Transfer ban casts shadow over Barcelona’s evolution

Around the turn of the year it all began to unravel for the Barcelona boss.

When Josep Maria Bartomeu took over the Barcelona ship in January 2014 after Sandro Rosell’s resignation, many thought that the worst bit was over for the Catalan club. Rosell had gotten tangled up in a web he himself had built, and the controversy over Neymar’s transfer forced the president to step down. But that was just the beginning, writes ISF’s Jen Evelyn.

Early on Tuesday, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) announced their decision to uphold Barcelona’s two-window transfer ban. Barcelona have now informed that they don’t rule out the option of appealing against the decision to the Swiss Federal Court. The possible appeal might not be much more than a desperate attempt to save what’s left of the board’s credibility.

The unsuccessful appeal to CAS means many things to Barcelona. Preventative damage control was practiced last summer as Barcelona went on a shopping spree, but even that might not be enough as the core of the team ages. And even the dustiest crystal ball can predict that sooner or later the boardroom will look for culprits. However, it is clear that this time, the damage won’t be limited to the boardroom and the image of its leader, Bartomeu. This time, the team’s evolution is in danger.

Bartomeu, Enrique, Zubizarreta
Bartomeu and Luis Enrique.

The right-back question

Dani Alves’ contract runs out at the end of the season, and there haven’t been many signs of a renewal. The Brazilian has stated his desire to stay, but his destiny may lie in other’s hands. The 31-year-old hasn’t been able to play at his best level in some time and has become the Camp Nou crowd’s scapegoat. Perhaps the most critical fans are, however, putting the blame on the wrong person: Barcelona have been well aware of Alves’ contractual situation and the only reinforcement signed has been Douglas.

Douglas, however, hasn’t done much to impress in his few matches for Barcelona, and doubts remain as to whether he is Barcelona quality to begin with. Another possible replacement for Alves is Martin Montoya, but the Catalan could be on his way out as soon as January, and coach Luis Enrique hasn’t been keen on giving the youngster minutes.

The question is whether Barcelona keep counting on a declining Alves, or whether they place their faith on two right backs surrounded by question marks.

Another option is to forget about all three and go for a 3-4-3 – as seen against PSG at the Camp Nou – with Pedro as a right wing-back. Tactically such formation makes sense – it provides width, allows Messi to use his vision from a deeper position and leaves three center backs at the back in case of emergency – but the question is whether Pedro can adapt to the extremely demanding role and whether varying the formation out of necessity is ideal for Luis Enrique either.

The aging midfield

Xavi Hernandez is 34 years old, Andrés Iniesta is 30, and although both remain more or less crucial pieces in the current Barcelona, neither has recently been able to match the level of the earlier years. As opponents are increasingly physical and aggressive, the pair returning to the level of their golden years is doubtful.

The signing of Ivan Rakitic last summer was crucial, and the Croat will undoubtedly become an undisputed starter – if he isn’t that already – as Xavi starts to fade to the background. Rafinha Alcantara was brought back from Celta Vigo, but has been worryingly inconsistent. Of course, time is the 21-year-old’s friend.

Behind these four, however, it’s all blank in the central midfielders’ positions. Sergio Busquets could adapt to such role, but his input as a defensive midfielder is crucial. Javier Mascherano is more than capable of filling in, but at 30, he’s not a long-term solution either – not to mention, he’s needed in central defense. Sergi Samper is speeding through the youth ranks and has been labeled as the “new Busquets”, but the 19-year-old might not be ready to take over the reins just yet.

Denis Suárez, on the other hand, is on loan at Sevilla and could return as soon as next summer. But often compared to David Silva, does Suárez fill the need of an orchestrating midfielder? Time will tell, but in this department, Barcelona’s planning seems rather shaky.

Who will be the first to go?

According to Catalunya Radio, sources close to sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta say that the former goalkeeper might get the sack after CAS’ decision. Zubizarreta has been heavily criticized in the last several years for his transfers, but is he the culprit, after all? Or is he just being thrown under the bus as the Barcelona board tries to cover up its flaws?

Zubizarreta can perhaps be blamed for many things, but oddly enough, he might have very little to do with the latest controversy surrounding Barcelona. It can even be asked whether he’s been the one with the final word on the transfers, or whether he’s just the one delivering the message and getting shot in the leg.

Josep Maria Bartomeu will, of course, fight for his board’s survival until the last breath. The club president has already assured that there will be no elections until 2016, and until then, he won’t give in. Sandro Rosell’s board started the mess, and Bartomeu – Rosell’s former vice-president – can’t just wash his hands of it. But as long as he’s still fighting for presidency, he will keep those hands under the table, his face clean and smiling, and say all the right things to the press. And make no mistake, doing just that has already started: after CAS’ decision, Bartomeu was quick to declare that Barcelona has suffered an injustice, that Barcelona is the victim. Whether that really is the case is a matter of interpretation, but in stating so, Bartomeu ignores the shortcomings of his own board.

If that doesn’t make things unstable enough, former club president Joan Laporta is more than willing to stir the pot as he prepares to run for presidency in 2016. And if the ongoing season ends without trophies, Zubizarreta might not be the only one to go as Bartomeu’s board tries to keep up appearances.

This article originally appeared here.

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