Barcelona raid transfer market to find new identity

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After the unceremonious departure of Lionel Messi in August 2021, FC Barcelona found itself in a state of crisis and in desperate need of some soul searching. Messi, who became part of the very fabric of the Catalan club, left a gaping hole in the hearts of fans and on the pitch of the Camp Nou.

The appointment of club legend Xavi as manager eased some aching hearts, and he steadied the ship to guide La Blaugrana to a second-place finish in the 2021-22 season. But the absence of their irreplaceable No. 10 still weighed heavily on the club — it finished with the worst point tally since the 2007-08 season and crashed out of the Europa League quarterfinals against Eintracht Frankfurt, a far cry from the Spanish giant’s recent success.

Now, Barcelona is reaching into its pockets to sign new players in search of turning the page and establishing a new club identity. The transfers of central defenders Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde, midfielder Franck Kessie and attackers Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski will give the Catalan side a new look heading into the upcoming season.

This dramatic overhaul of the squad, with Kessie signing as a free agent from AC Milan, and Raphinha, purchased from Leeds United, poses team selection and tactical problems for Xavi. He will likely revamp the team’s structure heading into the 2022-23 campaign.

In Kessie, Barcelona has acquired a tenacious ball winner who will bring physicality to Barca’s technical midfield. The Ivory Coast international excelled in a box-to-box role at his former club AC Milan — he would frequently disrupt opposition attacks and win the ball from defense before bursting forward with powerful runs.

This skill set, however, is not particularly compatible with Xavi’s setup at Barcelona. At Milan, Kessie played in a two-man midfield where he was charged with defensive duties but was largely relieved of ball progression and playmaking by his creative partner Ismael Bennacer.

Barcelona play with a three-man midfield, in which Kessie would neither be the refined and metronomic passer to play at the base of the trio nor the technical and composed dribbler to play in the two advanced roles.

To accommodate Kessie, Xavi may experiment with a two-man midfield. The Spanish manager has already floated the idea of a 3-4-3 formation in interviews.

In this case, Pedri or Frenkie de Jong would compliment him well as the ball progressors while the Ivorian could play to his strengths. However, long-term deviations from the 4-3-3 formation — part of Barcelona’s club identity and Xavi’s tactical philosophy — are unlikely. Kessie’s optimal role in the team is not readily evident.

The transfer of Raphinha, worth up to £55 million, will also produce a dilemma. The Brazilian right-winger is a one-on-one specialist and creative passer. He is particularly adept at creating with penetrative passes and dribbles from the right wing. Among Premier League wingers last season, he ranked in the top 3% for progressive passes and top 18% for shot-creating actions through dribbles — two impressive figures, especially considering that Leeds flirted with relegation for the entire season.

Raphinha’s talent is undeniable, but Barcelona’s star right-winger Ousmane Dembele finished last season with a very strong run of games in his same position and signed a two-year contract just one month ago. The French international led La Liga in assists last season, despite playing just 1,411 minutes.

Dembele’s unique ambipedal ability would enable him to play on the left wing, but he has been deployed on the right side for most of his career. Thus, the addition of Raphinha may prompt Xavi to restructure his attack, or at times leave one of the two on the bench.

With the La Liga campaign kicking off in just over a week, Xavi’s Barcelona will be under the spotlight soon. Barcelona fans may be frustrated by the uncertainty surrounding Kessié and Raphinha’s roles, but they are still among Europe’s best players and will offer value however they are utilized. Meanwhile, Koundé and Lewandowski should easily integrate and immediately feature at central defense and striker, respectively.

Make no mistake: These new faces will all play significant roles in ushering in a new era for soccer’s most storied club, however Xavi chooses to arrange them.

Colin Mequet covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].