Reimagining Barcelona: What if the LaLiga giants had made no transfers for seven years?

Like many of us, you are probably wondering: What the hell is going at Barcelona?

Back in 2018, they claimed they were about to become the first soccer club to ever generate $1 billion in annual revenue. Fast-forward to a year ago, and Lionel Messi, the greatest player of all time, was forced — through tears — to leave the club because they could no longer afford him. Fast forward to a month ago and Barcelona president Joan Laporta was describing the club as “clinically dead.” Fast forward to today, and they’ve announced the signings of Franck Kessie, Andreas Christensen, Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski.

My ESPN colleague Sid Lowe explained the situation in detail last week, but a quick refresher: LaLiga basically has a spending cap determined by the difference between a team’s revenue and a combination of squad costs and debt repayments. Given those dreams of billion-dollar revenues, you rarely heard the cap mentioned in reference to Barcelona. They spent wildly on transfer fees and even more wildly on player salaries when life was good — and then a pandemic hit.

Most of Barca’s revenue streams were shut off, and there was no cushion to be provided by a benevolent billionaire since the team is member-owned. There was suddenly way less revenue to offset the wage bill and transfer debt, and so their spending cap disappeared.

A bunch of accounting tricks allowed them to add players in January, and then the new signings this summer were theoretically funded by what Laporta has referred to as “economic levers”: selling off a good chunk of future TV revenue and the club’s branding and licensing mechanism.

Whatever you think about the decision, it’s an incredibly short-sighted one: Sell off the future so we can win now and hopefully increase our revenue by so much that those future payments won’t even hurt all that much.

Another option would’ve been: Don’t pull the levers, don’t sign any new players, take your medicine, play the kids, and see what happens. And well, that’s always been an option at Barcelona. So, given that a risky transfer strategy got them here in the first place — and that Laporta seems to think it’s the only way to get them out of it, too — I’ve got a couple questions: What if Barcelona just didn’t sign anyone? Would they really be any worse off?


We’ll start here, Barcelona have just won every conceivable trophy by doing the inconceivable: building a team that could legitimately rival the great Barca sides of Pep Guardiola. Star players Messi and Luis Suarez are both 28, right in their primes, while Neymar is only 23 — already able to contribute to perhaps the best front three in modern history and be the anchor of whatever trio comes after the decline of the other two.

In midfield, Sergio Busquets is 27 and Ivan Rakitic 26. The third midfield role went to either Xavi Hernandez (35) or Andres Iniesta (31). That spot will eventually have to be filled, but 21-year-old Rafinha and 22-year-old Sergi Roberto are waiting in the wings, along with whatever teenage starlet the La Masia academy rolls out next. In defence, Jordi Alba is arguably the best left-back in the world at 26, while Dani Alves is 32 on the other side. At center-back, 28-year-old Gerard Pique is in his prime and 30-year-old Javier Mascherano is aging out of it. Center-backs, of course, tend to age a little more gracefully than other positions, while Roberto (or Martin Montoya) could also be the right-back of the future. Marc Bartra is a promising center-back prospect, and Thomas Vermaelen — if he can ever stay fit — is 29. Oh, and you’re set for a decade in goal with 23-year-old Marc-Andre ter Stegen about to take over from Claudio Bravo.

This is just a thought experiment, so you can create your own mechanism for why this would happen, but let’s just say that for some reason then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu decides it’s time to take the focus in-house. You’re at the top of the world, you’ve got Messi, you’ve got the heir to Messi in Neymar, and you’ve got a famed youth academy. Rather than chasing the transfer market, you decide that you can use the money you save to take the academy to another level, or take care of your current squad, or pay yourself or whatever. Either way, you decide that you will not make any first-team transfers for at least the next seven years.

With that focus in mind, you probably don’t let Pedro move to Chelsea or Gerard Deulofeu to Everton, while Xavi probably still leaves for Saudi Arabia. But you also don’t spend $56.1 million combined to sign Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, neither of whom really contributed to the club in any meaningful way. So, without making any transfer additions, Barcelona would be where they actually ended up in 2015-16: easy LaLiga winners and one of the favorites for the Champions League.


This is where it felt like it all started to fall apart. Barcelona spent a combined $137.23m, per Transfermarkt, on the following players:

Andre Gomes: $40.7m from Valencia
Paco Alcacer: $33m from Valencia
Samuel Umtiti: $27.5m from Lyon
Lucas Digne: $18.15m from Paris Saint-Germain
Jasper Cillessen: $14.3m from Ajax Amsterdam
Denis Suarez: $3.58m from Villarreal

None of these players ever started 25 LaLiga games in a season for the club, and only one of them — Umtiti, who has made 17 league starts over the past three years — is still with the team. So, if you don’t make any of these signings, once again, you don’t really hurt the competitiveness of the club. Without all of that spending, you don’t move Bartra to Borussia Dortmund, and maybe you keep Alves and Montoya, rather than letting them both leave for free.

Umtiti became a starter immediately, but instead you’d be piecing together his minutes with a combo of Bartra, Mascherano, and Jeremy Mathieu. The other guys were all squad players, and you’ve got Pedro, Deulofeu, Cristian Tello (who went on loan to Fiorentina), Alves, Rafinha and Montoya to fill in those gaps. With all those signings, Barca finished second in LaLiga — somewhat unfortunately, as their goal differential was 14 better than first-place Real Madrid. Without all of those signings, then, you’ve still got a shot at winning the league and making a run in the Champions League.


This is where it gets tricky; your resolve will truly be tested. PSG met Neymar’s never-supposed-to-be-met release clause and all of a sudden you’ve got $264m on hand. But you decide that even if you were to spend all that money, you wouldn’t be getting anything close to value-on-the-dollar because everyone knows you suddenly: A) have a gaping hole in your attack, and B) a ton of money with which to fill it.

Instead, you use some of it to give raises to the current team (how else to keep Messi and Suarez happy?), use some of it to convince Luis Enrique to stay on as manager, and put even more of it to La Masia and to the growing Barcelona Innovation Hub. Those investments go towards figuring out new ways to play, how to develop talent, and how to keep your players healthy. When you’re not chasing the transfer market, you can devote all of your resources to finding competitive edges elsewhere.

You keep Mascherano around, and you don’t loan Rafinha out to Internazionale, as he’s become an increasingly valuable part of the squad. You don’t spend $13.2m to bring back Deulofeu from Everton because he’s already with you, and you don’t swing and miss on the $300m combined for Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho. Also, no deals for Paulinho, Nelson Semedo or Yerry Mina, either.

Of course, none of those players ever became reliable first-team starters anyway. Barcelona’s top-nine players for minutes this season were all already on the team when they won the Champions League, so none of that changes in our hypothetical world. Pedro or Deulofeu are probably starting up top now, which is a, uh, minor downgrade from Neymar. But as you’ve let youngsters like Roberto, Bartra, and Rafinha get more time, perhaps one of them develops faster than they did in real life, and even if they don’t, they’re not giving you anything less than the likes of Digne, Gomes, Semedo or Paulinho.

Barca would be worse this season without the minor contributions from Dembele and Coutinho, but they still won the league by 14 points. You’re still likely winning the league, and neither of your new signings played much of a role in the run to the Champions League semifinals anyway.


This is maybe where the lack of first-team arrivals really starts to put on a squeeze, but at the same time, your core hasn’t changed at all. Your top eight for minutes are all still remainders from the Champions League winners. Iniesta still leaves for Japan in this alternate world, but nine of the players who left permanently or were loaned out this season — Mina, Denis Suarez, Marlon, Digne, Gomes, Alcacer, Aleix Vidal, Emerson Royal, and Paulinho — would not have been on the team because we wouldn’t have signed them in the first place. We also wouldn’t let Deulofeu go to Watford because he was providing solid depth (He’s averaged more than 0.5 goals+assists per 90 minutes across his professional career.)

We would also avoid the combined $155.2m spent on Malcom, Clement Lenglet, Arthur, Arturo Vidal, Emerson, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Jeison Murillo, and Jean-Clair Todibo — none of whom are still with Barcelona.

The big weaknesses here would be the third attacker spot, the third midfield role, and the center-back next to Pique. Given that Coutinho and Dembele only combined for 13 goals and seven assists, some form of Deulofeu and Pedro can come close to that. In fact, they did for other teams, combining for 18 goals and seven assists in the significantly tougher Premier League in 2018-19. In the midfield next to Rakitic and Busquets, we’d be piecing together some Roberto minutes, along with some burn for Rafinha and prospects like Carles Alena and Riqui Puig. At center-back, we’d likely be rolling with mostly Bartra and some time for an aging Mascherano, Mathieu and Vermaelen. Worst case, Bartra is the same average LaLiga center-back that he became outside of Barcelona. Also, rather than loaning out left-back Marc Cucurella, we give him minutes as Alba’s backup.

That team doesn’t come as close to reaching the Champions League final as they did, but Barca won LaLiga by 11 points in 2018-19, and this hypothetical version isn’t 11 points worse than the real one.


No Frenkie de Jong arriving this summer — and also no Antoine Griezmann. But the biggest non-arrival would be Pedri. We could go either way with him — is he a first-team signing if he was immediately loaned out for a year? — but of course our theoretical team would be better if we let them have Barca’s best signing of the past decade, so we’re saying no to him and also no to Martin Braithwaite, Neto, Junior Firpo, and a couple others. That’s a total of $328.4m in transfer fees.

Once again, almost all of the exits wouldn’t happen because they were players that never would’ve arrived in the first place: Malcolm, Cilessen, Gomes, Alcacer, and Denis Suarez. Coutinho wouldn’t go on loan to Bayern Munich because he was never at Barca, but we’d hang on to Alena, Cucurella and Rafinha instead of sending them out on loan.

Griezmann only scored nine goals and registered four assists; once again, production that our Pedro and Deulofeu combo should be able to replicate, if not surpass. Plus, 16-year-old Ansu Fati played over 1,000 minutes this season, so we’d be integrating him into the picture, too.

Messi is still Messi, but Suarez suffers a similar problem to the rest of the core: he gets old. At this point, Messi, Suarez, Pique, Busquets, Rakitic and Alba are all into their 30s. Most of them can’t be relied on for as many minutes anymore, so the lack of high-level depth starts to stress things a bit. Alena, Puig and Rafinha will all need to play more in the midfield, but maybe Rafinha has developed into starter-quality with consistent playing time or maybe one of the other two do the same in the future?

We also have Roberto for midfield minutes but he’s spending most of his time at right-back since Dani Alves is 35 by now, so we’ll say he finally decided to go back to Brazil (like he did in real life.) Cucurella is able to cover Alba at left-back, while a ton is riding on the health of Pique and Bartra at center-back, with Mascherano retired, and Mathieu and Vermaelen still with the team at 35 years old and 33 years old respectively. Without the addition of Ronald Araujo from Boston River in 2018 to help cover, this is an area which could have issues.

Barca was basically neck-and-neck with Real Madrid this season, but they were 12 points ahead of third-place Atletico Madrid, so we’ll say this version finishes a distant second, with no real shot at winning the Champions League — save for a really easy draw.


Since the team have been managed so prudently, Suarez will stay with the club rather than moving to Atletico in the summer of 2020. We won’t move on Cucurella, who now looks like the heir to Alba on the left side, or Rafinha or Alena, who can both provide valuable fill-in minutes for Rakitic, who we’ll also keep because he can still feature in a limited role.

With a couple years of gap-bridging in the past, the new front three becomes Ansu Fati, Messi, and Suarez, with Pedro and Deulofeu still seeing time off the bench. In the midfield, we now don’t have Pedri or De Jong, but Busquets is still starting most of the games. The other two roles are filled by some combo of Roberto, Rafinha, Alena, Puig, Rakitic, and 17-year-old Ilaix Moriba, who looked like a phenom when he did briefly play for Barca in 2021.

At the back, Pique is still there, and so is Bartra, but now they’re backed up by the arrival of Oscar Mingueza, a fine fill-in center-back or the backup at right-back for Roberto (Sergino Dest is not a Barcelona player in this world.) And on the left, there’s the combo of Alba and Cucurella, with one of the two perhaps getting minutes elsewhere in the formation to fill in some gaps.

Suarez scored 21 goals for Atletico Madrid this season. Only one other player hit double-digits (Marcos Llorente, 12), as they won LaLiga by two points ahead of Real Madrid and seven beyond Barca. If you put Suarez back on this version of Barca and Griezmann back on Atleti (since Barca never signed him in this scenario), I don’t think Diego Simeone’s side wins the league and it’s probably close to a coin-flip race between Real and Barca. Or: better than they did in real life.


The big one here is obvious: Messi doesn’t leave because the LaLiga spending cap doesn’t matter because Barcelona haven’t built up massive transfer debt.

There’s no Memphis Depay, no Luuk De Jong, no Adama Traore, no Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, no Eric Garcia, and no Ferran Torres, but Messi stays, Suarez is still kicking around, and Pedro and Deulofeu can still find time. Moriba takes on an even bigger role, as do Gavi and Nico Gonzalez, who both see significant first-team minutes for the first seasons of their careers. Busquets is still at the base of midfield with no one on the depth chart behind him, but there are now plenty of options for the two midfield roles in front. And at the back, Mingueza blossoms alongside with Pique, as Bartra provides depth. Roberto is the full-time right-back and Cucurella and Alba are both getting plenty of minutes on the left side. As always, Ter Stegen is in goal.

Does that team win LaLiga this past season? No, but it’s also probably not in danger of falling out of the top four at any point, and the roster would be filled with young talent that’s already received plenty of valuable first-team experience. There would be no financial problems — the exact opposite, in fact — and the club would still have all of its future TV and merchandising revenue still in place.

Barcelona nearly spent itself into oblivion on transfer fees from 2015 onward to win three major trophies. If they never did any of that? The number of championships might be exactly the same.

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