With the 2018/19 season just around the corner, here are all of the possible combinations that could be on show in La Liga.
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Another summer of drama has unfolded in Barcelona. The coach’s future remains unclear, their best player departed (and has yet to return), LaLiga cut their spending cap for the next season, and they’ve been unable to offload a few of undesirable high-earning players inherited from the previous administration.
President Joan Laporta began the summer by stating that he wanted time to “think” on whether Ronald Koeman was the best man for the job. Given the paucity of alternatives and the financial expense of firing him, he ultimately opted to allow the Dutch coach a second season.
Lionel Messi’s contract with the club ended on June 30. He’s been a free agent since then. ESPN has learned that a new five-year contract has been reached, but it has yet to be signed. That’s set to change this week, with Messi returning to Europe after a break after Argentina’s Copa America triumph. (He didn’t report to training on Monday, according to sources, since he wants to wait until his contract is finalized; the club was OK with his reporting, but he’d need insurance to use the facilities.)
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Players must depart and salaries must be lowered in order to register Messi’s new contract while staying under LaLiga’s expenditure restrictions. Youngsters like Konrad de la Fuente of the United States have found new clubs, but no teams have been prepared to take on the wages given to players like Samuel Umtiti and Miralem Pjanic. Transferring Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho, or Ousmane Dembele may be a solution, but all three players are still at the club, and this could be the case when the transfer window shuts at the end of August. All the meantime, experienced players like Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba, and Gerard Pique are still negotiating salary deferrals and cutbacks.
Financial difficulties have hastened the need for urgent action, with Barca’s total debt reaching at €1.2 billion according to accounts published in January. Their pre-pandemic LaLiga expenditure cap of nearly €600 million was cut to €347 million last season and may be as low as €200 million this season.
In this environment, Laporta, who was elected president in March, has had to rebuild a squad that has only won the Copa del Rey twice in the previous two years. As a result, it’s come down to free transfers and young players. Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia, and Memphis Depay all came for “nothing” in transfer costs, Emerson Royal was brought back from Real Betis for €9 million, and Koeman showed a new generation of players in preseason.
Here’s how Barca are shaping up heading into the new season, which kicks off on Aug. 15 (2 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+) against Real Sociedad.
The greatest issue around Barcelona is whether Antoine Griezmann would remain in the squad when the transfer season shuts. Getty Images/Harry Langer/DeFodi Images
Ter Stegen is a reliable goalkeeper.
In general, and in contrast to other positions, the goalkeepers are stable, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s injury has made things more difficult than they should be. The German had treatment in May for a knee injury that caused him to miss Euro 2020, and although he’s now back in light training, he won’t be fit for the start of the season, forcing Barca to put a hold on Neto’s exit for the time being.
The Brazilian wants to go for regular football, but Koeman needs him for the start of LaLiga and prefers to have an experienced No.2. Given their financial situation, the club may be willing to sell Neto if a suitable offer comes through, with Inaki Pena being elevated as Ter Stegen’s backup. Pena will replace Neto if he does not depart, with youngster Arnau Tenas set to be the club’s third choice this season.
Who will be Pique’s defensive partner?
Barcelona’s first-team roster is stacked with centre-backs, but the existing structure is dissolving, and it’s unclear how everything will fit together. Gerard Pique is 34 years old this season, and although he performs well in most games, there are indications that he can no longer compete at the highest level. However, he would want to disprove his critics.
Apart from Pique, Barca are eager to get Samuel Umtiti’s salary off the books, but the Frenchman has yet to be persuaded by any of the offers that have arrived thus far. The team is certain, according to ESPN, that he will depart before the transfer window ends. Pique’s teammate for the last two years has been Clement Lenglet, although he endured an error-filled 2020-21 season. Barca will consider bids for the France international, but he wants to remain and reclaim the form he showed in his debut season with the club after joining for €35 million from Sevilla in 2018.
Then there are the kids. Last season, Ronald Araujo seemed to be establishing himself as a first-choice option, but injuries curtailed his development after Christmas. He’s valuable since he’s Barca’s most powerful defense, but Koeman believes he can improve his ball-handling.
Eric Garcia, a free agent signed from Manchester City, is the polar opposite. He has a great reading of the game and can pass out from the back after coming through Barca’s academy, but he is neither the fastest nor the strongest player. Oscar Mingueza will offer backup options throughout the back four after a breakthrough season last season.
Despite having a large number of bodies at the back, Barcelona has looked at additional centre-back acquisitions in the assumption that they still need defensive reinforcement. However, given their inability to transfer anybody this summer, it may be a luxury they can’t afford.
Because Junior Firpo’s €15 million transfer to Leeds United has left him without competition, Jordi Alba will remain at left-back by default. Sergino Dest or youngster Alejandro Balde, who has had a terrific preseason, will be called upon in an emergency. Dest, on the other hand, will remain at right-back, where Barca have plenty of options. Emerson, a Brazil international who just returned from Betis, and Sergi Roberto will compete for the US international’s spot.
De Jong and Pedri make a formidable midfield duo.
After losing out on free agency Georginio Wijnaldum (who instead joined Paris Saint-Germain), Koeman wants to add additional experience in midfield, but even if finances prevent him from doing so, Barcelona have the makings of a strong core.
They have two of the finest young midfielders in the world in Frenkie de Jong and Pedri. De Jong is in his third season at Camp Nou and has steadily progressed each year. Pedri, on the other hand, was the season’s standout performer. The 18-year-old defied his age by keeping more older players out of the squad in his first season with the club, making 52 appearances. He subsequently went on to represent Spain at Euro 2020, where he was awarded Young Player of the Tournament, and is now participating in the Olympic Games with La Roja. After an arduous year for club and country, the workaholic youngster, who looks like he was born and raised at La Masia, may need a break once Spain’s stint in Japan comes to a conclusion.
Sergio Busquets brings experience to the table. The veteran, who turned 33 in July, has been chastised for his waning form in recent seasons, but his efforts at Euro 2020 shown that he can still compete at the highest level. When it comes to the big games, he, like Pique, has questions to answer at club level. He’ll be the deepest of the three midfielders to begin the season.
Pedri, who is just 18, has been a revelation since breaking into the Barca first squad last season. Expect him to be a major role in 2021-22 after a short break after the Euros and Olympics with Spain. Getty Images/David Ramos
Beyond Koeman’s first-choice three, Miralem Pjanic is expected to go this summer, according to ESPN, with sources close to the player stating that he does not intend to return to Barcelona for a second season after a lack of playing time last season. Koeman would like a more “athletic” midfielder to fill his position, but if that proves financially unfeasible, he will have to work with the club’s youth, though Sergi Roberto can also play in the center.
By the conclusion of the season, Ilaix Moriba had established himself as the club’s fourth-choice midfielder, having made 17 first-team appearances. However, the 18-year-representatives old’s are in the midst of contract talks, with his current agreement set to expire in 2022. Meanwhile, he’s been sent to the B-team while the dispute over how much he should be paid continues.
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Other players have taken advantage of Ilaix’s absence from preseason. Riqui Puig, who played little last season, has had a good preseason, scoring in a victory against Stuttgart last weekend. But it’s Pablo Paez, better known as “Gavi,” who turns 17 this week, who has sparked the greatest interest. His performances have been compared to Pedri’s debut last summer in terms of maturity and confidence.
Nico Gonzalez, a 19-year-old whose father was a professional footballer for Deportivo La Coruna, has also excelled in preseason, with club insiders seeing him as a long-term successor to Busquets.
Attack: The sagas of Messi and Griezmann conceal good depth.
The most difficult job confronting Koeman this season is managing the plethora of attacking quality he possesses. Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay came on free transfers to help relieve Lionel Messi of the burden of scoring in the front three; according to ESPN, Messi may sign his new contract as soon as this week.
Koeman’s main gripe with Barcelona last season was that they weren’t clinical enough outside of Messi, and he’ll be hoping Memphis and Aguero can alter that this season. Memphis has already made an impression throughout the preseason. Fans sang him a song at the Estadi Johan Cruyff when he scored a penalty on his debut against Girona, and he backed it up with an outstanding individual performance, which included a goal, against Stuttgart last weekend.
Rob Palmer joins ESPN FC to discuss Barcelona’s difficulties to cut their salary cost in order to accommodate Lionel Messi’s contract.
There are already several high-priced players at the club who will compete for spots, but each one comes with some uncertainty. Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, and Philippe Coutinho all cost the club more than €400 million in transfer fees, but their short-term prospects are all problematic for different reasons. Griezmann’s move would address a significant portion of the club’s financial issues, according to ESPN sources, but the France striker has yet to find a new home. He would like to return to Atletico Madrid, but talks over a trade with Saul Niguez have stagnated. As a result, a third season in Catalonia is almost certain.
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Dembele is sidelined until November with an injury and will be out of contract next summer. Barca planned to trade him this year if he refused to extend his contract. There are no bids now that he is no longer active. To prevent losing him for free in 2022, the Catalan club may decide to extend his contract.
Coutinho, who can also play in midfield, returned to full training this week and is expected to remain at the club for another season. According to ESPN, Barca would only let him go on loan if a club is ready to cover 100 percent of his salary, since it’s doubtful that any team will pay a price for him. According to reports, Koeman isn’t opposed to his staying around.
What happens with Griezmann and Coutinho may have an impact on Martin Braithwaite’s future. Barca are open to offers for the Danish striker, but since he has a contract until 2024, he will only go if he feels it is the correct move for him. According to ESPN, Koeman and his assistant Henrik Larsson have informed him that if it comes down to it, they’d be delighted to retain him as a squad player.
There’s more to it than that. Ansu Fati had a great start to previous season and was the club’s leading scorer until suffering an injury in November. The 18-year-old has yet to return to full training, and when he will is unclear. Barca are hoping that the gifted youngster, who is expected to step up in the post-Messi era, would be able to make an impact this season.
De la Fuente (on a permanent contract with Marseille), Francisco Trincao (on loan to Wolves) and Alex Collado (on loan) have all departed the club, with teenage Austrian international Yusuf Demir coming on loan from Rapid Vienna with the option to purchase. Demir was recruited with the intention of playing for the B-team, but he has started all three first-team friendlies this summer, scoring against Stuttgart, and he will be on the outskirts of Koeman’s roster.
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