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After summer of ‘crisis,’ Barcelona are back to their glory days

Let’s take a quick trip back to last summer. Barcelona are in crisis.

They’ve just sold the future of the team to PSG, are bringing in an unheralded manager from Athletic Bilbao, buying washed up players from China, and getting dominated by their bitter rivals Real Madrid in the Supercopa.

After getting throttled 2-0 and 3-1 by Real Madrid in the Supercopa, the competition between the previous season’s La Liga and Copa del Rey winners, Barcelona center back Gerard Pique claimed he felt “inferior” to Madrid for the first time in his Barca career.

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Everyone was piling on, authoring stories about the collapse at Barcelona, claiming the club had fallen from previous heights and now found itself in catastrophy. Real Madrid, on the other hand, were supposedly on their way to another La Liga trophy and Champions League title.

Fast forward to midway through the season and Barcelona sit atop La Liga, 11 points ahead of 2nd place Atletico and 19 points above Real Madrid. Barca have yet to lose a game in league play or the Champions League. In fact, they haven’t lost a game since the second leg of the Supercopa against Madrid in August.

Despite selling Neymar, Messi getting older, brutal injuries, and political turmoil, Barcelona haven’t missed a step and are stronger than they have been in years.

So, how have Barcelona dealt with this conflict, both external and inside the club, to get back to their glory days?

A tactical change

During Pep Guardiola’s reign at Barcelona, when the Catalonian club was perhaps the greatest collective ever created, Barcelona relied on Pep’s tiki-taka style, predicated on short, fluid passing moves out of a 4-3-3 formation.

Current manager Ernesto Valverde is much more of a pragmatist than Pep. While he still encourages his team to play aesthetically pleasing soccer, Valverde’s focus is primarily about solidifying his team against opposing attacks and limiting risk.

To that end, Valverde has eschewed Pep’s 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2 depending on your preferred nomenclature.

Valverde overloads the middle of the pitch with midfielders, providing stability in attack and defense, and freeing up Lionel Messi in front of them.

While the formation and tactical shift may cost Barcelona some of the flair of the Pep Guardiola era, you can’t argue with the results thus far.

Valverde’s straight forward approach has been the perfect respite for the post-Neymar era. There is a renewed emphasis on the collective as opposed to just lumping Messi, Suarez, and Neymar up top and waiting for them to produce their magic.

This means that players that had seen their roles minimized in recent years have had somewhat of a renaissance under Valverde. Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, and Paulinho have all benefited massively from working with the Basque manager.

Sid Lowe of The Guardian wrote in November about why Valverde has the ideal profile to guide Barcelona during this period of supposed crisis,

“Calm in a crisis, Barcelona could hardly have hoped for a better man in charge than Ernesto Valverde. Hugely likable, universally popular and abnormally ‘normal’, a music, film and photography fan who likened his return to Athletic [Bilbao] to The Godfather Part II and proved it by taking them to Europe four years in a row – they’re down in 15th now without him – he has a startling ability to block out the noise and cut through the bullshit, to not be dragged down by it all.”

Barcelona’s newfound solidity means that while they may not produce the same aesthetic magic of a bygone era, they can grind out tough victories through their solidity, like yesterday’s come from behind 2-1 victory over Deportivo Alaves.

Messi is still Messi

Yesterday, against Alaves, Messi stepped up to a free kick just outside the box in the 84th minute with the game knotted at 1-1. The outcome already seemed decided before he stepped up to strike the ball, but that doesn’t make the result any less spectacular.

It was Messi’s 20th goal of La Liga season, which puts him far ahead of everyone else in the league. His teammate Luis Suarez is second in the league with 16 goals. Cristiano Ronaldo is tied in 10th with 8 goals (just sayin’).

Lionel Messi leads Europe in total goal contributions with 20 goals and 9 assists in La Liga so far this season, a ridiculous tally from the Argentinian.

Messi has been great for years. In fact, he’s scored 20 goals in 10 straight seasons, the first player in La Liga to ever achieve that feat. But this season feels like a new level of Messi dominance.

He’s been freed up by the tactical change in Valverde’s system. While Messi always kind of defied position, the four midfielders behind him allow the Argentinian the freedom to roam around the field, one half midfielder, one half striker, and pick out spaces and weaknesses in the defense.

In what could become Messi’s career-defining year, with a chance to bring World Cup glory to his country this summer, he’s performing at previously unseen levels.

Neymar left Barca to get out of Messi’s shadow. At the time, critics of the Brazilian’s move to Paris claimed that he just needed to bide his time before the spotlight was his as Messi was getting on in age. It’s now clear that prognostications of Messi’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

The King stay the King.

Role players stepping up

Barcelona’s roster isn’t full of World Class showstoppers like the days of yore, instead Valverde has a cast of useful, experienced, and disciplined players who can do the job they’re assigned.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Paulinho, the Brazilian midfielder who spent the last two years playing in China after a failed spell with Tottenham Hostpur in the Premier League.

When Barcelona bought Paulinho for about €40 million this summer, the soccer world lost it. It was clear to anyone going into the season that Barca had depth issues, but buying a 29-year-old who had been playing in China, while Neymar left the Camp Nou, was hardly the solution.

Paulinho has silenced his critics, scoring 8 goals so far this season, the most by a midfielder in La Liga. The same pundits that were ripping into Barcelona’s board this summer for buying Paulinho are now heaping praise on the Brazilian.

His tactical flexibility means that Paulinho can slot into any of the four midfield positions in Valverde’s system, whether it be in defensive midfield or box-to-box runner. Paulinho is equally able to break up an opposing attack as he is to latch onto a Lionel Messi cross and he’s thriving for Valverde thus far.

Aside from Paulinho, unsung heroes like Ivan Rakitic, the ageless Andres Iniesta, and Thomas Vermaelen have proved vital for Barcelona this season.

Vermaelen, a sparely-used center back, whose career has been continuously stalled by injury, was called into action by a rash of injuries to other Barca defenders. The Belgian has performed admirably, never missing a beat, and providing the defensive solidity necessary to let the team’s flair players work their magic.

Full backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto have also been critical. Neither player will necessarily dominate the headlines, but their importance in attack and defense is vital.

As Valverde packs the midfield and gets rid of players on the wing, Alba and Roberto are called upon to provide width in attack, but also get back in defense and break up opposing counter attacks. The two Spanish full backs have done exactly that, both tallying 6 assists on the season, second on the team only to Lionel Messi.

To have that sort of production out of defenders is ridiculous, but it’s precisely this quality that has allowed Barcelona to thrive in the post-Neymar era of ‘crisis.’

Ernesto Valverde’s team is on a roll, able to win games in a variety of different ways. It’s still early days in Valverde’s tenure, but Barcelona appear poised to retake their crown as the best team in Europe.

The weekend in soccer: PSG flying, Barca wins in empty stadium, City still favorites

With most European leagues 7 or 8 matches into the season, we can start to draw some conclusions from the opening weeks of the soccer season. Some teams are firing on all cylinders, while others are still working out their issues.

Now everyone is on international break for a couple weeks. So with no league play until mid-October, teams like Liverpool, Everton, and Bayern Munich, who are suddenly struggling mightily, will have extra time to contemplate their flaws.

Let’s take a look at some of the headlines from the weekend.

PSG keeps cruising

After dismantling Bayern Munich 3-0 in the Champions League earlier this week, leading to Bayern sacking manager Carlo Ancelotti, PSG were back at it during league play this weekend.

Neymar scored a hat-trick, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani both scored, and PSG breezed to an easy 6-2 demolition of Bordeaux, who hadn’t lost yet on the season.

It all looked far too easy for PSG as they dismantled Bordeaux. Even when the Parisian giants rotated their squad and formation slightly to get Julian Draxler some playing time, they were still completely in control.

Perhaps most importantly after the rumored blow up between Neymar and Cavani a couple weeks ago over who was taking penalties, Neymar stepped up for a penalty against Bordeaux, converted it expertly, and immediately went over to a smiling Cavani to celebrate.

Basically the only thing that can stop this PSG team is if they start beefing with each other, so the fact that Neymar and Cavani seem to be over their spat will be a welcome sight for manager Unai Emery.

With seven wins in 8 matches so far this season, PSG appear to be marching straight for the Ligue 1 title, but as has been said since the summer, the true test for PSG will be in the Champions League. They passed their first test when they drubbed Bayern last week.

Barcelona play in empty stadium during Catalonia referendum

While the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia voted on a referendum to leave Spain and become an independent state, the results led to clashes with police as demonstrators voiced their opinion.

This is why people who say “stick to sports,” bemoaning the intersection of sports and politics, miss the point. Politics are ingrained in sports and no image emphasized this fact more than Barcelona playing in a completely empty stadium as the citizens voted for independence.

Apparently the decision to play was virtually forced on Barcelona as La Liga threatened to dock them 6 points if they refused.

An emotional Gerard Pique was in tears after the match talking about the decision to play the game. Pique also said that if the Catalonia referendum causes problems for the Spanish national team he will not play.

There’s a lot of complicated geopolitical ramifications to Catalonia voting for their independence, but it also effects players and sport as well. Despite all of the insanity of the early season for Barcelona, with losing Neymar and everything that has been going down in the city, the club sits atop La Liga with seven wins in seven matches.

Manchester City lay down marker with win over Chelsea

In an early season showdown between last season’s title winners and this season’s favorites, Manchester City looked every bit the dominant force.

City kept the ball and pressed Chelsea magnificently in true Pep Guardiola fashion, keeping the London side bottled up in their own half for a majority of the game.

City had the majority of chances and should’ve scored more, but when the goal finally came it was the Belgian Kevin De Bruyne who supplied that little bit of magic against his former team.

De Bruyne was at Chelsea until former manager Jose Mourinho deemed him not good enough and sent him off to Wolfsburg. The attacking midfielder found his way back to the Premier League and may be the best all around player in the league. He is flourishing under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.

It’s still early days but with City and United tied at the top of the Premier League table, all eyes are on Manchester.

Napoli with 7 wins in 7 sit atop Serie A table

Italian soccer has a reputation of being boring and defensive but no team defies this stereotype like Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli.

Napoli are one of the most exciting teams in European soccer, playing a high-octane brand of attacking soccer, predicated on quick short passing moves and high pressing without the ball.

With an easy 3-0 dismantling of Cagliari, the Neapolitans are comfortably in first place in Serie A. They aren’t as deep or rich as Juventus (who have won the league 6 straight seasons) but this might finally be the year that Juve has some serious competition at the top of the table.

With Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, and Marek Hamsik creating chances at will in attack, Napoli are one of the most dangerous teams in Europe.

For any casual soccer fans looking for entertainment, make an appointment to watch Napoli, you won’t regret it.

Messi’s start to the season proves Barcelona will be Gucci without Neymar

After Neymar left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in a world record transfer deal (worth a reported €222 million) it looked like Barcelona were in total disarray.

They had to panic buy Ousmane Dembele, an incredibly talented but unproven young frenchman (who is now out 3-4 months after rupturing his hamstring), and spent another €40 million on Paulinho, a 29-year-old who had been playing in China for two years.

Yes, Neymar will probably be the best player in the world in a couple years. But he has to wait his turn.

Lionel Messi is still out here doing absolutely ridiculous shit, scoring 4 goals against Eibar yesterday in La Liga.

After converting a penalty early in the game, Messi slotted in three more goals with some perfectly-placed trademark finishes that have made him one of the most prolific soccer players of all-time.

Messi has an ability to score out of what looks like nothing. When it looks like he’s in between steps or slightly off balance, he flicks an indefensible shot right past the keeper. The excitable Ray Hudson on the BeIN Sport broadcast yelps with joy as Messi does whatever he wants on the pitch.

“Sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel,” says Hudson as Messi slots in his fourth.

Messi has 9 goals in 5 La Liga games so far this season as Barcelona remains undefeated in the league. He also added 2 goals in the Champions League last week against Juventus, the team that eliminated Barca from the competition last season. These were Messi’s first goals against Italian legend Gigi Buffon. The Argentinian continues to set new standards of greatness.

While Barca is undefeated, so too is Neymar’s PSG, but not without controversy. Over the weekend, Neymar and strike partner Edinson Cavani argued over a penalty and reportedly had to be separated in the locker room after the game.

This led to reports that Neymar told the club to immediately sell Cavani. While that seems like tabloid fodder, not all is well in Parisian paradise.

Barcelona may be just fine without Neymar as long as Lionel Messi keeps on doing his thing.

Project Neymar: How PSG’s summer of spending changed European soccer

Now that the dust has settled on the summer European soccer transfer window we can finally take a breath and look back at one of the wildest spending sprees in sports history.

This spending was highlighted by Paris Saint-Germain, who bought the next best player in the world in Neymar and “loaned” the next, NEXT best player in the world, the 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe.

The Neymar purchase is worth a reported €222 million, and the clause to buy Kylian Mbappe after his loan ends next summer is worth around €180 million, both of which are new records for money spent on one player.

So if you’re keeping track at home, PSG bought both of the most expensive players ever in the same summer.

Not only were they the biggest fees ever, they dwarf the previous record sum Manchester United paid just last summer for Paul Pogba (around €105 million) and the money Barcelona spent on Ousmane Dembele, Neymar’s replacement.

So how did we get here? How did a club outside the big four leagues in England, Spain, Italy, and Germany stage such a coup on the traditional powers of Europe and flip the soccer world on its head?

Well, mostly money.

In 2011, Qatar Sports Investment, a shareholding company with actual stake in the Qatari state, bought PSG, a team founded in 1970 who had won Ligue 1 only twice before (in 1985-86 and 1993-94) and had very little history or influence besides the fact that it was located in one of the largest cities in the world.

But with the backing of Qatari Sports Investment, and their aggressive chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG has transformed into the team in France.

They’ve captured the French league in every season since the Qatari takeover, besides the first season in 2011-2012 (when they finished 2nd) and last year (when they finished 2nd).

Losing the French title to an upstart Monaco team last year surely contributed to PSG’s wild spend this summer. But the real reason behind the massive amounts of cash PSG is throwing around right now is their ambition to compete in the Champions League.

That ambition has led to PSG going from buying solid players like Hatem Ben Arfa and Jese last summer to buying fucking NEYMAR and Mbappe.

PSG’s spending has resulted in a massive change in the dynamics of Ligue 1 spending across the board as teams have to react to try and keep up.

Some of this money is trickle-down money from PSG. As Monaco came in second in total money spent, surely helped by PSG, Manchester City, and Chelsea plucking away the talent that led Monaco to the title last season.

The spending in Ligue 1 rose 435% from last summer and equates to more than a half a billion euros.

And none of this even factors in the nearly €200 million price-tag of Kylian Mbappe that will go through next summer.

Naturally, some people aren’t very happy about this. There are supposed guidelines set up by UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, aimed at preventing clubs owned by mega-rich financiers, or mega-rich countries, from buying every possible player.

These rules, dubbed “Financial Fair Play” (FFP), stipulate that teams can only spend a certain amount more than they make in a period of 3 years.

But PSG has seemed to find a loophole by only “loaning” Kylian Mbappe from Monaco, although everyone knows he’s officially a PSG player, but the money will supposedly not go to Monaco until next summer.

UEFA has said that they are investigating PSG’s summer spending, but there has been very little in terms of tangible results coming out of the FFP offices since its inception. To suddenly punish PSG now after years of unfettered spending by the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the Manchester clubs, would seem a bit harsh.

Nonetheless, soccer figures have come out to criticize PSG’s spending, particularly the way they are doing it with the aid of an oil-rich country like Qatar. Spain’s La Liga president Javier Tebas said the “state aid” spending would “irreparably harm the football industry.”

Bayern Munich’s president Uli Hoeness called PSG’s spending “madness” and that his team would not take part in such things,

“I don’t want to buy a player for €150million or €200million. I don’t want to join in such madness. That’s something that we will refuse totally at Bayern.”

But Noel Le Graet, the vice-president of the French Football Federation basically said that all these other clubs and administrators are just butthurt that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Le Graet told L’Equipe that PSG have always honored French rules and that UEFA has turned a blind eye in the past to huge spending by other clubs,

“PSG have always honored their commitments. We can’t make any reproach to them in fiscal or social terms. I don’t see them not respecting the rules in place in France. UEFA is worried. It wasn’t too worried by others at a moment in time, notably in La Liga.”

The French football official also spoke about the role of Qatar in financing PSG’s spending,

“PSG are criticized for getting state help [from their Qatari owners]. We can’t — as French football officials — be against a big club that wants to rival the best, be against those who govern us, who like Qatar. Political relations between the two countries are of great quality”

And Le Graet highlighted the double standard in UEFA’s dealings,

“I don’t see where PSG would have made a mistake. Financial fair play enables accounts to be cleaned up, but who other than clubs in small nations have been punished? Has UEFA touched Real [Madrid]? Barca? An English club?”

It’s all a bit mad.

The whole ordeal begs a variety of different questions.

Is it “right” for teams to be spending over $200 million on soccer players? It ain’t my money. Is it weird that a country that has a litany of human rights abuses and issues can finance these moves? Definitely weird. Is it kind of funny to see Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barca upset about the fact that someone else is spending so much money now? Surely.

Ultimately, is it going to be fucking amazing to see Neymar and Kylian Mbappe play for PSG in the Champions League? Hell yeah.

Is Neymar dipping to PSG? Investigating the wildest rumor of summer 17

The great transfer saga of 2017 is upon us and there are new twists and turns every day: will Neymar move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain?

In the world of soccer transfers, rumors ranging from nonsensical to completely false pop up in the European sport tabloids daily.

If you’re unfamiliar with how soccer transfers work, here’s a brief explanation as it can get a little complicated and confusing to the casual American sports fan.

As opposed to most American sports, in which players are exchanged through trades (you give me player x and I give you player y), soccer transfers are a purely economic exchange. One team bids an amount of money to another team to acquire a player.

If that bid is accepted, the bidding team then negotiates with the player in question to try and sign them. Ultimately the power is in the player’s hands, especially if that player is someone like Neymar.

Many of the higher-profile players have a release clause in their contract. This release clause is a predetermined sum of money that will automatically make that player free to negotiate with any team willing to pay it.

In this case, Neymar’s release clause of €222 million (about $255,937,000) would be more than double the highest-ever amount paid for a player (last year’s €105 million sum from Manchester United for midfielder Paul Pogba).

Many of the more unbelievable transfer rumors are just that, unbelievable. Like earlier this summer when it was widely reported that Cristiano Ronaldo was going to leave Real Madrid because he felt he was being unfairly treated.

That was never going to happen as Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane confirmed this week.

Most of the time these reports are leaks from players’ agents in order to get a new contract out of their team.

Two summers ago, every soccer news outlet in the world reported that Manchester Untied was going to land Real Madrid center back Sergio Ramos, who was ready to leave the Spanish giants.

In the end, Sergio Ramos signed a new ridiculously lucrative contract at Real Madrid and will most likely play out his days in Madrid until moving to MLS or China.

It seemed ludicrous that Neymar would ever leave Barcelona at 25-years-old for PSG. While the team in the French capital has a huge payroll and obviously the appeal of living in Paris is significant, the French league is not a high-profile league while Barcelona is one of the three most famous clubs in the world.

Slowly but surely, more and more reports emerged that Neymar was ready to join PSG.

There was a reported meeting between Barcelona’s board and Neymar’s dad/agent that apparently did not go well and now the Spanish papers were writing that this move could indeed happen, even that it would happen.

Neymar’s head had apparently been turned by the finances offered by PSG as well as the opportunity to escape Messi’s shadow in Catalonia.

So is Neymar the new Kyrie?

Maybe not.

On Saturday Neymar twerked all over Juventus in a friendly at Metlife Stadium, the fact that he was playing for Barcelona was surely a good sign for the Blaugrana.

On Sunday night, Barcelona center back and famous social media shit-talker Gerard Pique posted a selfie with Neymar on Twitter with the caption “se queda” (he stays).

So that’s it then?

Again… maybe not.

ESPN FC reported that Neymar’s entourage was completely taken aback by Pique’s tweet and that they had “no idea” why Pique posted the picture.

Then according to Daily Mail, Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Barcelona’s arch-rival Real Madrid, texted Neymar not to leave Barca unless for Ronaldo’s former club Manchester United.

Yeah, the whole thing is a mess, but also totally awesome.

Neymar is widely regarded as the heir apparent to Messi as the next greatest player in the world and his moving teams would send shockwaves through the soccer world.

The Brazilian captain has always been the man who would take over for Messi both on a global scale as well as in Barcelona.

Barcelona would suddenly find themselves in a likely state of crisis. Despite the fact that they still have the greatest player in the world in Leo Messi and maybe the best pure striker in Luis Suarez, this current Barcelona squad is getting slightly stale and old.

A series of poor transfers where Barca paid too much money for average players and a deemphasis on La Masia, their famed youth academy, which once produced entire rosters of great players, has led Barcelona into a precarious situation.

Personally, I don’t really understand why Neymar would make this move. PSG is absolutely an interesting proposition and a team growing in global stature, but there is significantly less attention paid to PSG and Ligue 1 than Barca and La Liga.

Maybe the money is too good to pass up. Maybe Neymar doesn’t want to linger in Messi’s shadow any longer.

My money is on Barcelona doling out a new contract for Neymar in the coming weeks, but I’ve been wrong before.

This story isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Strap in and let the ridiculous soccer transfer season wash over you.