The rumors, for once, came to fruition, as FC Barcelona will pay a transfer fee of €40 million to Valencia for Spanish international striker David Villa. This tango (or the sardana for a more local, Catalunyan flair) danced by the two clubs since the previous offseason will finally end as outgoing Barça president Joan Laporta landed the player he coveted for two years.
Surely, Barcelona signed Villa to be a starting forward, and his most effective position in that front line would be as the center forward of the three-pronged attack. With Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez on either side of Villa, the Barcelona attacking machine will continue to operate as efficiently and dangerously as ever.
What does this mean for Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was supposed to be the answer in the center of Barcelona’s attack. In order to lure the Swedish hitman from Inter Milan, the Catalunyans spent a net total of €69 million (€46 million in cash, the transfer of Samuel Eto’o from Barça to Inter, valued at €20 million, and another €3 million to compensate for Alyaksandr Hleb refusing the transfer to Inter).
Ibrahimovic had the qualities that Eto’o supposedly lacked: the ability to hold the ball up for his teammates, the acumen to visualize the perfect pass before the action occurs, and the size to better compete for headers and ward off physical challenges. Even though Eto’o scored thirty goals and led the Pichichi race for top goalscorer most of the 2008-09 La Liga season until Diego Forlán surpassed him late in the season, the Barcelona staff felt they needed more from the center forward role than a pure poacher in the box, at which Eto’o was one of the best in the world.
Through the first few months of the season, Ibrahimovic made an immediate impact with the team, scoring in the first match of the season against Sporting Gijón, providing the only goal in El Clásico against Real Madrid in November after coming back from a hamstring injury, and netting twelve goals in his first nineteen matches in all competitions.
As the season wore on, however, his efficacy in front of goal dwindled considerably. The match against Real Zaragoza in March clearly showed how his confidence had dropped, when he fluffed three chances that Ibrahimovic would score on his worst days. He did score in that match but only because of a late penalty that Messi gave to him so that he could regain his confidence.
Aside from the first leg in the quarterfinals of the Champions League against Arsenal where he scored twice at the Emirates Stadium, he was noticeably absent both on and off the pitch in Barcelona’s most important matches. Pep Guardiola lost so much faith in Ibrahimovic at the climax of the campaign that in both legs of the Champions League semifinal against his former team Inter Milan, Guardiola substituted him in both matches at the hour mark because of his ineffectiveness. In La Liga, where Real Madrid kept the title race within three points until the final matchday, Guardiola favored Bojan Krkic over Ibrahimovic as the center forward.
Cumulatively, Ibrahimovic had twenty-one goals and ten assists in forty-one matches in all competitions, and while these are solid numbers for a player making his debut season in a new league and country, solid was not the expectation that the Blaugrana set for him. Replacing a Barça legend in Samuel Eto’o would always become an arduous task, and the Barça boardroom sent a message to Ibrahimovic that he did not fulfill what they envisaged for him with the signing of David Villa.
As any good agent should do, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s agent, Mino Raiola, tried to quell any sort of talk that the arrival of David Villa spelled the end for Ibrahimovic at the Camp Nou. In an interview with Calciomercato.it, Raiola reiterated his client’s standing with FC Barcelona:
“The club already said they were happy with Zlatan. Villa’s arrival has nothing to do with Ibra, and it does not put his stay in danger seeing that Villa can play well on the wings. He has a contract until 2014, and he is happy at Barcelona.”
As optimistic as that sounds, it could mean trouble for Pedro, Bojan, Jeffrén Suárez, and others in La Masia if Barcelona plans to keep both Ibrahimovic and Villa, but with Pedro breaking through with an outstanding season and Bojan filling Ibrahimovic’s shoes at the end of the season, it is highly doubtful that Barcelona, and specifically Pep Guardiola, would stunt the development of their own academy products in favor of Ibrahimovic.
One year for any player should not become the absolute barometer for what that player will do in the future. There is an endless amount of cases where players struggled in their first season only to recover and perform to their highest capabilities. In this day of immediate gratification and astronomical transfer fees, however, instantaneous results matter, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not given Barcelona what they wanted. If Barcelona did not make a move for Villa and Ibrahimovic was given a clean slate to go into his second season with Barcelona, a betting man would put his money on a highly successful season.
Barcelona is not a betting man and wanted reassurances with the signing of David Villa. When Barcelona sells Ibrahimovic, they will not nearly receive the value that they paid for Ibra, but they will listen to any offers that come their way.
The last opinion that Barcelona would want of themselves is that they are acting like Real Madrid in buying top talent for exorbitant prices, so a rotation that would bench Villa and Ibrahimovic for certain matches would only further this growing perception that Barcelona is turning into their eternal rivals.
Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, and now Barcelona. Four of the preeminent teams in European football, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic could not establish a permanent home in any of those clubs. If a club can solve the enigma that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he would become the most feared striker in the world. If.