By most measurements, last season was a good one for Barcelona. They started the campaign in turmoil after Paris Saint-Germain's dramatic raid for Neymar Jr. and an ominous 5-1 aggregate drubbing by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. New manager Ernesto Valverde managed to steady the ship, though—his team finished the season with a domestic double and missed going undefeated in La Liga by a whisker.
Real Madrid's third consecutive UEFA Champions League triumph took the sheen from their trophy haul, however. Everything in Spain is conditioned by the Clasico rivalry. Los Blancos' dominance in Europe, the greatest theatre in club football, is unbearable for Barcelona fans and highlights their own team's failures on the continent.
The Catalan club have tumbled out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage for the last three seasons, suffering a particularly embarrassing second-leg 3-0 defeat to AS Roma in April. That prompted rumours on the eve of the Copa del Rey final that some of Barcelona's directors believed Valverde's position was untenable.
Valverde has held on to his job, but have Barcelona bolstered their squad enough to make a tilt at the 2018-19 Champions League title? The summer started badly on the transfer front with the club's inability to lure Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid after a yearlong courtship, which concluded with the Frenchman's bizarre La Decision documentary.
The addition of Griezmann—one of the best players in the world—would have papered over the cracks of an iffy transfer policy and structure at the club, argues Ramon Besa, a journalist with El Pais.
"The problem that Barca has is confusion in the area of recruitment of players," he says. "There is not a single spokesperson, a single negotiator. The technical secretary changes, and the idea [that the club has about football] changes—so it's very difficult to get it right. With Griezmann's arrival, everything would have been easier: You signed him, and you have solved the problem of the squad composition without having to sell the players that Valverde considers expendable."
Barcelona have offloaded several players, including Lucas Digne to Everton, and will possibly shed a few more, including Colombia World Cup star Yerry Mina, before the Aug. 31 deadline. They have also spent over €100 million on three uncapped players: Arthur, a midfielder from Gremio in Brazil (€40 million); Clement Lenglet, a central defender from Sevilla (€36 million); and Malcom, a winger brought in from Bordeaux (€41 million).
All have been bedded in during the club's pre-season tour in the United States. While talented, they are all shots in the dark.
"The transfers that Barcelona has done with these three players are just bets because they are still not consolidated in Europe. We don't know if these players have the required quality to play in the Champions League," says Juan Bautista, a journalist with the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia.
"For example, Arthur is a player who everybody talks very well about in Brazil, but he has only played for a year-and-a-half in the Brazilian league, which isn't a high level. With Malcom, it's something similar. And Lenglet, I think he can become a great central defender, but he has only one good year with Sevilla, and that's it. So they are bets for the medium term—buy them this year before their price doubles."
The arrival of Malcom—a 21-year-old from Brazil who was named after Malcolm X—has generated a lot of debate. Barcelona stole him from under the noses of Roma hours before he was due to sign for the Italian club, leaving the club's fans who had assembled at Rome's international airport distraught. His arrival at the Camp Nou left Valverde startled. He wasn't on his wish list.
"Valverde was very surprised when Barca in a flash operation of 25 or 30 hours bought him," Bautista says. "He wanted Willian from Chelsea, but suddenly, he found he had Malcom. He doesn't know him. He has only trained for 10 days. In the second match of pre-season in the United States, Valverde was a little bit more complimentary about him, but the first time he talked about Malcom, he said he had nothing to do with the decision to sign him."
Malcom's arrival creates uncertainty about Ousmane Dembele's future. Both play the same position. The Frenchman, who arrived with the burden of huge expectations in 2017-18 given his price tag of €105 million, had a troubled first season with the Blaugrana.
He was injured for much it, and when he played, he didn't adapt well to Barca's style, with the exception of a few flourishes. He has also struggled to pick up the Spanish language, and he cut an isolated figure socially. Malcom's arrival could signal the club are interested in cutting their losses and are trying to recoup a chunk of their outlay on Dembele, which would be difficult.
"The second scenario is that Malcom's arrival could spark a reaction from Dembele," Bautista says. "It could force him to organise his life more. He needs to take care of himself better—to eat and train better, to mind himself, to rest at night. He has to be more professional. Dembele did come back early for pre-season—two days before he was due to return to training. It could be interpreted that the Malcom transfer has irked him. It could motivate him to win his place in Barca's starting XI."
Barcelona have also added the combative Arturo Vidal to their ranks. The Chilean midfielder was unveiled on Monday and boldly stated his objective to win three Champions League crowns during his three-year contract. He is seen as a direct replacement for box-to-box player Paulinho, who returned mysteriously to Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande after one year with Barca at a profit of €10 million. Valverde is pleased to have Vidal for his "warrior" qualities.
Vidal is noticeably not a typical Barcelona-style midfielder, though, in the mould of, say, the genius of Andres Iniesta, who has left the club after 16 seasons.
Iniesta's departure has left a huge void. His absence—and the arrival of yet another rough-and-tumble mercenary like Vidal—signals the drift from the great ideologue of Johan Cruyff's thinking.
The Dutch maestro believed in nurturing homegrown, possession-based footballers, a philosophy that yielded Champions League triumphs under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola. Cruyff's philosophy has been diluted over the years in the rush to keep up with Real Madrid's extraordinary success (four European Cups in five seasons). It has made Barcelona more pragmatic in the pursuit of silverware.
"During Guardiola's era, which finished in 2012, his most important players were made in Barcelona's cantera [youth academy]. The club gave opportunities to those players. They had a trainer that trusted them," says Marcel Beltran, a journalist with Spanish football magazine Panenka. "The problem is that there is now a divide in the club.
"There are two sides: the ones that put the model over the results, even if it means losing for a while, who believe in the cantera, who want to follow a club that is different to the rest. They are convinced of their idea. On the other hand, you have fans of a club that is a victim of its own success.
"With a player like Messi, they believe they can win everything, so the feeling year after year is that it is possible to win against the biggest teams in the world. For them, the important thing is to win. Nothing else. You can't believe in both ideologies because at some points there are contradictions."
Sergi Esteban, president of one of Barcelona's most prominent supporters clubs, Penya Bou, agrees there is a schism between fans over the Blaugrana's direction but concedes the pragmatists outnumber the romantics.
"We don't have good enough players from La Masia [the youth academy], so we have to buy players in," he says. "Sure, Barcelona is a club that wants to win and to play well, ideally with players from its own house, but this is complicated. Me, I'd love if we played with homegrown players, but if we don't have players of sufficient quality, we have to go outside. In the end, the majority of fans want to win matches."
The case of Thiago Alcantara is an interesting flashpoint. He left the club in 2013 at a bargain price because of a part in his contract that dropped his buyout clause from €90 million if he hadn't played a set number of minutes in the outgoing season (over 30 minutes in 60 per cent of Barca's games).
"Thiago is a player that knows the Barca philosophy," Beltran says. "He grew up there. He has been competing against the elite with Bayern Munich and getting more experience, and also his price, considering the market these days, is not impossible to pay. It's a great opportunity for Barca to take Thiago back to the team, and the club is still interested in buying another midfielder, but the name on everyone's lips is Paul Pogba.
"Pogba is an excellent player, a World Cup winner, but Thiago and Pogba are like night and the day, the moon and the sun. They are completely different players. Most people think the intelligent thing to do would be to bring Thiago back. He could fit here because of his profile, but it seems the club doesn't have him as a priority."
Bautista believes there is more method to Barcelona's transfer moves this season than last. Their transfer team is made up chiefly of three men: Pep Segura, a former director of Liverpool's youth academy; ex-player Eric Abidal; and Ramon Planes, who joined from Getafe at the start of the summer.
"This summer, the work of Barca's technical secretary [Planes] has been a bit more organised and intelligent than last year," Bautista says. "Last year, it was chaos in Barca's offices because they found PSG was buying Neymar, so they panicked—they started looking for players over half of Europe. They started doing and saying very strange things.
"Remember that player from Nice called [Jean Michael] Seri? They pulled out of his transfer at the last minute. Nobody knows why. There were a lot of internal wars in the office, and this summer, it seems better. They could have mistakes anyway, but the feeling is they are a little bit better."
The field of competitors in Europe hasn't been as strong in living memory—defending champions Real Madrid will be lurking; Manchester City will be a formidable proposition; Juventus look to have their strongest team since they reached three successive UEFA Champions League finals in a row in the late 1990s.
It will be fascinating to see if Barcelona's bets on the transfer market pay dividends when they likely lock horns in the knockout stages next spring.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz