Going Forward: Barca's Summer Saga Begins

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Going Forward: Barca's Summer Saga Begins
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While the international media has been crooning for the past three weeks about transfers of Cesc Fabregas and David Villa to Barcelona, more salient questions have been raised in regard to the future with or without these two stars.

The first thing that needs answering, is what to do with troubled phenom Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There is no doubt that Ibrahimovic stands among the top players of the past decade. His brilliant creativity, strength, size, and character have impressed not just fans, but coaches, including Barcelona skipper Pep Guardiola.

However, Ibrahimovic's poor performance on the pitch this past year has also served as a focal point of polarization. His agent, as well as many fans and Barca higher-ups, have claimed that his recent slump is due to his adjustment period to Spanish football.

This is a fair point, and deserves to be addressed to the fullest. It takes only two 90-minute periods for any football fan to clearly notice the difference between Spanish and Italian football, the latter of which Ibrahimovic spent seven years previous to his joining the Catalan giant.

Italians are much more physical, and additionally, much more aerial. In this environment, and with big name internationals surrounding him, Ibrahimovic thrived, helping Inter to numerous Scudettos, and hitting the top-scorer spot just last season.

Yet, along with his strengths in Italian football, his weaknesses are also glaring. The first criticism that can be made is his dismal performance in European play. Before joining Barcelona, Ibrahimovic managed practically no goals in Italian play for Inter of Juventus (the club he left to join Inter). He also has had a penchant for flaming tantrums, and bouts of laziness.

These issues, though, apparently were not factors when Guardiola approached  Barcelona team president Joan Laporta singing Ibrahimovic's praise, and asking for the Swede's unconditional transfer, which resulted in a record-signing for Catalunya.

His form was brilliant for the first half of the season, quickly topping La Liga charts as the top scorer, and one of the highest assist leaders, alongside his diminutive teammates Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi . Though the bottom soon fell out, and Ibrahimovic was relegated to begging his right foot to just place the shot properly.

All of his tribulations reached the penultimate nadir, when an open net begging for a cleanly tucked pass went wide at the foot of the Swedish international against the midtable Zaragoza, leading to more frustration for coach and player.

Messi attempted to rectify Ibrahimvic's confidence when, after winning a penalty, he implored Ibrahimvic to take it, and resulted in his second goal of the 2010 La Liga campaign.

However, his pedestrian form continued, and he often became substituted in the last half-hour of matches for Bojan, who increasingly made his mark, adding the plasticity of the attacking three which Barca had lacked since the year prior.

It was not long before Guardiola ultimately made the decision to play Bojan Krkic over Ibrahimovic, and this carried through for the final four games of La Liga, all of which ended in wins.

With the Villa transfer looking like an inevitability, what is Guardiola to do with Ibrahimovic, and his other three true forwards? Guardiola insisted that he fully expects Ibrahimovic to return next season, and Laporta and the Old Guard have all intimated their equal assurance that the Swede will remain in the Blaugrana.

The best answer I can possibly offer, is that Guardiola will again use Ibrahimovic as the Park-the-buss buster, while rotating his other four attackers (Pedro Rodriguez, Krkic, Messi, and perhaps Villa), as well as Ibrahimovic, for the coming La Liga, Copa Del Rey, Supercopa de Espanya, and Champions League campaigns.

If Guardiola can keep Messi's, Villa's, and Ibrahimovic's egos in check, there is no doubt that these players can become possibly one of the greatest attacking contingent in Barcelona history (and even world football history).

However, it is unlikely that Guardiola will feel comfortable with benching such stars, and it is possible that Villa's transfer, and Ibrahimovic's high price tag, could spell the subtextual end to Krkic's Barcelona career.

Even though he is himself a Catalan, raised in La Masia, and has dedicated his playing career, like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol (who joined at 17), and Messi before him, to the club, Bojan could be shopped out on loan to other clubs at least for the first half of the season to give the record-signee one more opportunity to prove himself in the club's lineup.

With Sweden being excluded from this summer's World Cup festivities, Ibrahimovic has the entire summer to prepare for the upcoming season. This will give him much needed respite to possibly rediscover his footballing skills. The road ahead is not without pitting, though, and he will have to work hard if he wishes to impress Guardiola, who will once again be flush in Spanish generated talent.

The saga is far from over, and if my opinion counted for anything, I would assume that Ibrahimovic will be given the first half of the season in at least two competitions to reassert himself.

Failing that, Ibrahimovic will once again be benched for the second half of the season in favor of the other four, and shopped around in the summer and winter transfer windows to English clubs, or even Juventus.

Krkic will, unfortunately, be sent off on loan to another club, where he will work on his footballing chops, waiting once again in the wings for a purchased player to impinge their financial authority over his national loyalty.

Now what to do about Toure Yaya stands out as another problem for FCB. After his agents war drum drubbing before the end of the season, claiming Yaya will likely leave due to lack of playing time, Culer and Coach have both fallen from Yaya's good graces.

Yaya, however, does have an axe to grind. His agent claims that Barca have benched him, favoring Sergio Busquets the majority of the season, due to bonus clauses in his contract which stipulates that if Yaya were to play more than 60 percent of the games in the season, he would be entitled to additional payouts.

Possibly with the hopes of bringing in another midfielder (nods toward Cesc), Yaya was benched and a vastly inexperienced and inferior Sergio was featured.

This has led to many claims from fair-weather fans that Sergio Busquets was played out of Catalan favoritism, or worse yet, nepotism. Busquets' father played alongside Guardiola, and, the argument goes, his influence is heavy-handed in the Blaugrana legal offices.

It must be stated that Barcelona is a city where corruption and underhanded dealings are common place (and often a cog in an intricately assembled machine called their Tourism and Gothic districts...), though these chidings of favoritism stem not from fact, but from speculation. Much like the Ancient Greek's attempts to name gods in the sky by looking at how stars were shaped in tandem, accusations of favoritism are grounded in superstition.

His contract obligations may very well be a different horse altogether. I cannot speak on Laporta or Guardiola's past with such scheming tactics, but if these claims were true, it would not be the first time a professional sports club refused to play an athlete based on his contract (an issue that typifies Perez's reign in Madrid).

But, one must ask himself why would Barcelona refuse to payout any bonuses in Toure's contract? After all, if he performed, any sane person would understand that he deserves to be rewarded, no?

The answer is absolutely. In the high-priced world of international football, meritocracy is common currency, while nepotism and racism are very rarely considerable (the goal is to make money, not perpetuate filth).

With a club rich in finances (they have no advertisements on their jerseys, rather, proceeds from home matches are donated to UNICEF, and the organization's emblem and name are emblazoned garishly on the front of Barca's jerseys), it would be impossible to argue without many inaccuracies that Barcelona could not afford to pay Yaya.

The only possible option left is that they refused to feature him and refuse to pay his bonuses in an effort to shop him off this summer, or force him out. Again, without knowing what Laporta, the board, or Pep have been thinking, to guage this with any semblance of accuracy is impossible.

I also have to say that when Yaya was given the starting call, there were many occasions where he not only underperformed, but looked as if he were intentionally benefiting the other team. Prior to the second half of this past season, Yaya, playing typically as a holding mid, would squander balls, create ridiculous fouls, and even earn himself a red card for reckless play and protesting.

This season, when he had played, without any apparent reason, he has shot on goal sans the intention to score, he was kicked balls out of bounds, wasted passes, and acted plumb selfishly. This is a massive character shift from previous years, where not only has he been instrumental in attacking play, but has shown himself to be the most selfless player on the pitch, perhaps only surpassed by his midfield counterpart, Xavi.

His performance has been short of lustrous, though Busquets has shown himself to be a dive master, and while technically skilled, he is also clumsy on the ball, and is obviously not as much an athlete as Toure. The only possible explanation that can be proffered without delving into speculation (i.e. the one with actual evidence), is that Toure's performance earned him the pine, while Busquets was only provisionally better.

There could be numerous factors, but one thing is almost definite: Barcelona will be Yaya-less come next season. This will be a fantastic loss. Yaya is one of the most creative and versatile players in European football. Due to his domineering size and strength, and his technical ability on ball, he can play as both a central defender and defensive mid. However, he is also quick, and has shown an ability to make nutmeg passes, as well as killer through balls, thus also serving as an attacking option for the club. In addition to all of this, he has a nose for the goal, and while his services have rarely been used for such uses, his long range canon can warn any GK of the power coming at him.

So, what are we to do should we lose Toure? His instrumentality make him one of the saddest losses of any Barca squad. The only thing we can do is invest our confidence in the up and coming Barca mid, giving Sergi the nod and converting an attacking Keita into an holding option. Given Barcelona's fluidity, I do not think this would be a problem, as much of the possession will be dealt with the two or three attacking mids, Dani Alves, the three forwards, and Abidal when not covering the gaps on the high back-line.

Speaking of midfielders, how old is Xavi? Even though Xavi seems invincible, injuries are becoming an increasing downfall to his game, and this will most likely only get worse as he ages. He has, admittedly, another solid 3 or 4 years, but in the meantime, what other areas are plaguing our midfield consistency?

How prone to injury Iniesta has sadly become. Because of an illegal crunching tackle, Iniesta saw 3/4 of the 2008/2009 campaign from the bleachers, and several times injuries sustained in practice have seen him once again at the whims and fancies of his body's recovery time and the club's doctors. Despite his unquestionable talent, this bane, even at 26, could be an incredible weakness for a midfield touted as the best in the world.

Iniesta, mind you, before this past game against Valladolid, was out due to injury for 5 weeks, and with the world cup right around the bend, I can assure you that Iniesta's time will not be dedicated to RnR. He still has many years in the red and blue stripes, but his injuries are an increasing worry.

But he can also create, and his versatility attacking has defrayed these worries, at least for now. Xavi, if he can stay healthy, will continue to serve as the engine room, Iniesta as an added attacking/creating option, and whoever we bring in before the World Cup --should such an acquisition take place-- will not only strengthen an ailing midfield, he will also add another dimension to the attack.

These worries have been mainly about our attack, but problems in the back still persist. The primary concern is Chygrinksy. How much did we shell out for this flop? 30 million euros? He showed very little improvement, and has a frustrating predilection to making back passes to 5-yard distant Valdez when pressured, leading to Culers with a regrettable knowledge of Valdez's history under such circumstances to bite their nails and throw their hats in fury. (This isn't the first time Barcelona have chosen a bad apple for their system: Hleb, while talented, was the first last season).

He has also been the cause of many goal scoring opportunities in the CL and La Liga by ceding possession to attackers when he is the last option, and lackadaisically attempting to catch up, while a victimized Valdez is left to act as a sweeper with little success.

Marquez, while an old time Barca icon, is also aging, and he has since lost his step to keep pace with moderately quick defenders like Luis Fabiano. This, too, has led to lazy defending, goal scoring opportunities, and goals. In fact, the best defense Barcelona has had when either of these two are on the pitch is possession and quick midfield defense/recovery when the ball is lost.

Puyol and Pique, while proving themselves as firemen in front of a burning building more than once, have also shown hints of laziness and falling asleep. You cannot blame them for being dazzled by the small triangles of a Xavi-led attack, or the quick-feet theatrics of Messi while he makes another astonishing run into the box. But defense all year has been touchy, and while Barcelona gave up the fewest goals in La Liga this season, by my count, at least 10 of these had been relinquished because of off-guard, lazy, or pathetic defending by any one of these four men.

For me, when he finally was given the green light, Milito has been absolutely solid. The Argentine has stood firm alongside either one of the other central defending options in Pique and Puyol, and proven his mettle with the best.

This lazy defending has led to some tepid curiosity of Barcelona's off-season intentions. Not much has been said of last year's Mascherano affair, though Javier has once again fanned the flames by reaffirming his desire to join the Catalan club for myriad reasons. He has also insisted that he will not put pen to paper for Liverpool until the end of the world cup, interestingly enough, possibly leaving the door open for Barcelona to make up their mind all summer long.

How will this bode for the incumbent president? I cannot speak much to this, specifically because I do not know the candidates, nor do I know their intentions. I think, though, that Pep recognizes his defense as a weak spot, Marquez as an aging icon ready to be offloaded (sadly), and Chygrinsky as a flop. With only 3 viable options, if Yaya leaves in the summer, he will certainly be looking to add to this line, and Mascherano, because of his history with Barca dealings, would be an ideal target.

The final problem is obviously Pep's future at the club. Pep is worried, understandably so, about the future president, and how much autonomy he will allow Guardiola with the team.

Many presidents in this day of football feel the need to bring in huge players and tell their coaches to work with what they bring them. In Barcelona, to a large extent, this model has been turned on its head, with Laporta allowing Pep to give him a list of players he wants to bring in, knowing he can do something with them.

Pep, however, feels that if he is shoehorned into such a role, something comparable to Pellegrini, he could not carry on as coach of Barcelona. While he has agreed verbally to sign at least a year extension to his contract with Barcelona after the elections, when this contract is voided in the summer of next year, the questions will once again be raised regarding his future with his hometown club.

If, as has been intimated above, the future president and board gives Pep the control he wants --and frankly, deserves-- I can see a long, fruitful relationship with the club (despite reports claiming the opposite). If, on the other hand, they refuse Pep this privilege, expect Pep to leave at the end of next season, despite his unfettered love for Barca and its players.

So, going forward, Barcelona has many questions to answer. The only common gauge between the lot of them is time, in that only when next season starts will we be sure of what will happen.

Pep will not know how tight the tourniquet around his wrists will be until much into the future, Ibra's future is yet to be resolved, and there are some holes that still need fixing.

However, with the greatest diagnostician this side of Gregory House, there can be no doubt that next season, with the summer acquisitions, whomever they may be, in tow, Barca will once again lead an exciting campaign and another shootout with eternal political rivals, Real, and warning shots have already been fired at the coming Champions League.

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