Just before beating Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final, Barcelona boss Xavi was asked about Memphis Depay as speculation mounted over the Dutchman’s future.
“I have told the club that if one player wants to leave, I would want a replacement,” the 43-year-old replied.
A little over two weeks later, Depay’s sale to Atletico Madrid for €3million (£2.6m; $3.2m) remains the only transfer business conducted by the La Liga leaders, with the deadline approaching. This January window has been quiet for Barca, but only in terms of arrivals and departures. Quiet doesn’t describe the full picture.
Even when Xavi was speaking about signing new players, the club’s highest executives were discussing a different option. The club’s preference was to instead invest what the Depay sale made available on new contracts for key players Ronald Araujo and Gavi.
There was an easy explanation to their thinking — the operating restrictions imposed on them by La Liga’s rules on salary limits meant signing new players, and paying a transfer fee, would be tough.
But they were not expecting what came next. Applications to register new deals for Araujo, Gavi and Marcos Alonso were all rejected by La Liga.
And behind the scenes, there is a cold war developing. The Catalan club feel they are being treated unfairly, while La Liga questions whether Barcelona understands its financial rules.
It was in this context that Xavi, club president Joan Laporta and sporting directors Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff held internal meetings at the club’s headquarters on Monday, lasting until the late hours.
If the right opportunity was to present itself the club would still like to sign a wide attacking player, with Depay having left and Ousmane Dembele out injured. Options for a back-up full-back are also being explored. Club sources, who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions, acknowledge a loan may be the best option.
But because of all we’re about to explain, Barca are going to have to work hard to make it happen.
Let’s rewind a little to earlier in the season.
Barca’s exit at the Champions League group stages left them with a negative balance on the salary cap La Liga defined for the club. The limit is set as a percentage of revenue.
Barcelona had budgeted according to the expectation they would at least reach the Champions League quarter-finals. Without the TV money that would have come with such a run, the amount they are allowed to spend on wages would therefore have to be reduced.
The only way in which the club could make up for the money lost on European TV rights would be by reaching the Europa League final — which is not going to be easy. They face Manchester United in the knockout round play-offs, with the first leg in Spain on February 16. The winner progresses to the last-16.
In December, Barcelona were €26million (£22.8m) above the wage limit set at the start of the season — which was €656million (£576m).
This week, sources close to La Liga, who wished to remain anonymous in order to protect their jobs, told The Athletic they wonder whether Barcelona fully understand the salary cap rules, given they have recently tried three times, and failed three times, to register new contracts; those of Alonso, Araujo and Gavi.
And speaking on Monday night, La Liga president Javier Tebas said: “In terms of registrations the club can do now, it’s true that there is a margin after the savings from (Gerard) Pique (who retired in November) and Memphis (Depay), but Barcelona have to decide.
“I think it’s important to remember what Barcelona vice-president Eduard Romeu said in June; that what Barca have to do, in general, for its future, is reduce its wage bill. From €600m to €400m I think he said, a little more. Let’s see when we start.”
There are two particular articles in La Liga’s financial rules that, according to the competition body, Barcelona is still breaching.
The first one is article 101, which states that a club can’t register a contract extension in the middle of the season if La Liga projects they will still be above their salary limit for next season.
The second relates to a change to article 93.5, brought in at the end of 2022. This has implications for Barcelona both in the short and long term.
The change limits how much a strategy of asset sales like Barca’s ‘lever pulling’ last summer can affect a club’s salary cap. It also requires clubs with a negative salary limit to file a liquidity plan for the next two seasons, allowing scrutiny on how they intend to balance their numbers before registering new contracts.
Barcelona have not filed this liquidity plan yet.
Last summer, Barcelona managed to get their salary limit high enough to register several new signings, mainly due to their renowned round of asset sales, a process that came to be known as ‘pulling levers’. They believed they had been “smarter” than La Liga and its president Tebas.
Now, La Liga has introduced further rule changes that tighten Barcelona’s room for manoeuvre. They have perhaps responded to events of the summer, seeking more caution and control.
Either way, Barcelona club sources estimate their salary limit for next season will be set at round €450m to €500m, which is a significant decrease on last year’s.
On Monday, La Liga president Tebas added: “The issue of not registering Gavi comes as a consequence of the fact that it comes into effect next season.
“Barca has a deficit of more than €200m for that next season. It doesn’t seem like good timing.”
When Barca agreed to sell Depay, club executives were confident it would mean they would soon be able to register at least some of those new contracts already mentioned above. But because their relationship with La Liga has grown tense, they proceeded with the sale before making sure the registrations would be allowed.
Despite the applications being rejected, Barcelona remain optimistic that they will be able to proceed with the registrations in the summer.
“What La Liga are asking us for are technical issues that I don’t think are too relevant,” Alemany said, speaking to DAZN before Saturday’s league match at Girona.
“The reality is Gavi and Araujo are protected by their contracts with €1billion release clauses. We don’t know when they will be registered, but it’s only a bureaucratic thing that we will resolve as soon as possible.”
Barcelona, and Gavi’s camp, remain calm. But this overall picture describes the challenges facing the club in their plan to bring in new faces on deadline day.
The day could, however, end with one more departure: that of Hector Bellerin.
The 27-year-old former Arsenal right-back has been identified by Sporting Lisbon as a potential replacement for Pedro Porro, who appears close to a move to Tottenham.
After joining Barca on a free transfer last summer, Bellerin has not been able to make an impact on Xavi’s side.
He signed a one-year deal at the Camp Nou but is not expected to be offered an extension.
Bellerin has only played seven times this season, over which he has played 494 minutes. His last two appearances were Copa del Rey ties against third-tier teams Intercity and Ceuta. He has not featured in a league game since October.
The player is open to a move — and his camp is pushing for it — but he prefers a loan rather than a permanent switch, so he can choose his new destination in summer. Bellerin joined Barcelona accepting one of the lowest salaries in the squad in order to fit the limit the club had.
He now looks set to leave, but it’s Deadline Day — and it’s Barcelona. Don’t rule anything out.
(Top photo: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)
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