Barcelona’s left back problem

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 20/01/12)

Éric Abidal, whose contract with Barcelona expires this summer, has been subject to interest from a host of clubs recently, namely injury-hit and perennial Barça poachers Arsenal.  The experienced Frenchman has spent 5 successful years in Spain and, after a battle against liver cancer last year, has made a quick recovery to re-establish himself as first choice left back for the Catalan giants. His well-taken winner against Madrid this week further shows his continued importance to Guardiola’s side.  L’Equipe has reported that a contract extension has finally been signed with Barcelona in the last few days, which should stop the speculation over his short term future.  However, with Abidal now 32 and not getting any younger, maybe it is time Barcelona looked for a long term replacement at left back.

With the recent departure of Maxwell to Paris Saint Germain, the only cover they currently have is the versatile Adriano.  The Brazilian is certainly capable of filling Abidal’s shoes, as displayed by his fantastic cross for Alexis’ equaliser against Osasuna in the Copa del Rey last week, but it remains to be seen as to whether he will become a first choice left back or just remain an important squad player.

A very viable option, and one true to their policy of bringing home-grown talent through the famed La Masia academy, is to promote a youth player into their first team.  Marc Muniesa has been touted for some time as a very exciting prospect and since he was 15 has been ear marked as Puyol’s long term successor.  Although primarily a centre back, Muniesa can also operate at full back which may provide an opportunity for him to gain some first team experience and establish himself.  He made an ignominious debut in 2009, getting sent off within minutes of coming off the bench, but then did earn a place on the bench for the Champions League final against Manchester Utd.  Since then he has been a regular for the Bs and signed a contract extension with a €30 million buyout clause included, showing just how highly rated they regard him. 

Another youngster is fellow Spain under 21 international Carles Planas.  Planas is more of an out and out left back and has appeared 3 times this season, with Spurs apparently sniffing about.  Admittedly I haven’t seen a great deal of him, just in the under 19 Euros in 2010, but he looks a decent prospect and could be another option if Barça decide to put faith in their youth.

There are obvious dangers in throwing an unproven youngster, be it Planas or Muniesa, into the first team but with the likes of Andreu Fontas, Martin Montoya and Marc Bartra all having also appeared this season, most notably the young squad that dismantled BATE Borisov 4-0 in the Champions League, then it may be no surprise if one of these promising youngsters does follows in the footsteps of Pedro, Busquets, Thiago et al.

Alternatively they could to sign a proven left back to replace Abidal at Barça in the near future. As a left back myself I’ve made some speculative punts on some of the potential targets (minus myself!) that Barcelona might be interested in. 

If the Blaugrana were to keep it Spanish then the pick of the bunch for me would have to be Jordi Alba. Valencia’s Alba is one of the rising stars of Spanish football and the 22-year-old former Barca youth player has forged a great left sided understanding with Mathieu, the two players constantly interchanging positions, and his performances have earned him a call up to the national side.  Despite not being the tallest Alba makes up for it with his pace, technique and attacking mentality and has also improved his defensive game too.  His youth, versatility and Champions League experience make him a very attractive option. 

Another possibility is José Enrique.  The Spaniard has been one of Liverpool’s better signings, especially in comparison to some of their more..ahem..questionable transfer activity, and has continued to put in consistently solid performances for both his Premier League clubs.  Good defensively, very rapid, not afraid to get forward and delivers a fantastic cross, for me he is the best left back in the Prem right now with Ashley Cole and Patrice Evra both out of sorts lately.  The only drawback might be an expensive price tag and the fact that he’s not been at Liverpool long. Although who could resist the lure of the Nou Camp? 

Other options within La Liga could include Malaga’s Nacho Monreal who, like Alba, has earned a recent call up to the national side or even Atletico Madrid’s tireless Brazilian full back Filipe who is still relatively young and boasts plenty of experience at both Deportivo and Atleti.  However both players may not come that cheap.  Barcelona had also been linked to José Ángel before the ex-Gijon man joined up with Luis Enrique at Roma this summer and he could well remain a possible future transfer target.

Looking outside of Spain there are a few candidates from around Europe.  In Germany, Borussia Dortmund’s emerging left back Marcel Schmelzer could be a possibility.  An ever-present in their march to the Bundesliga title last year, the 23 year old now has 5 caps for Germany and could be a future successor to Philip Lahm.  Then in France there is Lyon’s Aly Cissokho .  The pacey, powerful left back is a target for various Premier League sides and could be bought for not a huge amount.

In Portugal there is Porto’s promising Brazilian full back Alex Sandro.  A summer signing for 9.6million from Santos after an impressive U20 World Cup, it is unlikely that he would be allowed to leave so soon and Porto have accordingly placed a £50million release clause to ward off any interest.  Nonetheless his progress will be monitored keenly and should the attack-minded left back continue to develop he may well be an interesting option.

There had also been talk of bringing in young Swiss full back Ricardo Rodriguez (above) during the transfer window.  The 19 year old, of Spanish and Chilean decent, has already been capped 4 times by Switzerland and was a key member of the U17 World Cup winning side, scoring 3 goals in the process.  However, in the last few days it has emerged that Wolfsburg have signed him from Zurich for €6 million. 

Finally, a personal favourite of mine is Uruguayan Diego Polenta, who was linked with a move to Barcelona B in the summer.  I won’t go into detail as I’ve mentioned him in previous blogs, but in my humble opinion the U20 captain possesses all the qualities to become a top defender and I would love to see his skills refined at Barcelona.

Regardless of whether Abidal stays or leaves this month or in the summer, what seems certain is that Barcelona definitely need to address the issue of left back in the next 18 months or so in order to bolster a defence that has looked suspect at times this season.  Be it a new player coming in or one of their home-grown talents being promoted, it will be interesting to see who eventually is given the opportunity to replace Abidal and who knows it could well be one of the players mentioned above.