On June 2nd 2016, Dani Alves, the Barcelona starting right-back for the past eight years, agreed to a contract termination and left the club to Italian Serie A champions Juventus on a free transfer.
Despite his return upon the end of the 2015-2016 season, homegrown right-back Martín Montoya left Barcelona for Valencia on August 1st 2016, following the expiration of his contract.
In the 2016 summer transfer window, the only defenders that arrived were left-back Lucas Digne and centre-back Samuel Umtiti. None of them were right-backs. Even if Umtiti was the only transfer who reached full consolidation in that season, he couldn’t fill that specific hole.
As a result, Luis Enrique decided to try Sergi Roberto in the right-back role, but as the season went on, it was painfully clear that it wasn’t his natural position. Another harsh truth was that he not only couldn’t fully adapt, but that was he was being misused.
In the occasions where the team went fully forward, he thrived. A good example is the Remuntada against PSG on March 8th, Roberto returned to something close to a midfield position, and associated with Neymar, leading to what is so far the most important goal of his life.
Before this, however, the coach decided to give Aleix Vidal a chance, and between January and February, he showed his earlier issues were gone. Unfortunately, a challenge by Theo Hernández led to him sustaining a dislocated ankle, meaning the season was over for him.
The LA Masía question
As the team’s inconsistency went on, reaching a point where the ever-questioned André Gomes was sometimes taking the RB spot (with equally doubtful results), some fans checked Barça B’s captain, right-back Sergi Palencia.
Homegrown and the leader of the team that won Segunda División B, returning to Segunda División after two seasons (the top division the team can aspire to), he became the necessary piece for a portion of the Barcelona fanbase.
His status as a Masía product (joining the club as a ten-year-old) and the lack of attention Luis Enrique gave him (only Aleñá and, in later stances, Marlon Santos, played for the first team last season) despite being available for promotion it highlighted another key Barcelona problem.
The team that had built its pride on homegrown players had seemingly stopped caring about their youth system players and are starting to become another buying club.
A recap and a glimpse
The season eventually ended with Juventus ousting Barcelona from the UEFA Champions League and Real Madrid beating them to the La Liga title. Luis Enrique, however, left after winning the Copa del Rey, preventing a trophyless season but also giving Ernesto Valverde his first serious test in the form of Spanish Super Cup.
But first, there’s the pre-season International Champions Cup. For Barça, the three matches include a Clásico and will be the perfect opportunity to test the new available options.
For the RB spot, there is Aleix Vidal, who has recovered from his earlier injury. There is also new acquisition from Benfica, 23-year-old Nélson Semedo.
When looking at Semedo’s career, it might seem like any other promising youth talent. There is, however, a first setback- in October 2015, following his first stint with Portugal’s national team (the 2-1 win against Serbia in the Euro qualifiers). He underwent surgery and returned in January 2016, but had not yet fully recovered. As a result, he went from starter to reserve player.
The following season, however, he regained his place in the team, proving a key asset in when Benfica won their fourth consecutive Primeira Liga title. He also appeared for all eight matches in the UEFA Champions League, and he won the Breakthrough Player of the Year award by the Liga Portuguesa de Futebol Profissional.
Afterwards, he returned to national team duties, being part of the third best placed team in the competition at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
It would be foolish to say Barça have wasted money on Semedo based on the highlights fans unfamiliar with Primeira Liga have checked. However, Paco Alcácer and André Gomes did display promising signs at Valencia, and are now doubted by fans. So guarding judgement might be wise, as it should be in all cases.
However, if Semedo’s adaptation is successful, he could give Vidal a run for his money. Semedo knows what it’s like to play for a big club and it’ll be interesting to see whether he can replicate the form shown at Benfica at the Camp Nou.
He has also had national team stints, though it is left for the future how much he can handle the new attention Portugal will be getting. They’re not just Cristiano’s team anymore, as they have proven they can win internationally, following their 2016 European Championships triumph in France.
The Expectation Game
The question La Masía purists may have lies, again, in Sergi Palencia. The club has produced a fine right-back. So why are they reluctant to use him?
Here, however, comes another aspect of Barça – they were already a big Spanish club. It had European credentials and they already knew how it felt like to have some of the best players in the world.
But both stages of the Messi era (the Xavi-Iniesta one and the Neymar-Suárez one) have led to an exponential growth. Regardless of how the club is treating its La Masía products, it has become too big to fail. This attitude shows in both board and fans.
One of the reasons Umtiti is seen as the only good arrival for the 2016-2017 season was his seamless adaptation, in less than a year. Calls for Arda Turan’s dismissal came a year into his arrival, despite not having been able to play for six months due to the transfer ban.
Palencia has never played at a high level before, and one mistake might cost him his Barça career, as Marc Bartra knows very well. Camp Nou has grown merciless, and might not care Palencia is only 21. They want a Dani Alves in his prime.
The good news for Valverde is that he’s inherited a team with three natural choices. If anything, the one with more to lose is Vidal.
Semedo, as I said before, has had more national team experience, as well as European experience and he arrives to Barcelona having played in UCL in contrast with Vidal’s Europa League experience with Sevilla.
He’s also younger (23, with Vidal a month shy of 28), meaning he can become symbolic in the position. He can also warrant several years of rotation with Palencia.
The possibility of Palencia not willing to wait or be a rotating piece and leave the club is also present. But again, Semedo has all the chances of winning. Provided, of course, that he adapts well.
Meanwhile, a path has cleared. In the midfield, Sergi Roberto is ready to retake his rightful place. As the Juventus friendly showed, he can do more by associating with the forwards. Meanwhile, his defensive edge is still there, ready for use if required. The “loser” here would be André Gomes, who struggled in his first season at Barca.
There are many questions about Barça. The pre-season has just begun, there is still the Supercup game as the first serious engagement and Neymar is flirting with PSG again. But there are also reasons to be optimistic. The positions are filled. Now, Valverde can focus on dynamics, instead of trying to make do.