Xavi Hernández has revitalized Barcelona.
The Catalan took over a team that was directionless and restless under Ronald Koeman and turned them into a cohesive unit playing confidently and aggressively.
This was reflected in their results, including their 4-0 loss to arch-rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu just before the international break.
But while Barcelona are heading in the right direction, they still face a full summer.
Recruitment was smart during the January transfer window, but it needs to be even smarter during the summer. Kylian Mbappé will likely swap Paris for Madrid at the end of this season and signing the best player in the world has a transformative effect.
But Mateu Alemany, the man who mainly runs Barcelona’s transfer business, would be trusted to make the right choices. The noises coming from the Camp Nou at the moment certainly suggest that he is thinking in the right direction.
Barcelona’s financial situation means they mainly target low-cost, soon-to-be-released free agents. Both Andreas Christensen and Franck Kessie appear to be locked in, while it is understood a right-back and a left-back are also on Barcelona’s list.
But there is also room for more serious investments.
Their main outlay is expected to be on a centre-forward, with Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland clearly their first choice. But this operation is complicated by the intensity of the interest and the financial muscle of Madrid and, mainly, of Manchester City.
They also want to strengthen on the right wing as it seems unlikely that Ousmane Dembele will renew his contract and instead leave Barcelona at the end of this season. It’s unclear whether he will or not – things are changing fast – but reports from Catalonia have hinted that they have already fielded a replacement if he does.
It would be Raphinha.
Born in Porto Alegre, the Brazilian is 25 years old and has been playing football for Leeds United in the Premier League. He joined them in the summer of 2020 when they were promoted to the top tier of English football and has become one of the most exciting footballers to watch in European football’s most competitive league.
Raphinha made 59 appearances for Leeds, contributing 15 goals and 12 assists in all competitions. He was essential as they finished their first season in English football’s highest tier since 2003/04 in a very respectable ninth place, and although they have struggled collectively this season his class has never been challenged. question.
Raphinha has become a full-fledged Brazil international since joining Leeds – he has since won seven caps for the selection and scored three goals – and played on a different level than the rest of his teammates at Elland Road.
“He has been playing at Champions League level from the start” Joe Donnohuea sports journalist who covers Leeds closely, said Soccer Spain. “His touch, composure, creativity and confidence are all top-notch. He’s a level above anyone else in this Leeds team and he’s truly callous about everything.
“He played to the right of a 4-3-3 in possession and to the right of a 4-1-4-1 when losing possession. He is very good at cutting the infield on his preferred left foot, usually at the edge of the penalty area.
“For me, personally, the aspect I like the most about his game is the intensity with which he plays. He is regularly the player with the most intense sprints in the team who works the hardest. He doesn’t doesn’t slip away and presses well in the last third.
Word on the street is that Leeds will sell Raphinha for €25m if they suffer relegation from the Championship this season – they are currently 16th in the table, seven points clear of 18th-placed Watford and the relegation zone. If Leeds beat the drop, however, they would have imposed a €75m transfer fee on their prized talent.
“€75m is probably not his market value, but that’s what he’s worth to Leeds,” Donnohue said.
“They are going to have a very hard time replacing him. But Barcelona offer a nice sub-lot to their career arc; his father is childhood friends with Ronaldinho and the two families have a good relationship.
One of the most interesting things about Raphinha is how he has a real edge over his game. Brazilian players are often portrayed as fair weather footballers, guys who can turn it on when the lights are bright. and that the attention is on them, but not when the going gets tough. Men capable of sublime skills but not fierce competitors like their Argentinian counterparts.
It is a mistake. Soccer Spain lived in Brazil and knows firsthand how difficult life in this intoxicatingly beautiful country can be. Not as good as Raphinha, of course.
“It really is the Wild West, man,” Raphinha said. The players’ stand on futebol de várzea, a key principle of his youth in Porto Alegre. “It’s like a network of independent matches and tournaments organized by the local community.
“The level is much lower than at the academies. Any player can come, you don’t even need a contract. You play on clay. Crushing heat. Dust and sand. Someone will bring a ball from home. Often there are no nets, just the posts. Bibs? Forget that. A team just plays shirtless. And these players are the rejects, man.
“They play with anger. They play to survive. They play as if their life depended on it.
“Death threats [he and his teammates received during várzea tournaments] were just threats. We knew it was the home fans trying to get into our heads. But you would often see community bosses standing around the grounds with guns. You might be about to score when a random gunshot fires. Let me tell you, this may discourage you! Fireworks too, man.
“That’s why I always say if you can play in várzea games, you can play anywhere. A European grand final? Don’t worry. A stadium with 90,000 people? Bring it on. I’m always very proud to have played in so many várzea tournaments. And frankly, I loved it. These games made me so hard. When I play now, I want to be booed. I want pressure and intimidation. That’s what motivates me. »
Players of such character are rare to find and that’s exactly the type of man – the type of competitor – that Xavi and his team want to bring to Camp Nou. But it is not the only reason. Raphinha brings a certain quality and technical quality which is exactly what The Blaugrana needed at the moment, even more if Dembélé left for new pastures.
“Raphinha would be an incredible signing, especially if Dembélé leaves”, Domagoj Kostanjsaka sports journalist and analyst who covers Barcelona, said Soccer Spain.
“Ever since Barcelona’s interest in Haaland first became known, I have repeatedly called for the need for a creative third striker. Even if Haaland is unsigned, Barcelona will still pursue a number nine just as much. hardy that needs to be fed to be effective.
“Ansu [Fati] is creative but not enough; like ferran [Torres] and [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang he is also better as the beneficiary of a creative profile rather than acting like one, if that makes sense. So one of Ansu’s front three, Haaland-type-nine and Ferran would lack that self-contained creative presence to nurture the other two.
“It’s something that can be offset by having a high-performance midfield and full-backs, but despite Barcelona’s quality in those positions, I’m not sure they have enough juice to sustain that hypothetical. before three.
“This is where Dembele comes in; he is the perfect counterweight to these two other forwards. And if he does not renew, Raphinha corresponds perfectly to this profile, but with a slightly lower overall potential. He is creative and a great dribbler who will take on that creative burden well. In the right setup, he could easily produce +20 goals and assists.
Dembélé’s situation appears to be a key part of Barcelona’s pursuit of Raphinha.
They signed Adama Traore on a loan deal until the end of the season in the January transfer window and agreed a €30m purchase option with parent club Wolverhampton Wanderers. But it looks like absent a partial swap deal involving someone like Francisco Trincão or Riqui Puig, that deal won’t happen.
Raphinha seems like the smart move; it fits, in more ways than one. But whether he’s really interesting or just a tactic to show Dembele that Barcelona can survive or even thrive without him is much less clear. As with all things, time will tell.