the front foot, with his passing range hardly that of a young Pique, the arrival of Jules Kounde should offset those worries given the France international's reputation as an excellent progressor of the ball.

Arguably the biggest surprise of the Xavi era so far, however, has been Ousmane Dembele.

 

Almost perennially injured or underwhelming at Barca, Dembele became essential for Xavi's men in the second half of last season.

Between January 1 and the end of the campaign, Dembele's assists count of 11 was four more than anyone else in the league despite the Frenchman not even playing 1,100 minutes. Vinicius, for example, registered six from 1,182 minutes.

Granted, Dembele's assists tally outstripped his expected assists (xA), though his 7.3 xA was still comfortably better than everyone else over the same period – Vinicius was second with 4.5 xA.

Until he has an extended period without injury, Dembele's fitness and reliability will always be a concern, but Xavi has made it clear the winger is key to his plans, and the 25-year-old has certainly shown his commitment by signing a new contract on reduced terms. He wants to be a success at Barca.

New blood

Now, obviously this part comes with an asterix. Barca have made some impressive additions to their squad, but it remains to be seen whether they can register them in time for the opening weekend. They can only do that if LaLiga are happy their finances are in order and the club adhere to their salary limit.

But assuming Laporta finds a way to get the green light before the transfer window closes, the new faces should be considered statement signings.

The headline arrival is obviously Robert Lewandowski. Barca didn't necessarily have a problem scoring goals last season, but they were short of reliable options in the centre of attack, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang often occupying spaces out on the left.

 

Ferran Torres simply isn't a 'killer' in front of goal, Lewandowski is, and you don't need to go into any great detail to explain precisely what he'll offer; his 161 top-flight goals over the past five years is 30 more than any other player in the top five leagues (Lionel Messi is second with 131).

Among those charged with laying on chances for Lewandowski will be Raphinha, whose dynamism and exceptional creativity made him one of the standout Premier League wingers at Leeds United.

His ability to come inside onto his left foot will give Barca greater invention in central areas as well, potentially key against packed defences, and he's demonstrably a wonderful creator, with his 13.0 xA over two seasons in the Premier League bettered only by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Bruno Fernandes, Mohamed Salah, Mason Mount and Kevin De Bruyne – not bad for a player who was embroiled in a relegation battle last term.

 

Then you've got Kounde, who has not only marked himself out as one of LaLiga's best defenders in three seasons at Sevilla, but many consider him an archetypal Barca centre-back – in fact, his ability on the ball was best exemplified against the Catalans in the Copa del Rey last season, when he embarked on a brilliant solo run from defence before applying a cool finish.

 

Add Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen to the mix as well, and Barca have themselves an impressive array of signings who all appear well-suited to the club's particular brand of football.

When they'll all be able to play is still a mystery, but clearly Barca will be a force when they can.

 

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