Sport

A new era at the Nou Camp

Sid Lowe

As Barcelona manager Luis Enrique tries to build a dream machine. He has to start work without its most important part.

Kit cash: Luis Suárez replica shirts on sale. (Getty)

Shirt off, wires on, thumbs up: it is the photograph that dominates the summer and it is the same every time, at every club and for every player. The new signing lies on a treatment table in front of a board bearing the sponsor’s name, monitors suckered on to his bare chest, and grins. He raises a thumb or, if the photographer is particularly imaginative, two: the crack completes his medical. Like the bombastic presentation, the hospital shot is part of the ritual that every signing performs.

Except one. This year there was a picture missing: the year’s biggest signing was carried out almost clandestinely. “Luis Suárez is entirely our player,” said Barcelona’s sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta. It appeared an odd remark but this was something he felt needed saying, as if reassurances were required, as if he had to reiterate that, yes, this transfer had really happened. After all, until then the new man had been the invisible man, stuck in a kind of surreal limbo.

  • Still banned
    On Thursday the court of arbitration for sport upheld the ban on Suárez after his lawyer had lodged an appeal, but he is allowed to return to training with his team.

Zubizarreta was speaking on the day that Barcelona had planned to present Suárez, at €81-million officially the most expensive signing in their history. Fifa, though, had not allowed them to unveil him. And how appropriate that old cliché feels now: Suárez has remained “veiled” as if lurking under a sheet. We all know he is there but we have to pretend he is not. “We have been advised by our lawyers to be extremely prudent and not say anything,” Zubizarreta said.

That morning, Wednesday July 16, the Uruguayan had completed his medical at Barcelona’s training complex in San Joan Despi but Fifa warned the club that no pictures must be published. No one was to talk about it and, as for him sticking his thumbs up, forget it. The ridiculousness of the ruling was, unlike Suárez’s chest, laid bare.

“It is not a tragedy,” Barcelona’s coach Luis Enrique said. “It is something that we already knew. The ideal situation would be to have all the players available to us from the start of the season but we were already counting on this handicap. The season is very long and there will be lots of games to see all the players. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, you get what you’re given. And this is one of those times.”

Yet Suárez’s absence increases the doubt and uncertainties that hang over Barça as they head into a new season. How do you construct a machine without one of the most important parts, perhaps the most important part? Suárez symbolises the shift in style, a change in the philosophy about which Barcelona made so much: an €81-million signing who breaks the mould.

Competitiveness
“I’m delighted with the signing of Suárez; the more good players, the better,” Enrique said. He pushed for the transfer, convincing Zubizarreta because he saw in the Uruguayan someone who can infuse the team with a competitiveness that has been lacking. It is tempting to see boardroom influence in play too: they needed a major signing and they, not Real Madrid, got Suárez. But the wait to see what the team would look like will be extended; the wait to construct and fine-tune it will too.

It is an important delay for a new model at a club where the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, had already talked about a “profound” change. One director speaks for many when he mentions the need for Barcelona to be “tougher”, more aggressive. Much like their new manager, in fact: a feisty, ultra-competitive player who crossed the clasico divide and publicly, pointedly, proclaimed that he had finally found his place.

Enrique, who competes in iron man competitions and triathlons, played at Barcelona and coached their B team to success, following a pattern that was familiar. He was close to Pep Guardiola but their personalities are different and, on the face of it, many believe that their styles will be too. And yet, it is not so much a case of escaping Guardiola as recovering those vital elements of the Guardiola style that have been lost over the past two years.

“I want a team that is faithful to the Barcelona we have seen [recently], the one that won everything. A team that plays to win at home and away, that scores goals and defends well, that is attractive,” Luis Enrique said. The new manager talked about fidelity to the “identity” of the club but he also spoke of the need to avoid being “predictable”, to find “different ways of making life difficult for our opponents”, and this is certainly a different era at the Camp Nou. They have a new coach, new players, even a new physiotherapist. Nine players have left, eight have already arrived.

So far they have spent more money and received more money than any other team in Europe. Two goalkeepers have arrived, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo. Ivan Rakitic joined. They have even signed a centre-back.

Transfer ban suspended
Jeremy Mathieu, originally a left-back successfully converted to the middle, has joined from Valencia for €20-million. He may yet return to that position, depending on the success of Barcelona’s search for a second centre-back having trailed Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen all summer. In total Barcelona have spent €145-million, dictated partly by the fact that what Barcelona are building now is not just for this season but for next season too: the ban on transfer activity for breaking rules relating to the signing of youth team players has been suspended, not overruled.

Cesc Fabregas departed and so did Alexis Sanchez, fetching almost €80-million between them. Of the three club captains, two have left – Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes – and the third, Xavi Hernandez, is sticking around for now, his move to New York put on hold. Xavi is likely to play a reduced role. He has been the player imposing a style, an idea, on the team. A search for the new Xavi may have led, logically, to the conclusion that there is no such thing. Better to evolve – and in Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi they have players who can play a part in manning that controlling mission – than to employ an unconvincing copy.

The fact that Javier Mascherano did not leave and appears likely to return to his original position in midfield also hints at the shift in style, as does the signing of Rakitic from Sevilla. He was one of the outstanding players in Spain last season but he is not a “Barça-style” midfielder. There is a touch of the Enrique in him, though.

It may be that Messi plays a deeper, more creative role; signing a striker makes more sense that way. For the first time there are hints that he is receptive to a shift and the Argentinian may change from false No 9 to real No 10. He has scored more goals than anyone else in Spain over the past six years but he has provided more assists too. Maybe it is time for the balance to tilt a little further; it is certainly something that Luis Enrique has contemplated. In front of Messi he would have a striker who complements him well. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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