Life Without Verratti

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Barcelona’s pursuit of reinforcements in midfield was the main storyline of the offseason before the Neymar-to-PSG saga began, and regardless if Neymar leaves Barcelona or not, midfield remains the biggest area of weakness for the team. When Marco Verratti, Barça’s dream signing, inked a new contract with the Parisian club, chances of him moving to Catalonia dropped significantly, and now that PSG are pursuing Neymar so fervently, it seems impossible for two clubs to come to an amicable agreement regarding Verratti any time soon.

Thus, it is time to move on to other transfer targets who could stand to bolster Barcelona’s declining midfield. Unfortunately, the only midfielder the club has had any official interest in beside Verrati is Paulinho, but hopefully Barcelona were only barking up that tree in order to appease Neymar’s apparent request to bring in more Brazilian players. In the event that Neymar doesn’t leave the club and cause a drastic shakeup in the club’s transfer plans, here are three of the midfielders around Europe who I think would be fantastic additions for Barcelona.

Jean Michael Seri, CM, Nice

Seri is a delightful midfielder who was the most important player on a Nice team finished third in Ligue 1, 14 points clear of fourth-place Lyon. His game is very easy on the eye; Seri has all of the flicks and tricks you could ask from a midfielder while also possessing the industry necessary to offer enough of a defensive component in both a two- and three-man midfield.

Monaco’s central midfielders – Tiemoue Bakayoko and Fabinho – were the hot commodities on the market this summer, but Seri had a similarly brilliant season and is just a few years older at 26. Seri led Nice in passes (83.4, 3rd in Ligue 1), assists (9, 2nd), key passes (2.2, 4th) and minutes for an outfield player. Nice were second in Ligue 1 in possession behind PSG thanks in large part to the control that Seri offered in midfield. He controlled the tempo of the game for Nice, connecting the lines from a deeper position at times while carrying the ball forward and finishing chances himself on other occasions (7 goals).

At Barcelona, Seri would be an excellent fit in the 4-3-3 alongside Busquets and a more attacking midfielder like Iniesta or Denis Suarez, and he also has experience playing in a 4-2-3-1 should Ernesto Valverde choose to carryover his preferred formation during his time at Bilbao. Imagine Seri dropping back alongside Busquets to receive the ball and then utilizing whichever part of his skillset the situation called for in order to get Barcelona flowing into the attack. He can play long balls forward to Suarez, who loves to run in behind, or he can play quick 1-2s with Messi and Neymar, with full backs like Alba and Semedo joining in to create triangles, to break the opposition’s pressure, or dribble forward himself.

Seri is a press-resistant player that has a lot of cute skills in his repertoire to keep the ball and his pass accuracy is tremendous in tight spaces. The main question regarding Seri is whether he has shown enough to prove he is a Barça-caliber player. This was only his second season at Nice after playing two seasons in Portugal for Paços de Ferreira and his worst performances in France have been in the Europa League, perhaps a sign that his dominance in Ligue 1 is a bit misleading.

Seri would, however, be a relative bargain in the modern transfer market. He is said to have a €40 million release clause, but that price for Barcelona could be even lower that fee could be lower due to a clause in his contract that would give Barcelona a discount if they were the club interested. Given the supposed price of Verratti (somewhere between €80-100 million), Barcelona could instead invest in a couple of options, hedging their bets in a way, but with an already crowded midfield, perhaps the club would rather purchase one player who is more proven.

Jorghino, CM, Napoli

One of the most attractive and cohesive units in European football last season Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side, and Jorginho was one of the Ciucciarelli’s most important players. Jorginho was Napoli’s metronome; when he was on the pitch, every one of Napoli’s purring attacks filtered through him.

No player in Europe averaged more passes than Jorginho last season (98 per game), with familiar names like Thiago, Verrati and Seri trailing just behind him in the top five. In 2015, Jorginho set the record for touches in a match this season with 218, topping a list that includes players like Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Thiago and Xavi (three times). According to Opta, he has the six highest touch totals in Seria matches in the past decade. Jorginho’s game is all about dictating play, and the numbers say he does a masterful job of it.

And the film agrees.

I scouted Jorginho in a Serie A match against Udinese. As you would expect against lower-half opposition, Napoli were dominant, but it is worth watching how critical Jorginho was in not only allowing Napoli to control possession, but to truly dominate the game by creating chances and getting the attack moving forward. During the past couple of seasons, Barcelona have controlled the ball just as they always do against bottom-half teams, but they have not controlled the action in the way they did under Pep Guardiola because of the lack of a line-breaking midfielder.

Enter Jorginho.

The amount of times Jorginho threads the needle to Hamsik, Napoli’s creative attacking midfielder (think Iniesta for Barcelona), is stunning. This kind of forward pass has been lacking for Barcelona, as well as the kind of player who controls the tempo and links the lines like Jorginho does. Just watch how many times the ball circulates through Jorginho in this match, as he kickstarts the engine to get the attack going. And, as you can see with his assist to Mertens, he also has an eye for the killer pass.

Jorginho plays at the base of Napoli’s 4-3-3, and that raises the question of how he would fit in Barcelona’s 4-3-3, which has Sergio Busquets as the irreplaceable pivot. Jorginho is a solid positional defender, but isn’t as proficient at breaking up play as Verratti or even Seri is. Playing him alongside Busquets and Iniesta might leave the midfield short on industry to win the ball back. Inserting Ivan Rakitic into the lineup for Iniesta would add more balance, with Rakitic willing to do the defensive work and posing a goal threat from midfield, but then Barcelona would likely be asking Messi or Neymar to tuck in and carry the ball forward too often, as that isn’t Rakitic’s strong suit.

There is also this, which is likely the biggest concern with Jorginho: Sarri’s seeming lack of faith in him in big games. Amadou Diawara was preferred to Jorginho away at Juventus in league play and in both legs of their Champions League tie against Real Madrid (Jorginho was an unused sub on all three occasions). Jorginho only started half of Napoli’s games in the Champions League and was the team’s worst player on the field in their home match against Besiktas in the group stage. If Sarri didn’t trust Jorginho against Madrid, it certainly raises an eyebrow and questions about whether he is cut out for Barcelona.

But if we go by what the complete picture tells us, then Jorginho would be a fantastic signing who could help Barcelona dominate the midfield in the majority of their games, and he’d get a chance to prove himself in the biggest matches, which was an opportunity he didn’t have at Napoli. The worst case scenario is that Barcelona get their best backup option for Busquets in many years and someone’s whose value will only ascend during the next few years.

Emre Can, DM, Liverpool

Can is a very different option than Seri and Jorginho. While signing the previous two targets would be attempts to replace Xavi, buying Can would give Barcelona another kind of midfielder they have been missing: A box-to-box destroyer.

Presumably, Barcelona is in the market for this kind of player, because the explanation they gave for pursuing Paulinho revolved around him being taller and more athletic with an engine to cover the length of the pitch. Can offers that and the potential to fill other roles as well. After arriving at Liverpool as a hybrid centerback, Can has played as the holding midfielder, a No. 6 and a No. 8 under Jurgen Klopp and he projects to offer that versatility and then some as his game develops further.

Can playing alongside Busquets in a three-man midfield or a 4-2-3-1 offers all of the freedom in the world to the creative midfielder who is paired with them. With Busquets protecting the back four and Can covering all of the action in front of him, someone like Iniesta would have very little defensive work to do and could instead focus on carrying the ball forward. Can also has offensive value as well. While he is not the most reliable passer, he as a great shot from distance and he is good at powering forward with the ball.

I scouted Can in Liverpools 1-1 draw away to Manchester United, a contest in which Can earned Man of the Match honors. Can’s offensive contributions weren’t mind-boggling or as decisive as Jorginho’s, but he was an effective ball mover for Liverpool. Where he really starred was defensively. Whether it was winning aerial duels in midfield, breaking up United’s play on the touchlines or keeping Paul Pogba in his pocket, Can showcased the breadth of his defensive contributions.

While Liverpool’s focus this summer has mostly been on signing Naby Keita (who would also be a great target for Barcelona, though his price, as Liverpool are learning, is astronomical), Can has been waiting for a new-and-improved contract from the club. You wouldn’t think the Reds would be open to selling him this summer, but if he grows restless with the lack of a new deal and if Liverpool are desperate enough for Keita, perhaps they would sell Can to solidify their next huge bid for Keita.

Mark Travis is a 23-year old sportswriter who recently graduated from Oklahoma State University with a Bachelor of Science in Sports Media. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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