Barcelona’s $120 million signing of Luis Suarez last week shows its directors are — for good or bad — prepared to break with the core values which made the Catalan club’s successes over the last decade so unique.
Just last November, homegrown defender Gerard Pique praised how having built its team around players from its La Masia youth academy made Barcelona so different from big spending fellow La Liga giant Real Madrid.
"Barca has historically never had the chance to spend so much," Pique said. "We know we have the good fortune of this unique generation from La Masia, which did not cost any money. We fight with what we have."
Pique’s comments were widely accepted — even though Neymar had recently arrived in a deal which cost the club over $130 million. Barca’s first team last season was still recognizable and built by Josep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova during their time as Barcelona managers. That "tiki-taka generation" (Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Pedro Rodriguez, Pique himself) won 14 trophies from the 19 competitions entered during Guardiola’s four years in charge. They then lifted the La Liga title the following 2012-13 campaign, even as Vilanova was battling a serious illness.
But this summer now marks an end to that era; Puyol has retired, Valdes has left, and Xavi seems set to move on too after having realized he is no longer wanted. Even the attempt made in summer 2011 by Guardiola and Tito Vilanova to evolve that basic style, by bringing back Cesc Fabregas from England and signing Alexis Sanchez, has ultimately been given up on. Both players have been sold this summer to raise money to buy Suarez.
That deal had been planned long before the Uruguayan striker bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at this summer’s World Cup. The transfer looked in doubt after FIFA imposed the four-month ban from all footballing activity for Suarez’s third such bite. Signing a player so widely criticized, who has also served a long-term ban for racially abusing an opponent during a game, is quite a step for a club previously so proud of its morally superior "More than a Club" slogan.
But club president Josep Maria Bartomeu pushed through the deal, in keeping with his announcement last month that Barcelona would also construct a new side this summer.
"We must be self-critical," Bartomeu said. "We won only won one trophy [the Spanish Supercopa] last season. We find ourselves in decisive moment to build a new Barca’."
The hiring of former blaugrana player and Barca B coach Luis Enrique as coach this summer was sold as a return to the club’s roots. However, it is clear that Enrique — who clashed with Guardiola when they were both at the Camp Nou as coaches — wants to change the way the team plays. The Asturian — who also played for Real Madrid — has spoken of a more high-tempo, aggressive style. Barca’s other big signing — Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic — will bring more direct forward passing, a further move away from Xavi’s patient build-up play. The first choice XI next year will likely feature just three or four La Masia graduates.
President and coach have been keen to regularly stress that Messi — who signed a new improved contract just before the World Cup — remains central to this new project. But the signings of Neymar and Suarez suggest the Argentine’s central place in the side is under threat.
At his best, Messi is central to everything his team do from start to finish. His best moments have come when his 10 teammates — even World Cup winners like Xavi and Iniesta — worked to provide the structure for their star to shine. Other big name attackers — from Samuel Eto’o to Zlatan Ibrahimovic to David Villa — who refused to accept subservient roles had to leave.
Once Suarez ban ends Messi will now have two fellow superstars alongside him in attack. Neymar was careful to say on arrival last summer that he was happy to play second-fiddle. But after this year’s World Cup the Brazilian will surely expect a bigger role next year. Suarez scored 31 goals to be voted England’s player of the year while at Liverpool last season. A $120 million signing will not likely accept his job is to make unselfish Pedro style runs off the ball. Whether three individualists will click as a unit is far from certain.
The Suarez signing shows Barca’s board keenness to invest hugely while ripping up the plan that brought such recent acclaim. The reported inclusion of an "anti-biting" clause in his contract shows just how risky the transfer is. This deal makes little sense for so many reasons.