Guardiola's transfer spending at Barcelona has been erratic
Barcelona's strength has been its youth system but it has also spent heavily
Since taking charge in 2008, coach Pep Guardiola has spent some $400 million
Many of Guardiola's signings have been disastrous flops for Barcelona
Pep Guardiola said it was the last thing he wanted to see, but no one really believed him. Sure, the trip east won't be much fun, but a matchup against Shakhtar looked like the perfect draw for his Barcelona team in the Champions League quarterfinals.
As the details sunk in, it appeared more daunting. But on the face of it, Barcelona had drawn one of the weakest teams left. And a team that opens up: Shakhtar scores goals, true, but it concedes them as well. Guardiola's men had avoided the defensive tough nuts, the teams that, in Xavi Hernandez's words, come to frustrate them. Barcelona had also avoided the most dangerous sides: Chelsea and Manchester United and Inter Milan. And Real Madrid, of course.
In a way, Barça fans could not be happier. A semifinal slot, possibly against Real Madrid, awaited; it was within reach. If anyone doubted that Barcelona was the favorite, they had only to see the taped reaction of the Shahktar players to the draw, mouths falling open, disappointed -- an End Of The Road look on their faces. There was no such video of Barcelona's players, but most could imagine broad smiles, a quiet confidence that they were heading to the semifinal, at least, for the fourth consecutive season.
And yet, there was something missing. A little excitement, a little edge. Shakhtar hardly gets you going. There was none of the glamour of facing Manchester United, the rivalry of Madrid, the tension and revenge of Chelsea or Inter, the romance of Spurs, playing in their first Champions League quarterfinal -- and with the Gary Lineker, Terry Venables and Steve Archibald connection thrown in too. It wasn't even Schalke with Raúl leading the line, longing for another chance to lift his finger to his lips and silence the Camp Nou.
Instead, as far as most fans were concerned, it was a bunch of unknowns. A bunch of unknowns and Dmytro Chygrynskiy.
Dmytro Chygrynskiy is the center back who joined Barcelona from Shakhtar in 2009 and returned there a year later, largely dismissed as a failure and for pretty much half the fee. It was not exactly the best piece of business. Chygrynskiy played against Barcelona in the European Super Cup last August and, with Guardiola insisting that he was vital, just four days later the Ukrainian had joined Barça for €25 million ($35M). He could not play in European competition but, we were told, it didn't matter: It was just one season and Chygrynskiy was joining for the long haul. He was the classiest of center backs, a great player in waiting.
Barcelona didn't wait. Less than 12 months later, he was gone. He played just 851 minutes in the league and was whistled through many of them. Superficial, perhaps, but he appeared slow and ponderous, out of position, a little clumsy on the ball. Any hope he had of taking the place of Carles Puyol or Gerard Piqué was extinguished almost immediately. Few noted that he was still young -- he is still only 24 now -- and might yet get better. Few cared that as he himself put it, adapting to Barcelona's very specific way of playing is not easy and required time. Mostly they had given up. He just wasn't that good.
New president Sandro Rosell certainly didn't think much of him. And while Guardiola wanted to keep him, to give him a chance, he didn't fight especially hard. Chygrynskiy has spoken of his gratitude for Guardiola's support, but he also speaks without rancor. He knows that it just didn't happen for him on the pitch. Barcelona's economic plight was a reality and Chygrynskiy was not, not yet. The fact that Barcelona accepted €15 million ($21M) for him -- a €10M loss ($14M) plus wages on a deeply underwhelming year at the club -- spoke volumes.
Now, Guardiola is confronted by Chygrynskiy and he can't win. If the Ukrainian plays well, Barcelona will be seen to have made a mistake in letting him go. If he plays badly, signing him in the first place will look like even more of a mistake. And not the first one either. This is about more than just Chygrynskiy; this is about Guardiola's being confronted with his great failing: the signings. Chygrynskiy has come to symbolize a broader issue.
Barcelona loves to note that its battle with Real Madrid is more than just soccer; it is almost a clash of identities in which it claims a moral high ground. It has been described often as cantera versus cartera -- youth system against wallet. Madrid buys its success (and still isn't successful), Barcelona grows and nurture its success.
It is a seductive argument: All three finalists in the Balón d'Or this year came through Barcelona's youth system. Real Madrid's winners of the trophy for world player of the year -- Ronaldo, Kaká, Zidane, original Ronaldo, Figo, even Michael Owen -- all earned the award for what they did at others clubs and were then signed. When the two sides met in November, Barcelona's starting XI cost €92M ($130M), Real Madrid's €285M ($404M). Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Piqué, Valdés, Pedro, Busquets -- all of them came through Barcelona's youth system.
And yet, it is not quite so clear cut. Since the turn of the century, Real Madrid has spent more than €1,000M ($1.4 billion) on players. But Barcelona has not exactly been frugal, spending more than €700M ($994M). And although Madrid has outspent Barcelona consistently -- all the more so over the last two years with the return of Florentino Pérez as president -- since Guardiola became coach of Barcelona in 2008, the Catalans have spent in excess of €275M($390M). And it hasn't always been money well spent. The success of the youth teamers makes the failure of the signings even more jarring.
Perhaps the best deal has been the one that looked most outrageous at the time: the €30.5M ($43M), rising to €36M for bonuses, spent on Dani Alves, the right back who is never just a right back. Even David Villa, who at €40M ($57M) is not overpriced, came a year late. On the face of it, €3.5M ($4.9M) looks cheap for Ibrahim Affelay but that is yet to be confirmed, and time will tell whether Javier Mascherano is a good deal at €22M ($31M) or whether €9.5M ($13M) is too much for Adriano. Seydou Keita has been important if perhaps a little pricey at €14M ($19M), while Maxwell has rarely been first choice at left back but cost a relatively modest €4.5M ($6.4M).
But the others are at best debatable, at worst disastrous. Chygrynskiy came for €25M and left for €15M, having barely played. Henrique cost €8M ($11M) and hasn't played for Barça (he is on loan at Racing Santander as it awaits a buyer). Alexander Hleb, currently on loan at Birmingham City as Barcelona desperately looks to offload him to an uninterested market, cost €16M ($22.7M) and did virtually nothing, least of all build any kind of relationship with any of his teammates. Keirrison cost €14M ($19.8M) in 2009 and is already on his third different loan spell from the club; none of those who have loaned him have been impressed. Martin Cáceres signed for €16.5M ($23.5M). He moaned that he did not play because he was not Catalan. The response was obvious: No, you did not play because you weren't good enough.
And then there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His arrival was conditioned by the desire to find a tactical alternative -- one that, a year later, Barcelona seems to have decided that it no longer needs. More important, it was conditioned by then-president Joan Laporta's dealings with Inter and the desperation to get rid of Samuel Eto'o. So keen was it to offload the Cameroonian that Barcelona was indirectly forced into taking the Swede. And paying a huge fee for him, too.
Inter was the only club that would take Eto'o and could offer Barcelona something in return, while also offering the Cameroonian a destination that he considered worthy. Barcelona took up the deal. Its top goal scorer over the previous five years, one of the finest it has ever had, and rated at €20M plus €4.5M (the "value" of Hleb, who ultimately didn't go), was effectively swapped for Ibrahimovic. And €49.5M in cash ($70M). Put in stark, if unfair terms, it appeared madness: a man who had scored two Champions League final goals for a man who had hardly scored any Champions League goals, let alone in the final. Oh, and a big bag of cash too.
The Swede did not actually fail on the pitch at Barcelona, at least not entirely, not in the first half of the season. He got the only goal in the clásico, 16 in the league, 21 overall, and gave Barcelona another option. But by the summer, with Ibrahimovic's role limited and that of Leo Messi growing, with his contribution in the run-in for the title utterly irrelevant, and his attitude conflictive, Guardiola was determined to get him out of the club.
In the end, in increasingly bitter circumstances, Ibrahimovic joined AC Milan on loan. Barcelona signed Villa, the player it really wanted. But Barça got him a year later for the same fee. And in the meantime, the club has effectively paid €20M ($28M) to send two players to Milan. When Ibrahimovic's transfer is formalized this summer, Barcelona will recover just €24M ($34M). Just a year before, he had cost it €69.5M ($98M).
In the meantime, Eto'o won the treble.