Joan Laporta promised a squad renovation this summer at Barcelona, and even with the club as cash-strapped as it is, the club president may be on the verge of delivering. Whether it will be good enough for Barcelona to accomplish its objectives, however, and what it means for the club's long-term outlook remain to be seen.
On Monday, Barcelona announced the signing of Man City legend and veteran Argentina forward Sergio Agüero to kick off what's expected to be a slew of signings on free transfers. Man City center back Eric García, Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and Lyon forward Memphis Depay are all also reportedly being lined up on free transfers, with all set to be out of contract this summer. Not having to pay enormous transfer fees is one way to improve a squad without going too much further in the red, but the wages those players will all command and other fees involved in the process make them far from costless moves.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Agüero, who will sign through June 2023 after coming up short of winning the Champions League with Manchester City, is the surest sign yet that Lionel Messi, Agüero's longtime friend, isn't going anywhere. Laporta said last week that he was "moderately optimistic" about Messi staying on, despite the all-time great's contract expiring at the end of June.
Last summer's saga, in which Messi declared his intention to leave the club amid a rift with then-president Josep Bartomeu, seems to have subsided. Barcelona won the Copa del Rey title and contended in La Liga before settling for a third-place finish. It's clear that plenty needs to be done before Barcelona is in position to contend for Champions League titles again, though, and it's fair to ask whether the signing of a forward who turns 33 this week and is coming off his worst and most injury-riddled season as a professional is part of the answer.
Agüero played in just 20 matches, made just eight starts and scored just six goals for Man City across all competitions this past season. If appeasing Messi with the presence of an aging forward he knows and is close with was part of the solution, then Barcelona would've been better off just sticking it out with Luis Suárez, who, at 34, went on to be the difference-maker in Atlético Madrid's its first La Liga title in seven years. And at least Suárez is someone with whom Messi has a history of on-field success as opposed to Agüero, with whom he has endured checkered results on the international level.
Of course, the arrival of Agüero and other pending attacking reinforcements means Barcelona will have to find some buyers for the plethora of high-priced attacking talent it already has. Philippe Coutinho seems to be a sure bet to be offloaded (at a significant loss after what Barça paid for him as part of its reaction to losing Neymar), provided Barcelona can find a proper suitor, while there must be questions regarding Antoine Griezmann's future as well. The Frenchman did find his way deeper into his second season with the club, but if Barcelona needs to raise funds to offset debt of over $1 billion, then both he and countryman Ousmane Dembélé are the best bets to attract bigger bids.
Much will depend on the injury status of Ansu Fati, the 18-year-old wonderkid who has undergone four knee surgeries in the last six months following an injury in November that prematurely ended his breakout season. If he can return to full fitness and stay healthy, then his and Pedri's continued development could give Barcelona two teenage attacking stars to build around for years to come.
But the needs-improvement areas go beyond the attack, which, for all of its deficiencies, was still La Liga's best by a wide margin (Barcelona led the league with 85 goals scored; Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid were closest at 67 apiece). Barcelona's imbalance, lack of cohesiveness and aging stars in key positions make for a set of problems that has complex solutions—solutions made more difficult by the club's perilous financial standing.
And while free transfers always look like low-risk propositions on paper, they don't always pan out. For every Robert Lewandowski success story, there's a Marouane Chamakh flop. But such is the position in which Barcelona finds itself: needing to placate Messi in an effort to ensure he stays while improving a squad on a tight budget. And that's to say nothing of the manager situation, which still appears to be unsettled after an awkward week of public statements from Laporta and Ronald Koeman that suggests that even if the Dutchman returns to complete the final year of his contract, it won't be with unequivocal support.
“It’s the end of a cycle. We are entering a process of renovation,” Laporta said recently, putting a bow on what's been a tumultuous couple of years for the club.
“We won the Copa del Rey title, and we are proud of that, but we were eliminated very early in the Champions League and we lost the league in an incomprehensible manner. So it’s time to analyze the results, our game, and also our attitude, mentality and ambition.
“We’ve been working for some time to find the elements that we’ll need to build a very competitive team and win the relevant titles.”
Agüero, evidently, is part of that. What follows will determine Barcelona's trajectory at a time when its unquestioned place among the world's elite clubs is under significant threat.
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