1. Is Paulinho going to break how Barca play or protect a porous defence?
Paulinho is a box to box man. When he signed for Spurs he’d built up a reputation as a player in the mould of an early Gerard or Simeone. A tough tackling Brazilian who can join in with the attack and score on the reg. But it all went wrong in London. Paulinho struggled massively. Barca are gambling on what he’s clawed back playing for Evergrande in the Chinese league. His form has been fantastic. He’s been free scoring, 12 in 29 in China and hitting hat tricks from midfield for the Selecao.
Xavi was right when he labelled the player more of a Real Madrid style of midfielder. He lacks the deftness of touch and grace, perhaps, you expect from someone in blue and red. But Barca need something radical this season. Another technical attacker won’t solve last year’s defensive woes. Even if he would have been Veratti.
The issue with Barca signing Paulinho was that he’s not Coutinho. Nor is he Bonucci. What is is a weird mix of both. In his one appearance so far he’s come on for iniesta. Indicating maybe his role is more offensive. A Paulinho in full form makes a difference. Barca’s question is will it be enough of one?
2. Does Barca need to move past having Messi at the centre of their solar system?
One if the things Zidane did so well at Real was to move the side past a Ronaldo-centric football system to a balanced and well rounded side where he can flourish without being everybody’s first thought. 2 European cups later, Real can play without Ronaldo and win. Barcelona remains almost unimaginable without Messi working the strings.
It’s the reason Neymar left. It’s also the reason Ibrahimovic and others left before. With the Argentine deep into his thirties, it’s maybe time the world’s best player was given a little freedom. Signing Coutinho would certainly have helped with that. Dembele should make a difference too but even with him it’s hard to see where the magic is going to come from if not Messi this year.
Mourinho recently mused how Neymar’s transfer has upended the whole system. Before somebody cost 200 million, players like Coutinho might cost 100 million max. Now they have to double it. Freeing up Messi with Dybala became a huge deal. However great Leo is, he’s not immune to time, space and age. He’s getting slower and will have to adapt his game. Which means Barca will too. Messi is likey to play higher up the pitch over time. More around the box. It’ll put more pressure on creativity and movement in midfield. Dembele and Paulinho will feel the pressure initially but it begs another huge question:
3. Can iniesta still make the difference at 33?
Let’s be honest. Iniesta is still one if the highlights of the global game and good enough for Juventus to have doggedly chased him all summer. The only reason we even ask this is that the club is used yo how good he has been till now. But that’s about to change.
Camp Nou ia starting to look like the golden girls. Something we all thought the board would never allow happen. But in refusing to move past their golden generation until the last possible minute, they’ve left a huge overhaul task down the line. Xavi left before it got embarrassing for him and he still hasn’t been adequately replaced. Puyol the same. Iniesta is like this elephant in the room. They needed to sign a replacement. Aside from Coutinho there was always Hazard, Eriksen, De Bruyne. Last season Iniesta just wasn’t the player we know and love. It’s unfair to insist he will be. I personally think he can still kill it in big games. Make the difference against PSG or City.
But it’s a long season. There’s a world cup around the corner and Spain look up for it. Paulinho looks like he’ll be involved in transitioning Iniesta to an occasional weapon brought out in key clashes. It’s a short term solution to a darkening horizon.
4. Was signing one right back the key to fortifying a problematic defence?
Nelson Semedo looks good. There’s a reason he was the third most used player in Benfica’s league title. He’s a responsible, gifted right back and is starting to show it for Portugal too. He’s not Dani Alvez but early signs are he’s a more than solid signing. Is he enough though?
Let’s face facts and admit Umiti hasn’t been the player Barca hoped. There’s still time. He’s a regular at centre back this season and Valverde seems to be rotating Pique and Mascherano around him. The Argentine to me will always be a world class midfield ball winner who happened to be good enough to plug the hole Puyol left well enough by the time Umiti arrived he had to displace him. And he kind of hasn’t.
Also, as good as Alba is, and he is, advancing full backs either require amazing centre halves with a stunning goalie. Or a full time bad ass ball winner like Real have in Casimero. The hope is Paulinho will somehow fill that gap somewhat but smart, timed flank play will make a huge difference and Neslon Semedo will have to find another level.
5. Can valverde improve his 50% win record with Spanish clubs?
Whatever about Semedo, Valverde needs to find a completely new level to meet the demands of a side like Barcelona. To date his only trophy with a Spanish club is the super cup with Espanol. His only titles have come in Greece with Olympiacos and he has a truly patchy record.
On the other hand, did Luis Enrique have a great managerial record coming into the job?
Did Pep? What were Zidane’s managerial creds before taking over on the other side. Managers at this level breathe rarified air. And it’s almost impossible to guess who’ll be able to hack it. Valverde is mentally strong and has clear ideas on the game. He’s played for Barca so he’s kinda ‘bootroom’ which seems to mean a great deal there now. He’s also started well under the toughest of circumstances. At the Camp Nou the club shapes the managers as much as the reverse and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Valverde develop well beyond his current level.
6. Are Dani Alvez and Neymar right about the Barca board?
Both players recently expressed regret the club was being led by the kind of people on the board. The kind who don’t understand players or the game. It was odd of Neymar to claim this because his transfers both in and out of the club were hugely controversial and in some ways borderline illegal. His arrival was one of the first flags maybe something was rotten.
MARCA claims the dressing room doesn’t want Bartomeu. He seems to take forever to get players like Messi and Iniesta to sign. Showing perhaps grave concerns over confidence in the president. The transfer disasters of the summer, the accusations of tax fraud levelled against himself and the board, none of this has gone away.
It looks like Bartomeu may not survive the next presidential election at the club. It remains to be seen what effects his summer antics will have on the Champions League tilt.
Henry Bamford – Dublin