Three years ago, Pep Guardiola had just been appointed as FC Barcelona’s first team manager, after a disastrous 2007/2008 season, which cost Frank Rijkaard his job. Back then, Guardiola didn’t promise titles but he told the fans to fasten their seat-belts because it’s going to be a wild ride. But not even the most optimistic Culé could have imagined just how wild it’s going to be.

Under Guardiola, FC Barcelona has won 10 trophies (out of 13) in three seasons, including two continental doubles. The club has established itself as the dominant force in football and the current crop is considered one of the best (if not the best) club sides of all-time. The club’s mercurial superstar Lionel Messi is widely regarded as this generation’s greatest player and one of the finest talents ever to kick a ball.

But the former midfielder is not one to rest on his laurels; even after the 2008/2009 sextuple-winning season, he looked to improve on his squad, and he did the same after the 99-point 2009/2010 league campaign. Barcelona has been evolving every year under Guardiola, becoming an even better and more solid unit, and controlling possession even more with each passing year (65% average in 2009, 74% last season).

Despite having won the continental double last season, Pep Guardiola saw some areas where the team could improve even more, thus becoming an even stronger unit, a scary thought for anyone trying to take the Champions League title off the Catalans.

An advantage FC Barcelona has over the other top clubs in Europe in the market is that they don’t really need to sign anyone. Barcelona could go into the season with the same squad they had last season and still be firm favorites to defend their titles. Barcelona’s summer signings aren’t born out of absolute necessity, but out of a desire to improve what’s already almost perfect (if there’s such a thing as perfection in football).

The Signing Of Alexis Sanchez

So far, Alexis Sanchez is the only confirmed signing by the club this summer. The transfer fee was 26 million Euros (plus 11.5 on variables depending on performance/titles), which seem to be a reasonable fee for the uber-talented 22-year-old former Udinese star.

Last season, Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez were the most prolific attacking trio in Europe, but with Bojan and Jeffren either injured or off form for most of the season, they had to play pretty much every match, with the latter two being visibly tired towards the end of the season and experiencing unusual scoring droughts (which were fully compensated by Lionel Messi’s unbelievable performances). It was obvious that FC Barcelona could use some more attacking depth. With the youngsters Bojan and Jeffren sold to Roma and Sporting (both with buy back clauses) to show their worth, Pep Guardiola decided to sign a new attacker, and Alexis Sanchez is reported to have been his first choice.




Barcelona's new number 9



While it’s highly unlikely that the Chilean forward manages to displace any member of Barcelona’s MVP (Messi, Villa and Pedro) attacking trio, he’ll certainly get a lot of chances to prove his worth. Barcelona can play up to 65 matches this season, meaning that every squad player will be necessary. Messi, Villa and Pedro can’t play every single match and the fact that Sanchez is versatile enough to play in every attacking position makes him a very valuable addition to the squad. The increased competition for places is also sure to make the squad stronger and avoid complacency.

With Messi, Villa, Pedro and Sanchez (and even Iniesta and Afellay, who can fill in if necessary), Pep Guardiola will be able to rotate his forwards and keep everyone fresh for the last and decisive stretch of the season. Besides, Sanchez’s pace and extraordinary wing play offer something different to the club (Pedro and Villa aren’t exactly wingers but inside forwards) and his fabulous dribbling skills might be very useful to unlock the parked buses (and also airplanes) Barcelona will inevitably have to face. With Sanchez and Messi on the pitch, the opponents will have two world class dribblers (three with Andrés Iniesta) to worry about.

At least on paper, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez gives Barcelona more attacking options and should make Barcelona’s attacking trio even more fearsome and lethal.

The Cesc Fabregas-Saga

Much has been written over the past few years about the seemingly never-ending saga of Cesc Fabregas’s transfer to his boyhood club, FC Barcelona. TheHardTackle has already tackled this issue several times, so there’s no point revisiting the saga. The important thing here is to analyze the implications of Cesc’s possible arrival.

FC Barcelona’s midfield is hands down the best in the world and definitely the key to Barcelona’s domination. Ever since Pep Guardiola took over, Barcelona have had more possession than their opponents in every single match, a truly remarkable stat. Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta are all the best at what they do and they have unparalleled chemistry. There’s no way any player in the world can break this hugely successful midfield trio. As if this were not enough, Barcelona still have top quality replacements in Javier Mascherano, Seydou Keita, Ibrahim Afellay and even Thiago Alcantara, whose performances have been undoubtedly the greatest thing about Barcelona’s pre-season. The 20-year-old youngster has been showing that he has what it takes to lead Barcelona’s midfield one day and that he’s ready to have a bigger role next season.




Will he or won't he?



It seems quite clear that Barcelona don’t need any midfield reinforcements, but given his history an exception can be made for Cesc. Signing the Arsenal captain for less than 40 million Euros might just be too good an opportunity to pass on. While he would definitely not be a regular starter, he’d bring even more quality to Barcelona’s midfield. If he comes, Barcelona will have a reserve midfield trio of Mascherano, Cesc and Thiago (with Keita and Afellay as extra back-up). If this is not a dream midfield squad, we don’t know what is. Pep Guardiola would be able to rotate his midfielders without losing much quality. The fact that Fabregas is a La Masia youth product and that he grew up playing “Barcelona football” with Lionel Messi and Gerard Piqué in the youth teams means that he won’t even need time to adapt and he’ll certainly hit the ground running if he joins the European champions.

Even if Cesc doesn’t come, Barcelona’s midfield depth is extraordinary, but if he comes it will be even deeper. Cesc is clearly a luxury-buy from Barcelona’s perspective (a great luxury though).

It’s scary (for opponents) to realize just how young some of Barcelona’s stars are; at 29, Valdés is very young for a goalkeeper, Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregas (if he comes) are 24, Sergio Busquets is 23, Thiago Alcantara is 20, even Andrés Iniesta is only 27. If you add the best talent factory in the world, La Masia, Barcelona has everything to remain at the top for a long time, without even needing to make many signings.

Other Possible Signings

Reports suggest that Pep Guardiola’s only targets were a forward (Sanchez) and Cesc Fabregas, but some supporters (and maybe Pep, as we can’t possibly know to what extent the reports are true) feel that a defensive signing would also be welcome. Barcelona ended last season with Javier Mascherano playing as a center-back and, despite the Argentine’s great performance, such an adaptation doesn’t look like a long term solution. Right now, Barcelona only have one fit seasoned center back: Gerard Piqué. Assuming that Carles Puyol will be back to full fitness soon, the only cover will be the young and still inexperienced Andreu Fontás. It’s true that Eric Abidal and Javier Mascherano can fill in if necessary, but maybe it’d be advisable to sign another quality defender. If there’s one area where Barcelona lacks depth, it is central defense. But Pep Guardiola seems to think Fontás is ready, and as the last few seasons have shown, Pep is right most of the time.




How fit is the caveman?



Barcelona seems to be ready for next season, a season where they’ll try to defend their La Liga and Champions League titles (thus being the first team to retain the Champions League in its current format). The vintage XI should remain the same (Victor Valdés; Eric Abidal, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Daniel Alves; Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta; Pedro Rodriguez, David Villa and Lionel Messi), after all it is the finest XI in football right now. But the signings of Alexis Sanchez and maybe Cesc Fabregas, as well as the emergence of Thiago Alcantara, will provide stronger squad than last season. Even if Barcelona’s key players get injured, the team should remain very competitive; for instance, if Lionel Messi is sidelined, Pep Guardiola can field an attacking trio of Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and David Villa, which looks excellent on paper. With this squad, FC Barcelona can only be favorites to win everything again.

Pep Guardiola and FC Barcelona look set to continue the “wild ride” that Pep promised (and has already delivered in full) the fans in the summer of 2008, further cementing the status of the current FC Barcelona crop as one of the greatest club sides of all-time. So, Cules, fasten your seat-belts one more time!

~ Manuel Traquete.

Follow Manuel Traquete on Twitter @Manueltraquete