Few clubs are scrutinised quite as intensely as FC Barcelona – the back-to-back La Liga champions are a behemoth of the sporting world and even have two daily sports papers (Mundo Deportivo and Diario Sport) dedicated to covering the goings on at the club.
What makes the Catalan club’s recent success so remarkable is that under Luis Enrique, they have established themselves as Europe’s most-feared football team yet have done so with a relatively small squad.
Last season the Blaugrana’s senior first-team squad (once stripped of players with five league appearances or less) comprised of only 18 outfield players, with two of those – Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan – only eligible from January onwards, while it was also bulked up by fringe players (Munir, Sandro, Bartra) who have since been moved on.
Summer recruitment was a necessity but was far from straightforward; any players signed would need to be upgrades on the current crop, be prepared to be rotated, have youth on their side, be able to fit into the system and culture of the club but also to be affordable.
Many players were ruled out by this criterion – Paul Pogba for instance was publicly courted by the club, but he was not within budget, neither was fellow countryman Kevin Gameiro, while Luciano Vietto opted instead to join Sevilla as he felt he needed first-team football and with the current attacking trident at Camp Nou, that ruled them out.
These new requirements called for a rethink, and the club’s recruitment policy was under scrutiny too. Following on from the FIFA transfer ban, the signings of Turan and Vidal did not hit the ground running, and whilst the Turkish playmaker has since settled, the former Sevilla full-back has been frozen out.
Vidal is not the only player to struggle to adapt – Barca swooped for Valencia duo Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer this summer, yet neither have shown any sign that they can nail down a first-team place, even if the season is still young.
The signings of French defensive duo Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti did raise a few eyebrows – after all, these were two players who had not yet even established themselves at international level (somewhat ironically, neither has fellow Barca defender Jeremy Mathieu, who is also left-footed).
Digne’s loan spell at Roma had been impressive; establishing himself as a steady, reliable performer in a team challenging for trophies at a high level. This had not been enough to convince PSG to retain his services and the La Liga champions swooped.
On the surface, the 23-year-old would primarily be a deputy for long-serving first-choice Jordi Alba – a more competitive option than Adriano, who departed for Besiktas, with other bit-part squad members Thomas Vermaelen, Martin Montoya and Douglas also departing.
Cameroon-born Umtiti came to fame at the European Championships, where he became the first Frenchman since Gabriel De Michèle at the 1966 FIFA World Cup to win his first cap by appearing in the finals of a major tournament, playing in the quarter-final triumph over Iceland.
Despite the nature of the match, his performance was impressive but perhaps more importantly, successfully completing all 77 of his attempted passes was a useful indicator of exactly why Barcelona had announced his signing a week previously.
For years, the club had relied on (the excellent and underrated) Gerard Pique to partner Javier Mascherano in the heart of defence, with the understanding, positioning and passing ability of the role just as important as the more traditional values of the position. Since the departure of the iconic Carlos Puyol in 2014, there have always been question marks over the club’s strength-in-depth in that department, not helped by a series of underwhelming transfers.
At 22-years-old (a year younger than Digne) this was the perfect stage in the strong, combative centre-half’s career to be given an opportunity at an elite European club. Still with time to develop, grow and learn new systems but with the experience of playing against world-class opponents, they were ideal for fitting into the strategy at Camp Nou.
Both have been given more opportunities than they perhaps anticipated, mainly due to injuries to both Alba and Pique – who have both missed the last string of matches due to knocks picked up in October’s 4-0 victory over Manchester City.
The pair have looked calm, composed and certainly not out of place in a side surrounded by players who have won everything there is to win in the game.
Criticism for goals conceded this season has largely come to the door of German goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen – accused of taking too many risks – and of Sergi Roberto, the stand-in right-back who’s more natural position had been in midfield.
The club’s main focus for the past 18 months was on starting to phase out the stars who had guided them to so much success and incorporate a new, exciting and tactically flexible group of players who would allow that to be maintained. The early signs are the French duo will be the bedrock of this transition.
C.M. in Spain