Big Summer For: Barcelona

by Ben McAleer

Here is Ben McAleer with the next issue in the Big Summer For series – Barcelona.

The past four years for Barcelona have been nothing short of mesmerising. Move after move, pass after pass, goal after goal; everything about them was exceptional. The dream of Holland legend Johan Cruyff, who spent 13 years as a player and manager with the Catalan side, was realised through former pupil Pep Guardiola once he was placed in charge of the club in 2008.

One of Cruyff’s fabled disciples, the Spaniard managed to become the most successful manager in the club’s illustrious history over the past four years, picking up 15 trophies in the process. The style of play on show, widely renowned as tika-taka, was a legacy of Cruyff’s to bring the ‘Dutch influence’ to Barcelona. He finally got to see it in action once Guardiola took over.

However, like all good things, it must come to an end and even though the football may not stop, Guardiola’s reign most certainly has with the recent Copa Del Rey win over Athletic his final game in charge of the Blaugrana. With it, the curtain draws close on one of the club’s, and to an extent football itself, most famous eras. With Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s ex-assistant, set to take over from the former midfielder, not many changes are needed to tweak this team. Undoubtedly, like any summer for any team however, modifications will be made.

The new manager

As mentioned, Vilanova will succeed Guardiola next season at the Camp Nou, despite reports linking the club with moves for Athletic manager Marcelo Bielsa and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal. However, Barcelona, much like they do with their players, have opted to promote from within and draft in the 42-year-old, who was famously on the receiving end of an eye gouge from Real Madrid head coach Jose Mourinho during a feisty Spanish Super Cup encounter last August.

Much like the appointment of Guardiola in 2008, the Barca board are hoping that in Vilanova, they can continue the high quality footballing standards that the club are fabled for. Like any manager approaching a new job, the squad will come under careful assessment from the 42-year-old during the off season.

That isn’t to say Vilanova hasn’t has the chance to inspect the players at close quarters, having been Pep’s assistant since his appointment as first-team coach in 2008. However, he now has the difficult choices to make in which of the current playing staff are good enough to remain with him, where the squad needs strengthening and where he is to fortify these areas.

The La Masia product line, which he was heavily tied to as Guardiola’s assistant during the Barcelona B season of 2007/08, will undoubtedly be called upon again, but there are numerous positions which could do with reinforcing. Whether these are new arrivals from overseas, or even within Spain itself, or the youth team produce, which continues to prove itself as one of, if not the, best in World football.

The best team in the world; what needs strengthening?

It is hard to believe that the best could indeed get better. But, the Catalan outfit do need to spend this summer if they are to reclaim their dominant position in La Liga. It is all well and good playing the most attractive football on the planet, whilst possessing the greatest youth team carousel to match, but if they are to overcome fierce rivals Real Madrid and retain their place as Europe’s most feared team, a number of acquisitions need to be made.

Starting from the back, the two positions that could do with improving include centre-back and left-back. On the right, Dani Alves is likely to hold down his position alongside Gerard Pique in the back four, provided he is in Vilanova’s good books having been dropped by Guardiola towards the end of the season, will start the new season, after what has the potential to be another successful summer for the Spaniard.

Javier Mascherano has done well to step in when called upon, but the over reliance on Carles Puyol is beginning to show. The Barca captain and Catalan favourite has been excellent in recent years, and last season could be perceived as one of his best. But, at 34-years-old, Puyol isn’t getting any younger, if he is getting better.

His age is beginning to show, with another knee injury, as result of his passionate approach to the game, ruling him out of Euro 2012. It isn’t the first time this has happened either, having missed a substantial amount of the 2010/11 season with a similar knee problem and he only mustered five minutes of the 3-1 Champions League final win over Manchester United, coming on as a late substitute towards the end.

Understandably, Barca have been approaching numerous targets as they begin to prepare for life after the after Puyol, with Thiago Silva of AC Milan and Chelsea defender David Luiz both mooted as possible arrivals this summer. Then again, the La Masia product line continues to churn out highly rated youngsters, such as Marc Bartra and Marc Muniesa, with the principal still remaining to promote the youth into the first. Whether they go for the former or latter option, the task of replacing Puyol will be a tough one.

This brings me swiftly on to the left-back position and who could come in to replace Eric Abidal. The Frenchman has been unequivocally unlucky with injury problems over the last two-years, having been forced into surgery to remove a tumour from his liver last year whilst undergoing a liver transplant back in April.

Made a remarkable comeback last season in time for the Champions League final and, defying doctor’s orders, played the full 90 minutes of the encounter and was the first to lift the trophy at Wembley. Many have been speculating that he will continue to play the game, despite his transplant earlier this year whilst some reports claim he will be forced into early retirement.

If it is the latter, it will be a shame for the 32-year-old to call time on his illustrious career, have established himself as a key member of the Barca first-team. Like Puyol, the club have been drawing on replacements should the unfortunate announcement be made, with the head of the list being former Barca youth product Jordi Alba.

The 23-year-old spent seven years with the Blaugrana between 1998 and 2005 before winding up with Valencia in 2007 via a two year spell with Cornella. Now an established Spanish international and a starter with Los Che, Barcelona are believed to be readying a move to bring Alba back to the Camp Nou, with a stipulation believed to be in his contract that allows the Catalan side to sign him this summer for a nominal fee.

Alba will, undoubtedly, be an excellent signing for Barca as they look to strengthen their backline. However, if the money is available to spend and the player in question becomes available, a move for Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale may be viable. Naturally, he will have to revert to his former position of left-back if he is make the move, but his ability to break forward and wreck havoc from deep would be reminiscent of Alves, with the thought of the two marauding forward with pace and power a scary one to say the least.

With the midfield trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets unlikely to need reshaping, with Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara in reserve it case push comes to shove; it brings me to the front-line. For a team that scored 114 goals in La Liga last term, whilst in Lionel Messi, a playing in the first team that mustered a sensational 73 goals in all competitions, one would think that the Barcelona strikers wouldn’t need strengthening.

However, in the ranks of the Catalan side, the possess too many false number nine’s; players that will float around the six-yard box, but never find themselves on the end of a loose parry by the goalkeeper or a ricochet off a defender. David Villa was brought in two years ago, expected to fulfil the role, but has just 32 goals in all competitions since his arrival.

Prior to that, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a season, himself netting contributing 21 goals to the cause. Yet, since the departure of Samuel Eto’o in 2009, Barcelona have never had a consistent number nine to lead the front-line. At times this season, this has seen the club caught out on numerous occasions, most notably during the semi-final defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League at both Stamford Bridge and the Camp Nou.

Villa and Ibrahimovic both had the potential to succeed Eto’o to detrimental effect but if this season is anything to go by; Barcelona still need that out-and-out striker and a physically dominant one at that. A striker may well be high on Vilanova’s wish list this summer and if they are looking to find one in Spain, they could do a lot worse than Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao.

The Lion King is expected to lead the strike force this summer in Poland and Ukraine in the absence of Villa and his physical qualities could be exactly what they need to really push on once again next season. Outside of Spain, if Barcelona were to secure the signing of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal, the goal tally could significantly improve, with the Dutchman netting 37 goals in all competitions in a Gunners side that scrambled to third.

Out of contract next summer, it remains to be seen whether Van Persie will be at the Emirates Stadium at the beginning of the new season, with Manchester City also believed to be keen on his signature. Either way, two or three new additions need to be made over the summer for the club to propel themselves back to the summit of world football. Whether it is via La Masia or otherwise remains to be seen, but Vilanova will surely identify the three key areas that need strengthening and do all he can to bring out the brilliant best in Barcelona next season.

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