Breaking down Barcelona’s issues, position by position, ahead of new season

It’s been another summer of drama at Barcelona. There’s still uncertainty over the coach’s future, their star player left (and still hasn’t technically returned), LaLiga further reduced their spending limit for the upcoming season and they’ve been unable to move on a handful of unwanted big-earning players inherited from the previous regime.

President Joan Laporta started the summer by saying he needed time to “reflect” on whether Ronald Koeman was the right man to lead Barca forward. In the end, given the lack of options to replace him and the money it would have cost to remove him, he decided to give the Dutch coach a second season.

On June 30, Lionel Messi‘s contract with the club expired. Since then, he’s been a free agent. Sources have told ESPN there is an agreement over a new five-year deal, but it has not been signed yet. That’s likely to change this week, with Messi now back in Europe following time off after Copa America success with Argentina. (He didn’t report to training on Monday, with sources saying he’s decided to wait until his deal is confirmed; the club was happy for him to report, but he’d need insurance in order to use the facilities.)

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However, to register Messi’s new deal while complying with LaLiga’s spending limits, players must leave and wages must be reduced. Youngsters, like United States winger Konrad de la Fuente, have found new clubs, but so far, there have been no clubs willing to take on the salaries paid to the likes of Samuel Umtiti and Miralem Pjanic. Transferring Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembele could provide a solution, but all three remain at the club and that could be the case when the transfer window closes at the end of August. All while negotiations over wage deferrals and cuts continue with veteran players like Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique.

The need for immediate action has been accelerated by mounting financial problems, with Barca’s gross debt standing at €1.2 billion per accounts released in January. Their LaLiga spending limit, which was over €600 million pre-pandemic, was reduced to €347m last season and could be as low as €200m this season.

That’s the context with which Laporta, elected as president in March, has had to try to rebuild a team that’s only won the Copa del Rey in the last two years. Therefore, it’s been a question of free transfers and youngsters. Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia and Memphis Depay have all arrived for “nothing” in transfer fees, €9m was spent on bringing Emerson Royal back from Real Betis and a new generation of youngsters have been showcased by Koeman in preseason.

Here’s how Barca are shaping up going into the new season, which begins against Real Sociedad on Aug. 15 (2 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+).

Goalkeeper: Stability with ter Stegen

In general, and in contrast to other positions, there is stability between the posts, but an injury to Marc-Andre ter Stegen means things are more complicated than they should be. The German had treatment on a knee injury in May that forced him to miss Euro 2020 and while he’s now back in light training, he won’t be ready for the start of the season, which means Barca have had to put the brakes on Neto‘s departure for now.

The Brazilian wants to leave in search of regular football but Koeman needs him for the beginning of LaLiga and would prefer to have an experienced No.2. Given their financial position, the club would be open to offloading Neto if a good offer arrives, though, which would see Inaki Pena promoted to Ter Stegen’s backup. If Neto doesn’t leave, Pena will, with youngster Arnau Tenas lined up to be the club’s third choice this year.

Defence: Who will pair with Pique?

Barca have an abundance of centre-backs in the first-team squad, but the established hierarchy is disappearing and there’s uncertainty about how all the pieces will fit together. Gerard Pique is 34 this season and while he’s fine in most games, there have been signs he can no longer cut it at the very top level. He would love to prove his doubters wrong, though.

Beyond Pique, Barca are desperate to shift Samuel Umtiti‘s salary from the wage bill, but the Frenchman’s not been convinced by any of the offers to arrive so far. Sources tell ESPN the club are confident he will leave before the transfer window closes. Clement Lenglet has replaced Umtiti as Pique’s partner over the past two years, but he had an error-strewn 2020-21 season. Barca would listen to offers for the France international, but he wants to stay and rediscover the form he displayed in his first season at the club after he joined from Sevilla for €35 million in 2018.

Then come the youngsters. Ronald Araujo looked to be establishing himself as a first-choice option last season, but injuries halted the Uruguayan’s progression after Christmas. He has value given that he’s Barca’s most physical defender, but Koeman says he needs to improve with the ball.

Eric Garcia, who has arrived on a free transfer from Manchester City, is the opposite. Having come through Barca’s academy, he possesses an excellent reading of the game and can pass out from the back, but he is not the quickest nor the strongest player. Off the back of a breakout season last time out, Oscar Mingueza will provide backup options across the back four.

Despite the number of bodies they have at the back, Barca have also explored other centre-back signings in the belief they still need strengthening defensively. However, as they struggle to move anyone on, it may be a luxury they can’t afford this summer.

Jordi Alba will continue at left-back by default given that Junior Firpo‘s €15m move to Leeds United has left him without competition. In case of emergency, Barca will look to Sergino Dest or youngster Alejandro Balde, who has had a good preseason. Dest, though, will continue at right-back, where Barca are well-stocked. The United States international will have competition for his place from Emerson, the Brazil international who returned from Betis, and Sergi Roberto.

Midfield: De Jong, Pedri form strong core

Koeman wants to add more experience in midfield after missing out on free agent Georginio Wijnaldum (who joined Paris Saint-Germain instead), but Barca have the makings of a good core even if finances prevent them from signing another player.

In Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, they have two of the best young midfielders in the world. De Jong is going into his third season at Camp Nou and has improved every year so far. Pedri, meanwhile, was the star of last season. The 18-year-old belied his age to keep more senior players out of the team, making 52 appearances in his debut campaign at the club. He then shone at Euro 2020 for Spain, where he was named the Young Player of the Tournament, and is competing with La Roja at the Olympic Games. The overworked teenager, who looks like he was born and bred at La Masia, may need a holiday once Spain’s time in Japan comes to an end on the back of an exhausting year for club and country.

The experience comes in the form of Sergio Busquets. The veteran, who turned 33 in July, has been criticised for declining form in recent seasons, but his performances at Euro 2020 proved he can still be one of the best at the international level. Like Pique, though, he has questions to answer at club level when the big games come around. He will start the season as the deepest of the three midfielders.

Beyond Koeman’s first-choice trio, Miralem Pjanic is set to leave this summer, with sources close to the player telling ESPN they don’t expect him to remain at Barca for a second season following a lack of minutes last year. Koeman would like his place to be taken by a more “athletic” midfielder, but if that proves impossible financially, he will have to work with the club’s youngsters, although Sergi Roberto can also play in the middle.

Ilaix Moriba emerged as the fourth choice midfielder by the end of last season, making 17 first-team appearances. However, the 18-year-old’s people are locked in negotiations over a new contract, with his existing deal expiring in 2022. In the meantime, he’s been sent to train with the B-team as the stand-off over how much he should be paid goes on.

With Ilaix missing from preseason, other players have seized their chances. Riqui Puig, who featured infrequently last season, has done well, scoring in last weekend’s preseason win over Stuttgart. But the most excitement has been generated by Pablo Paez, better known as “Gavi,” who turns 17 this week. The maturity and confidence of his performances has drawn parallels with the emergence of Pedri last summer.

Nico Gonzalez, a 19-year-old whose father played professionally for Deportivo La Coruna, has also impressed in preseason, with sources at the club picking him out as a potential long-term heir to Busquets.

Attack: Messi, Griezmann sagas obscure decent depth

The biggest task facing Koeman this season is managing the abundance of talent he has in attack. Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay have both arrived on free transfers to help take the scoring weight off Lionel Messi in the front three; sources have told ESPN Messi could sign his new deal as early as this week.

Koeman’s big complaint last season was that beyond Messi, Barca were not clinical enough, and he’ll be hoping Memphis and Aguero will change that. Memphis has already impressed in preseason. He was serenaded by fans at the Estadi Johan Cruyff on his debut against Girona, when he scored a penalty, and followed that up with an impressive individual display, goal included, against Stuttgart last weekend.

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Rob Palmer joins ESPN FC to shed some light on Barcelona’s struggles to reduce their wage bill to fit Lionel Messi’s contract.

There are some expensive players already at the club who will also provide competition for places, though each of them comes with some uncertainty. Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho cost the club over €400 million in transfer fees between them, but their short-term futures are all complicated for various reasons. Sources have told ESPN that transferring Griezmann would solve a large part of the club’s salary problems, but the France forward has nowhere to go yet. He would prefer a return to Atletico Madrid, but negotiations over a swap deal involving Saul Niguez have stalled. Therefore, a third season in Catalonia is likely.

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Dembele is out injured until November and out of contract next summer. If he refused to renew, Barca’s plan was to sell him this year. With him now out of action, there are no bidders. The Catalan club may yet end up renewing his deal to avoid losing him for free in 2022.

As for Coutinho, who could also play in midfield, the club’s record signing returned to full training this week and could yet stay for another season. ESPN have previously reported that Barca will only let him leave on loan if a club is willing to cover 100 percent of his wage, as it’s unlikely any club would be prepared to pay a fee for him. Koeman isn’t against him hanging around, sources have said.

Martin Braithwaite‘s future could be linked to what happens with Griezmann and Coutinho. Barca are open to offers for the Danish striker, but with a contract until 2024, he will only leave if he believes the move is right for him. Sources have told ESPN that Koeman and his assistant Henrik Larsson have told him they’re happy to keep him as a squad player if it comes to it.

The depth doesn’t end there. Ansu Fati started last season in fine form and was the club’s top scorer prior to getting injured in November. The 18-year-old hasn’t yet returned to full training, and it’s still unknown when he will. Barca hope the talented teenager, one of the players tipped to step up in the looming post-Messi years, will be able to make his mark this season.

Elsewhere, De la Fuente (Marseille, on a permanent deal), Francisco Trincao (loan to Wolves) and Alex Collado (loan) have all left the club, with young Austrian international Yusuf Demir arriving on loan with an option to buy from Rapid Vienna. Demir was signed with the B-team in mind but has started all three first-team friendlies this summer, scoring against Stuttgart, and will be on the fringes of Koeman’s squad.

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