For a club whose money problems saw them lose their most talented players last year and were unable to sign some of their targeted replacements, Barcelona had a busy transfer window bringing new players in.
Four players: Dani Alves, Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were registered to play during the window, three of them attackers. A day after the window closed, the current board held a public meeting which was deeply critical of the financial management of the previous board and talked of the €159 million ($179m) they’ve cut from Barca’s annual wage bill, pointing out that the salaries had been higher than the club’s entire income.
Barca were never in the market to spend big — or squander as they’ve done in the recent past — but the new players were what new manager Xavi Hernandez, working with the sporting directors Jordi Cruyff and Mateu Alemany, wanted to improve a squad he felt was lacking on quality and experience.
Game after game this season, injury and covid-hit Barca have fielded callow sides and given debuts to teenagers. There’s undoubted youthful talent at the club and 17-year-old Gavi has come to the fore as 18-year-old Pedri did last term, but as Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller said after his side had outclassed the Catalans 3-0 both home and away: “Barca cannot cope with the intensity. Technically and tactically, they have it all. But at the highest level, they cannot match the intensity of the game.”
Xavi needed to strengthen to plug that obvious deficit with a mix of world-class talent, experience and home-grown talent that had been allowed to leave.
Barca may not pay the top wages as they did only two years ago — and the club has a chance of surviving because they don’t — when they had the highest wage bill in world football. There’s also no Champions League football this season and maybe even not next as the club are outside the top four, but Barça and the city of Barcelona remains a powerful draw for footballers.
Alves, 38, was a former club legend signed on a free, an ally for his former teammate Xavi in the dressing room. He didn’t need the money and accepted the lowest possible wage legally allowed; he just wanted to help the club where he’d won everything.
Torres, bought from Manchester City with €55m from money Barca lent, made his debut two weeks ago. The 22-year-old forward, who has been playing on the right, is one of the brightest prospects in Spanish football.
Traore, 26, signed from Wolves, grew up in the working class L’Hospitalet district which borders Camp Nou, rose through the Masia youth system to make his first team debut aged 17 before being sold to Aston Villa for €10m while still a teenager. After playing for Middlesbrough and then joining Wolves for £18m in 2018, he’s back on loan.
Aubameyang didn’t come through the youth system and was not a former player, but his family have long lived just outside Barcelona, where he also has a property. The 32-year-old fell out spectacularly with Arsenal who he’d joined for £55m four years ago and was stripped of his captaincy. Arsenal will save up to £27m in wages for a player who was not in their team and had 18 months left on his contract.
Barcelona need goals. They failed to score in four of their six Champions League group games and six La Liga teams have scored more than their 32 goals. Luuk de Jong, a striker brought in on the previous transfer deadline day when Antoine Griezmann departed, has been unfairly cast as a comedy figure lacking Barca quality, yet he’s been one of Xavi’s best players in the last month. Danish striker Martin Braithwaite has worked hard to get back from injury, but this is the club who fielded Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez up front together.
Barca’s finances remain pertinent. The club offered Ousmane Dembele a new contract, which he has yet to sign. Knowing he can leave for free at the end of the season, the club hoped to gain money from the sale and saving the wages of the talented, injury-prone, forward who cost more than €100m when he joined from Borussia Dortmund. When Dembele’s departure wasn’t going to happen after he rejected interest from a Premier League club, they asked him to take a pay cut, which he declined.
Out of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, Barça’s aim for this season is to finish in the top four and win the Europa League final in Seville. They’ve not played a home game since December 18, but on Sunday host Atletico Madrid, who sit one place above them in La Liga. It’s a six pointer and one where fans will be keen to see how Barca’s new signings perform.