The Next Maestro

Heading south-west; will Verratti be first Italian at Camp Nou since 2011?

The situation is unusual. We’re almost a month inside another summer transfer window and Barcelona have not made a single, spectacular signing yet. This would have been a standard situation for a club that has just won every single possible trophy and had a long-term, managerial stability – like Barça AD 2015. For Barça AD 2017, with a new commander-in-chief and a season to forget behind it’s back – it is an oddity.

So far, the list of business performed by Catalans could hardly impress even the fans of sides like Sevilla or Atlético Madrid, who’ve been notoriously seeing FCB’s back in the league table. After a good loan spell in Milan, the club has re-signed it’s prodigal son, Gerard Deulofeu in a decision that could hardly pass as justified, since the man in question never look anywhere near to the Camp Nou’s standards. £26 million paid for Benfica’s right-back Nélson Semedo looked much better – but ultimately, it was merely an admission of 2015 Right-Back Solution failure, when Sevilla’s Aleix Vidal couldn’t cement himself as a first-team starter.

Meanwhile, none of the news from the traditional rumour mill has come any close to being true. The race to sign Dani Ceballos from Real Betis was pretty much over after the player’s anti-Catalan tweets have been discovered. Dortmund have firmly rejected all attempts to enter even the brief talks with Ousmane Dembélé, postponing the young winger’s transfer saga by at least another year. The story of Ernesto Valverde’s interest in Philippe Coutinho never had any legs in the first place; the speculations have been there for at least six weeks and… that’s about it. Today, it’s safe to say that this move won’t happen either.

Therefore, the only target still realistically remaining on Barça’s radar is PSG’s Marco Verratti. In February, the Italian has received a lot of warm words from pundits across the world, after he led his team to a 4-0 victory over the Catalan giant. “Verratti would be the ideal signing for Barcelona in my opinion. I think he is a bit like me” – said Xavi himself to Le Parisien, shortly after that memorable Champions League night in Paris. He was right: that day, his 5′ 4” carbon copy from Pescara assisted Julian Draxler’s 2-0 goal, won four tackles and passed with 92% accuracy – a feat that would repeat consistently over the last three seasons:

Xavi did have a point beyond just one UCL game. Tactically speaking, the midfield maestro from Parc des Princes could offer a whole new dimension to Barcelona. With his zest for winning the ball back and dedication to defensive side of the game, he could potentially occupy the starting spot alongside Sergio Busquets and adapt to a 4-2-3-1 evolution Valverde has been rumoured to implement at Camp Nou. And even if everything stays as it is: his current footballing ability simply has to be rated higher than both the mediocre contributions of André Gomes or the diminishing returns from veteran Andrés Iniesta.

That view is further supported by the results. If 2016/17 campaign taught us anything is that FCB’s three-man midfield too often finds itself with all the possession and none of the end product. In each of seven defeats last season (Alaves at home; Celta, Man City, Athletic Club, PSG, Deportivo, Malaga and Juventus away), the team conceded first; at the same time, the midfielders in maroon and blue would only provide two assists and no goals in those seven encounters. Out of all Blaugrana-beaters, only Paris were able to climb above the 40% possession mark; the remaining fifteen conceded goals were all scored on the counterattack.

Fans across the world had only one player to blame. Signed from Valencia for £30 million in a rather surprising move, André Gomes has given the team far less than what would’ve been expected from already matured, 23-years old midfielder. The Portuguese lad needed 20 games in all competitions to finally produce his first FCB assist; his first goal materialized as late as in the second half of the March. He never even came close to the uplift Blaugrana’s midfield has received in 2014, when Ivan Rakitić signed from Sevilla. Plus: compared to Verratti, Gomes’ career record of just five La Liga assists in three seasons looks truly laughable:

Though the sporting reasons are all there, sealing the move for Verratti remains highly in doubt. Barcelona have already gone behind PSG’s back and reportedly confirmed that the player himself would be interested in moving to Spain – but then, his current employers countered, by forcing the Italian to issue a public apology and a statement of commitment to the Paris cause. I a short video, Verratti, clearly tense and somewhat upset, pledged his loyalty to the badge with Eiffel Tower on it, seemingly ending all rumours. The catch? In the fast-paced world of football transfer markets, that was nearly two weeks ago…

Between that day and now, we’ve all witnessed: rumours about FCB’s limited war chest that might prevent them from making any more signings; a brief news that the Catalans are investigating the possibility of hiring Dele Alli; ludicrous speculations about Neymar’s obscene, £190-million transfer to Paris in which Verratti could’ve been a trade-off asset; and, finally, the most recent news: that the Pescara-born midfielder has sacked his agent Donato Di Campli and replaced him with a big-move specialist and spotlight stealer, Mino Raiola. As the final bit of info would indicate – there is still a transfer on the cards, after all.

The man who makes things happen: Mino Raiola.

One might assume that it’s PSG, whose time is to play the cards now. They can continue to imprison their playmaker by demanding ridiculous prices and forcing more statements out of him. They can also drag out the issue until Barcelona’s potential competitor enters the ring; last time I checked, both Liverpool and Manchester United had funds and job openings to finance such transfer. Or they could sell now by agreeing a deal that would allow Barcelona to delay the full payment, so that they could meet their budget constrains.

Either way: Blaugrana’s future is at stake. After two, botched, first-leg Champions League ties, after voluntarily shipping La Liga title back to Madrid, after watching the arch-rivals win first back-to-back Champions League trophies ever – something needs to change. Just three years ago, nobody in the world had any doubts about Barcelona’s superiority over Florentino Pérez’s franchise; today, Los Blancos can afford to not have players like James Rodríguez or Alvaro Morata in their plans while Camp Nou welcomes lads like Gomes, Alcácer or Deulofeu. If that’s not the evidence of a colossal power shift, what is?

…and Verratti has a lot of tools in his box – just imagine this:

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