The new La Liga seasons starts this weekend and Barcelona play their first match this evening. So time for a bit of reflection on the summer’s transfer activity. It is not quite all change at the club, but this time around they have gone for more of a revolution than evolution. Luis Enrique, the new head coach, does have extensive Barcelona connections as a player and as B team coach. However he has been brought in to oversee some radical changes. Not so much in the way the team plays, which is expected to only show slight changes from previous years, but more in terms of discipline and fitness.
As regards the squad this had changed significantly, with a high turnover of comings and goings. Starting with the goalkeeper, both Valdés and his deputy José Manuel Pinto, have left the club. Two new keepers have been signed, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, while Jordi Masip has been promoted from the B team. Barça now have three very good goalkeepers, but we will have to wait to see if any of the three can reach the consistently high standard set by Valdés.
Finally we get to see some new faces in the centre of the defence. Two experienced and tall centre backs have been signed – Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. The team now has four recognised centre backs, the two newcomers plus Piqué and Bartra. This may turn out to be five as Javier Mascherano has played in defence in most of the pre-season matches. Mathieu and Vermaelen will add much needed experience and solidity to the defence. But it has to be doubted whether either can reach the levels of commitment and leadership of the sadly departed Carles Puyol.
In midfield at first sight it looks like a straight swap of Ivan Rakitic for Cesc Fàbregas. But as Cesc was more often used in attack it looks like Rakitic has come to replace Xavi in the first team. At one stage it looked like Xavi was going to leave the club during the summer, but he has decided to stay and fight for a place in the first team. Presumably Rakitic has been bought to add a bit of physical presence to the midfield as well as his undoubted skill. Still it will be a very different Barça without Xavi controlling the midfield. Sergi Roberto is the fourth midfielder, but he as yet has shown little sign that he can become a first choice player. Sergi Busquets remains the first choice for the defensive midfield organiser. Everyone assumed that Alexandre Song would leave the club and that Mascherano would offer competition to Busquets in this role, but as yet this has not happened.
Quite a few changes in attack for this season. Alexis has gone to Arsenal, while Luis Suarez has come in. If he keeps his cool, Suarez with his prolific scoring record should provide Barça with a potent attacking trio, alongside Messi and Neymar. However Suarez is not available for another two months, which should provide another opportunity for Pedro to shine. Luis Enrique welcomed back two loan players, Deulofeu and Rafinha. Somewhat surprisingly Deulofeu has already been loaned out again, this time to Sevilla. Rafinha, the younger brother of Thiago Alcántara looks likely to become the fifth option for the attack. The biggest surprise of the pre-season has probably been the youngster Munir, who ended up the leading goal scorer. He is also likely get an opportunity or two to demonstrate his talents.
All in all, the squad has gained in experience and solidity compared to last season. Once Suarez is available the attack looks very exciting. However both Neymar and Messi missed lots of matches last season due to injury. If either or both succumb again, the cover is not very deep. The midfield should be at least as good as recent years, with Rakitic to provide fresh legs and Xavi still around to provide that extra touch of class. The defence including the goalkeeper is where most uncertainty lies. We do not as yet know who will be first choice either as keeper or as the two centre backs. This is the area of the team that most needs continuity of selection to build up the mutual understanding that is crucial to any title winning team.
Once again we should see lots of goals from this team, but it may take more than one season to build a team that can win titles. Much will depend on whether the midfield and defence can settle into a pattern and how quickly this can be achieved. Whatever happens it will not be easy to win anything either in Spain or in Europe. Both Real and Atlético remain formidable teams, while the challenges from England and Germany are getting even stronger. Let the games begin!