An End to the Spend: Are Barcelona’s Days as a European Heavyweight Over?

23.05.2024 12:54:34 Craig Simpkin
Flag waving Barcelona Fans.

It’s a long way down from the top of the mountain.
 

If you’d told FC Barcelona fans before the 2023/24 season that they’d end it closer to Girona, points wise, than Real Madrid, they’d have laughed you out of Catalonia.
 

But that is exactly where the former kings of Spanish football find themselves. Light years behind the LaLiga champions, and a handful of points clear of the plucky upstarts in second place.
 

It extends Barca’s rather troubling record in LaLiga. They’ve only won the title once in the past five seasons, and it’s also five years since they went beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

 
Fingers are being pointed in all sorts of directions. Head coach Xavi has been one of the most common scapegoats for Barca’s travails, and he may be relieved of his duties by the start of next term.

 
The descent of the Blaugrana offers a number of cautionary tales, but the most pressing of them is that when you habitually overspend in the transfer market, putting yourself in the crosshairs of FFP regulators, you will eventually need to sell off assets….which in turn leads to the kind of talent drain that ensures you remain uncompetitive for the foreseeable future.

 
Manchester City, take note.

 

Net Gains


At the culmination of the two transfer windows in 2023/24, Barcelona had a positive net spent of some £55 million.

 
It’s an extraordinary turn of events, you might think, for a club that has prided itself on splashing the cash with gusto over the years. But Barcelona also had positive net spends in 2020/21 and 2021/22 as well. It’s almost as if the club’s account handlers knew the storm clouds were hovering….

When a club records consecutive net spends in the market, it can generally mean one of two things:

  • They are doing great business. Buy low, sell high.
  • They are losing talent year on year.

 

When you consider Barcelona’s lack of silverware in recent years, you’d have to argue that it’s the latter, rather than the former, in their case.
 

The dominoes continued to fall in the summer of 2023, with Ousmane Dembele, Antoine Griezmann and Franck Kessie sold. In Dembele’s case, Barca lost a cool £72 million when selling him on to PSG.
 

Stalwarts like Jordi Alba, Sergi Busquets and Samuel Umtiti were also moved on, while Ansu Fati, once heralded as the most exciting young talent in football before suffering a serious injury, found himself loaned out to Brighton.

 
In their place have come Vitor Roque, the £34 million striker that’s played just 300 minutes for the Catalan club so far, stodgy midfield campaigner Oriel Romeo plus 32-year-old veterans Ilkay Gundogan and Iniko Martinez on free transfers.

 
It’s not a transfer policy that screams long-term success, and in fact it could be accused of desperate short-termism instead.

 
There’s an argument to say that the now 33-year-old Gundogan has been Barcelona’s best player this term, while 35-year-old Robert Lewandowski is the only Barca player to get into double-figures for goals scored.

 
The Catalan giants have long been famed for bringing through the next generation of talent via their La Masia academy. But a softly, softly approach is normally the route to success. Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi, aged 16 and 17 respectively, have been forced to play a combined 3,500 minutes of LaLiga football between them this term.
 

Anyone that saw Gavi rolling around in agony on the pitch when tearing his ACL in November, or Fati the same before him, will know first-hand the dangers of pressing still-growing teenage bodies too heavily into elite level football.

 
But needs must for Barcelona: right now, they are desperate to unearth the stars of tomorrow to play alongside the veterans of today.


Financial Meltdown


So what has caused Barcelona to do a complete about-turn on their normal transfer policy of spending without limitation?

 
The answers lie in their profit and loss account, which is enough to make even the most enthusiastic of Microsoft Excel enthusiasts feel weak at the knees.

 
Depending on who you listen to, Barca’s debt has been estimated to be in the billions. Costs continue to outstrip revenue, and the talent drain of continually having to sell players or let them leave at the end of their contracts, while replacing them with individuals of lesser ability, eventually becomes a major problem.

 
You may recall back in 2022/23 that Barcelona opened up their purse strings, signing Lewandowski, Jules Kounde and Raphinha for a combined £125 million. That came about because they pulled a series of financial levers, selling stakes in their in-house production agency and even a percentage of their TV rights revenue to bankroll the spending.

 
But those levers only get pulled in times of desperation….and Barcelona’s finance department are learning the hard way that once you take such drastic measures, the options available to you further down the line are thin on the ground.

 
The upshot? Spending actual fees on transfers this summer is off the menu. Scouting around for free agents and loan signings is the only way that Barcelona can bolster their squad, aside from blooding more youngsters.

 
LaLiga’s own financial rules are so stringent and Barcelona’s flaunting of them in previous years so flagrant, it may be the case that the club is prevented from handing contract extensions to their senior players. For context, Barca are thought to be around £170 million over their spending cap, and have to get that down to steady the ship.

 
Sergi Roberto and Marcos Alonso may have to leave then, whether they want to or not, while the chances of turning the loan moves of Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix permanent are pretty much zero without a considerable change in the club’s financial circumstances.

 
As Barcelona scrimp and save, elsewhere in Spain the Galacticos of Real Madrid celebrate another LaLiga title. After Euro 2024, Kylian Mbappe will join and make them even stronger yet.

 
The gulf between Barca and Real is growing. Within five years, it could be a chasm that is never closed again.

 

 

 

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