The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has sanctioned FC Barcelona for breaking international transfer and registrations rules for players under the age of 18. While Barcelona will likely appeal the decision, the potential transfer ban could significantly hinder Barcelona’s ability to combat the loss of key players, the aging of key players ,and a squad imbalance between defense and attack.
The Problem at Goalkeeper
Going into this upcoming summer window, it appears that Victor Valdes will leave the club on a free transfer. That is not sensitive to a potential transfer embargo. Before the ban, it seemed that Barcelona had made arrangements for Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen to replace Valdes. The German will be 22 years old at the end of the month, so this signing was one for the present and the future. Now, the potential ban could scupper his move to Barcelona (the same could be true for Alen Halilovic’s transfer to Barcelona). If that is the case, Barcelona could make some kind of agreement with a club (probably a Spanish one) to take on the young German for a season allowing him to get a year of experience in La Liga before going to Barcelona in the summer of 2015. If ter Stegen stands by his words, saying that he will leaving Monchengladbach after this season, then this could be how Barcelona keep hold their desired future keeper. If they cannot bring in ter Stegen or arrange for another club to take him on for a season, then Barcelona may have to renew their search for a goalkeeper that will fit their system for years to come.
For the 2014-2015 season, Barcelona will have Jose Manuel Pinto (38) and Oier Olazabal (24) as their only two goalkeepers on the first team. Any depth at the goalkeeping position would have to come from the youth set-up. Jose Manuel Pinto represents quite a drop in quality from Valdes. Olazabal has started in one match for Barcelona in La Liga, a 2-1 loss to Mallorca in 2009, a match after Barcelona had officially won La Liga. Barcelona appear highly incentivized to make Valdes a new offer, in an effort to keep him at the club next season. However, even if they could cajole Valdes into another season at the Camp Nou, the Spain international will not play for seven months due to a torn ACL. That puts his return to action around the beginning of November. Having to start Pinto or Olazabal for the first 2 ½ months of the season could potentially cause Barcelona to drop enough points to give Real Madrid (and Atletico Madrid if they can keep this team together and replace Diego Costa) a lead too large to overcome.
Needless to say, Barcelona will hope that Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s transfer goes through, if they want to contend for La Liga, even if they fail in their appeal of the ban.
The Problems in the Back Line
Carles Puyol also appears to be another long-serving Barcelona who will not be with the club in the 2014-2015 season. Unlike the goalkeeping situation, Barcelona do not appear to have any deals to bring in a center back as of now. Without him, Barcelona only have two natural center backs in Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra. While Javier Mascherano and Alex Song could fill-in at center back every now and then, a transfer ban would be catastrophic for Barcelona at center back.
This season has revealed the flaws in Barcelona’s roster construction, as they have supplemented their attacking and midfield options, while allowing their back line, particularly their depth and quality at center back, to atrophy. Some of their defensive showings have been downright comical and may have pushed Barcelona to sign a center back in the summer. Without the ability to sign a center back, Barcelona will have to hope neither Bartra, Pique, nor Mascherano sustain an injury of any significant length. With the number of fixtures and the number of competitions in which Barcelona compete, a major injury to any of those three could create a crisis at the back for Barcelona.
The other issue at the back comes in the form of Dani Alves. Dani Alves is out of contract at the end of the season, meaning that he can leave Barcelona regardless of a potential transfer embargo. If he did leave, then Barcelona would be left with Martin Montoya and Adriano as their only options, with Adriano serving as the second-choice left back as well. Much like the issue at center back, losing a player with the ability to start could leave Barcelona woefully short in numbers. Unless Barcelona have extreme confidence in the left-backs or right-backs in their youth set-up to transition to the first team next season, the transfer embargo could compel them to offer Dani Alves a deal to stay. If that is the case, they will have to hope that Alves is willing to give them a discount because a player like him, available on a free, could command a tremendous wage from the likes of Manchester City, who may not care that the Brazilian will be 31 at the end of this season.
The Question of Xavi’s Decline
While it is unclear whether this is Xavi’s last season for Barcelona, what is clear is that Xavi is on the decline. He has been one of the most crucial players in Barcelona’s success over the past six seasons. If he goes, Barcelona must cope with his loss. If he stays, they need to find ways to reduce his workload over the course of the season, to keep him fit for the most important games. In the case of a transfer embargo, Barcelona loss of Thiago Alcantara will represent a more profound blow to Barcelona than before. As a player who could operate in both Xavi’s role and Andres Iniesta’s role, with an uninterrupted education as a Barcelona player, Alcantara represented the solution to the issue of Xavi’s, and later, Iniesta’s period of decline. Instead, Barcelona may have to increase their trust in Sergi Roberto (22), Sergi Samper (19), and/or Jonathan Dos Santos (23) in that role.
How Long Can They Ride Their Horses?
With the potential weaknesses (and crises) at goalkeeper and the back line, along with the decline of Xavi, a transfer embargo could indirectly increase the temptation to overplay key players like Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Despite the potential issues caused by the imposition of a transfer embargo, Barcelona still have the greatest player in the world and one of the greatest players in the world. However, Andres Iniesta will be 30 years old to start next season and Lionel Messi has struggled with injuries the past two seasons. Playing those two players in every La Liga match, every Champions League match, along with Copa Del Rey matches could have both players appear in over 50 matches. Obviously, this increases the risk of injury this season for those players. Overworking these players, especially if they are playing through injuries to keep Barcelona in contention in the UCL and La Liga, could shorten their careers and/or reduce their long-term effectiveness. So while this transfer embargo does pose some significant short term problems, the potential cure to short term ills could have large long-term ramifications.
Clubs That Benefit From the Ban
The most obvious benefactors of a transfer embargo on Barcelona would be Barcelona’s direct rivals for the Spanish title. Certainly, Real Madrid would benefit. Atletico Madrid might benefit as well, if they can keep this side together and find a way to a solid replacement for Diego Costa, who looks set to leave this summer. These sides also benefit when it comes to the market for Spanish talent. In removing one of the two most attractive destinations for Spanish talent, it could significantly improve both teams ability to purchase first team players. This could be especially important for Atletico Madrid, as Diego Simeone’s tenacious style may require fresher legs and a deeper squad next season.
In addition to the elite of La Liga, the elite of Europe, who are looking to buy established players also benefit from this transfer embargo. One example could be Ilkay Gundogan. Here is a player, if healthy, who could play the Xavi role for Barcelona. Unless he signs a new deal with Borussia Dortmund, he will most likely leave Dortmund for greener pastures If Barcelona is unable to sign Gundogan due to the ban, then that increases the chances of a club like Manchester United, Arsenal, or Real Madrid (if Gundogan was willing to fight for a place with Luka Modric) sign the German. At 23 years old, the team that signs Gundogan gets an immense player in his pre-peak years going through his peak, assuming his back injury is not a long term issue. Ultimately, this transfer ban could have long term consequences to the landscape of European football, due to the effecton on the dispersal of the available world-class talent in these next two windows.
Clubs Hurt By the Ban
While Barcelona’s removal from the transfer market removes a major demanded of elite talent from the market, lowering the price for other buyers, the transfer embargo does hurt selling clubs. In particular, it could hurt Chelsea’s ability to raise funds to make multiple transfers to improve their best XI. Barcelona may have had serious interest in David Luiz, a player who could have commanded a 30 million pound transfer fee for Chelsea. If Chelsea wish to comply with FFP, then their ability to raise funds in the transfer market is a limiting factor on how much they can spend. While this probably does impact their ability to sign one player (like Diego Costa) as they could sell the likes of Petr Cech, Romelu Lukaku, Marco van Ginkel, etc. selling David Luiz would represent the only opportunity for Chelsea to cash in on a player who has greater value to Chelsea as a saleable asset (due to his value to Barcelona) than as a player to a degree similar to the Juan Mata sale.
The other clubs that suffer are the demanders of Barcelona’s talent. A player like Alexis Sanchez, who may have been available in the summer, would no longer be available. For a club like Arsenal, who would benefit from signing the Chilean, Barcelona’s inability to engage in transfer activity, lowers the supply of options available to them to solve a particular issue with respect to squad construction. This also impacts a club like Liverpool who may be fond of Barcelona’s younger talent, particularly Martin Montoya. Finally, this embargo also hurts teams looking to loan Barcelona players, who Barcelona could not afford to loan out if they could not make transfer deals. The most obvious example of this would be Everton. If Roberto Martinez hoped to have Gerard Deulofeu back at Goodison Park next season, his hopes would take a severe hit if Barcelona needed the young Spanish winger on their squad.
The bombshell that FIFA dropped on Barcelona has serious consequences for European football, in addition to impacting Barcelona. In some ways, it could not have come at a worse time for Barcelona as they require purchases at goalkeeper, center back and possibly right-back (or a left back if they want to have Montoya starting and Adriano behind him on the depth chart). They need to figure out how to replace or reduce the burden on Xavi. They need to remain competitive in the Champions League and La Liga, and potentially run the risk of overplaying their two best players. Their ban impacts other clubs, those looking to purchase elite talent, those looking to purchase or loan Barcelona talent, and those looking to sell to Barcelona. So both the result of Barcelona’s inevitable appeal of the ban and the speed of the appeal process will be two things many clubs throughout Europe keep an eye on.
Correction: Dani Alves’ contract expires at the end of 2015, not the end of this season. Therefore, Barcelona have less of a need to sign Alves to a new, long-term deal, to avoid a crisis at full back at the start of next season.