Barcelona eye Nolito, Ilkay Gundogan to improve depleted squad

In Barcelona’s weekend league win over Levante — which looked a stroll on paper but was anything but — the holders fielded five La Masia graduates from the start, and a further one came off the bench. From the outside, it seems all rosy for the Blaugrana as six youth products involved in first team action means lots of good things for the club, in the present and looking ahead.

Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Marc Bartra, Sandro Ramirez and Munir all started while Gerard Gumbau replaced Busquets in the second half. While Messi and Busquets are more than household names, which also includes the rested captain Andres Iniesta, not much can be said about the others in terms of pedigree and experience at the top.

Bartra has been on the fringes of the first team for half a decade now, while Sandro, Munir and Gumbao are youngsters playing for developmental teams at international level — Gumbau hasn’t yet while Munir has one cap for Spain’s senior team — which points to the thinnest of squads manager Luis Enrique is having to manage at this stage of the season.

It was widely expected Barcelona’s squad this season would be stretched to its limits following the non-event of the transfer window and the departures of key squad members Pedro and Xavi. But Rafinha’s long-term injury has escalated the concerns to another level; the club’s preferred and heavily-used 12th man will be out for the season following a ACL tear.

And although the club pulled off a win over Levante to alleviate immediate concerns, the fact regulars like Luis Suarez, Iniesta and Jordi Alba were rested shows how hard Enrique is trying to make ends meet and get the results demanded. This now turns the club’s focus heavily on the January transfer window.

The need to add numbers to the fast-dwindling ranks hasn’t assumed so much importance as it has now. Following Pedro’s transfer to Chelsea during the summer transfer window, Barca’s sporting director Robert Fernandez admitted to moving in the January window for reinforcements. Up until January comes around, there will be stories aplenty linking the club to every possible player.

The integration of Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal in January won’t be the solution if Barca are serious about their ambitions at the end of the season. Reports indicate that Nolito, Andriy Yarmolenko, Sofiane Feghouli and Ilkay Gundogan are all possible additions to a squad which will also have Club World Cup commitments in Japan to contend with before January.

While the last few months of 2015 will be spent with a severely depleted squad, performance levels are expected to drop but Luis Enrique will hope to hang on until the turn of the year to launch a belated assault on the trophies Barca won last term.

For now at least, so far so good, but a lot depends on the Asturian’s managerial nous and his squad management tactics.

There are very few players around who can immediately improve upon the quality currently available at the club; the likes of Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Iniesta, Busquets, Dani Alves are at a level of their own but it is the depth of the squad which is of pressing concern. Barca were lucky with injuries last term, but with crisis early doors this campaign, things couldn’t have been worse.

And there is a growing sense among the club’s support that Barcelona’s 2015/16 season will be defined by how well they do in the January transfer window, as Cules of all people wouldn’t want to witness Barca’s season tailing off at the business end. 

No matter how a season unfolds, success these days is measured by the silverware count at the end of it -- and Barcelona can certainly not disappoint.

By Abhijit Bharali, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter here