Glory Hunter – Barcelona: September 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Heading towards the closure of the transfer window, the temptation is to change nothing. We’ve got a good squad, and aside from a residual wish to reduce the average age there’s not very much that needs doing right now. But when I have transfer money it burns a hole in my pocket. There’s more than £60 million remaining. Players are out there. Players who need signing…

Things kick off when Valencia make an offer for Ismael Bennacer. I’ve made no secret of my desire to have the Algerian international under my wing, and the prospect of him going to a hated rival does not please me. So I match their bid, and in the meantime offer Gio Wijnaldum out to anyone who fancies a 31 year old Dutchman with occasional grievances over his earnings. There’s one place that will always take aging pros and that’s Juventus. They produce a £25 million punt, a bit less than the player’s actual value but good enough. Bennacer costs £42.5 million. He’s 24, slightly under-used by AC Milan but with the potential to go far.

I then read that Arsenal are after Bruno Guimaraes, the 24 year old Brazilian playmaker who plies his trade with Lyon. I envisage a dizzying scenario whereby he comes in and Miralem Pjanic leaves. The latter’s all right enough, but he’s 32 and it still strikes me as bizarre that someone in Barca’s past effectively traded Arthur in for him. Bruno will redress that balance. The sticking point is that Lyon won’t allow him to leave until a replacement has been signed, and the sweaty minutes pass as we wait for them to move their backsides, the player forced to wait as the £48.5 million agreed for his sale sits in the outbox. In the end, they sign not one but two midfielders, paying less for both than Bruno’s transfer fee for Djibril Sow, and former Napoli hero Stanislav Lobotka. The deal goes through, and Pjanic leaves for Lazio. He goes for around half his value, £13.75 million, and we need to pay a significant part of his spends until summer 2024 because some bright spark once thought he was worth £275,000 per week.

So what could have been a quiet window becomes anything but. I’m pleased with my signings and ambivalent about the players I’ve lost, which is just how it should be. Elsewhere, Man City pay a staggering £152 million for Real’s Federico Valverde, a ‘we’ve really seen you coming’ of a transfer if ever there was one. Joao Felix is no longer a Spanish league player, going to Liverpool for £97 million. Any departee that makes our rivals a little bit weaker is just fine with me. Martin Odegaard is another significant loss to this nation. He’s now a Manchester United midfielder, as the Premier League flexes its financial muscles.

We are scouting Ajax players hard. I would take all three of Kenneth TaylorNaci Unuvar and Ryan Gravenberch. They’re young, have amazing potential levels, and certainly in Naci’s case could come in as the long-term replacement for Coutinho. The former Liverpool attacker has started pretty well, however, as though begging me not to let him go.

We have been named 7-2 favourites to win the Champions League, an ominous tag if ever there was one. Man City, Real and group rivals PSG are all up there with us, and you can throw in Liverpool, Man United and Bayern while you’re at it. We’ll find out how close we are to earning that tag soon enough, with three group ties taking place across September.

While the international break continues, I seal another deal, a £3.7 million splurge for Malaga full-back Juan Francisco Herrera. At sweet 16, this is very much one for the future, the 4.5 potential star rating making my mind up for me. Help, I’m out of control! I can’t stop spending the club’s money. We had better end up being good because this won’t end well otherwise.

We reach the other side of the Interlull with just one significant injury. Milan Skriniar has picked up a back strain after trying to impress the youngsters during weight training. That’s three weeks without arguably our best defender and with PSG on the horizon. Nice one. Before travelling to France, however, we’re in Madrid to take on Getafe CF. They’ve started the season well and sit in fifth place. Midfielder Nemanja Maksimovic is their one to watch, albeit studded with unhappiness as he’s chasing a new contract while sadly playing for the sort of team that won’t shower him with his ‘deserved’ riches.

Getafe’s success lies in stiff defending and a tendency towards violence. I have had to make to substitutions before half-time, losing de Jong (not serious) and Fati, who’s out for a few days with a twisted knee. Before his departure the winger supplies a delicious cross for Antoine Griezmann’s close range finish. That’s all the scoring we do, and there’s certainly little possibility that the home team will trouble us.

Paris Saint-Germain clearly don’t have enough of a goals threat with Kylian Mbappe because they’ve signed Erling Haaland also. Thomas Tuchel can command considerable riches – Neymar, Icardi, Mahrez, and new signing Koopmeiners, all straining to stop us from leaving our half and causing problems for Aaron Ramsdale in their goal. This is going to be the toughest test of our Champs League run. I’d take a draw. Victory will make me believe that we might just live up to the pundits’ predictions.

It goes badly. On too many occasions the French giants simply threaten to overwhelm us. Pau’s personal battle with Haaland works out well enough. Sergi’s confrontation against Neymar ends with the latter going off injured, a three-month layoff with a hip problem. But we struggle to cope with their fluency, too frequently they break up our attacks and counter us quickly and fluidly, and when Luis Diaz scores from range, something special to beat Ter-Stegen, it’s all we deserve. Bennacer comes away from his debut with credit. Florentino Luis plays with the constancy of a whirling dervish; otherwise it’s worrying.

Back in La Liga at the weekend, and this time we’re off to Alaves in the Basque Country. I remember this lot best from when they contested the UEFA Cup Final against Liverpool some twenty years ago, and took them to a mammoth 4-4 draw before an own-goal in extra time finally killed off their effort. Beyond that, they’re a side that oscillates between the top two divisions. They’ve been back in the first division since gaining promotion in 2016, after a decade of second – and occasionally third – tier football. They aren’t at all bad, albeit there’s a sense of making up the numbers about them and we ought to take them to task at the Mendizorroza. Instead, the afternoon is largely an exercise in frustration. Defensively we’re good. Torres, Pique and Bellerin all come away with credit, neutralising the home side’s attacks. But in midfield Moriba and Guimaraes struggle to make an impact, and Dembele on the right wing shows scant evidence that he’s ready to take over from the Little God. We are good enough to win, however. One moment of magic has Jordi Alba supplying a killer pass that Ansu Fati smashes past Pacheco.

The rest is vexing, and there’s some gratitude from these quarters that the Barca board has placed so few conditions on me. All they demand is that I work within the wage budget (we’re below the threshold by £122,000) and develop players using the youth system, a condition within which I am in accord. No hopes here for the sort of sexy football required by Napoli, which is good as it generally takes me a year to whip the team into the sort of shape that’s made for entertainment. I guess they are happy as long as we win things. Nothing else matters to them.

We’re at home next to Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s tempting to dismiss the Germans because they aren’t Bayern, Dortmund or RB Leipzig, but in truth Wolfgang Schneider is leading them perilously close to Bundesliga glory. In consecutive seasons they have finished fifth, fourth, third and second, and we know what’s next in the trendline. Their key player is the ferociously named and excellently bouffant Hannes Wolf, an Austrian international attacking midfielder who normally operates as a shadow striker behind Victor Tsygankov and Marcus Thuram, two players who I had an eye on whilst at Napoli.

There’s an effort here for us to gain some ground after PSG. The side known colloquially as the Prussians – which I’m grateful for, as I don’t want to have to type ‘Monchengladbach’ again… damn – give us some trouble, but Umtiti, Busquets and the evergreen Gerard Pique deal with everything, and the latter even gets on the scoresheet when he heads Messi’s corner kick past Sommer. The visitors are fielding Allan Saint-Maximin, someone I actively coveted before moving to a club that wouldn’t offer so much as a sneeze in his direction, and they’re right to do so as the former Newcastle winger just runs into trouble against a full-back of Bellerin’s quality. In the meantime we add two more from Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi to come away with a creditable 3-0 win. The Champions League attracts capacity crowds as a matter of course, and I’m happy to have given them something to enjoy.

Another tricky tie in the league where we go away to Valencia. I would rate them as just behind ourselves and Real Madrid in terms of ability, and there’s little wonder that this one finishes in stalemate. It’s a good one though. For once Harrington Kane uses this as a stage to show his quality, scoring a brace to stand out as our best player in the game. But chances for us are few. Despite playing positively our attacking spark is largely snuffed out by Camavinga, Demiral, Azpilicueta and their groovy mates, and for each Kane goal they conjure an equaliser, both scored by Maxi Gomez. They deserve the draw, in fairness. We’re lumpy here, struggling to find any kind of fluency, and Messi in particular is kept quiet, their excellent full-back Jose Gaya making him look like a rapidly aging former great.

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All the same, I’m sanguine about drawing in Mestalla. It’s a difficult place to go and get any kind of result. The Bats have had a board takeover and are now one of Spain’s richest clubs, building to join the best this country has to offer, and their performance here leaves me grateful that the fixture is out of the way and we have left more or less unscathed. The result keeps us at the peak of the league, exactly where we want to be, albeit sharing the points haul with Atletico Madrid. The four at the top is how I expect the table to look at the end, with only the identities of the individual teams in that mini-league to be shuffled. As I see it, staying ahead of Real is the key, and we’re going to the Bernabeu next month in what should be another exercise in pure joy.

September isn’t quite over yet. We still have to go to Ajax in the Champions League, a fixture that results in a disappointing 0-0 tie. We do everything right here, achieving 62% of possession and racking up fourteen shots to their one. Messi makes up for his anonymity in Valencia with a really good display here, reaching into his bulging bag of tricks to try and find a way through, ultimately to no avail. Cillessen is excellent in the home side’s goal, and they’re steadfast at the back, anchored by the experience and guile of Daley Blind.

 

We are making heavy weather of a tough group, rather expectedly. PSG are running away with it right now, amassing three straight victories, and I know we are going to have to make up some ground to qualify. But it doesn’t matter who wins Group F. Simply staying in the competition is what counts, and the Frenchies have to come to Barca still, a revenge match that will be played in late October.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: July/August 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

After completing a meaningless friendly tournament, which we win but knackers Dembele for a week or so, the season opens with just about the most horrible fixture imaginable – Atletico Madrid away. Still managed by Diego Simeone and scoring two second placed finishes in recent seasons, they’re a perpetually competitive outfit that is predicted to finished third behind ourselves and some team that plays in white. There are various things about them that are great, notably the continued presence of Jan Oblak in goal. Almost impossible to beat without reverting to necromancy and finding some arcane magic to find a way through, they can also call upon a team of stars. Nikola Milenkovic and Andreas Christensen have been added to an already stiff defence, though their true strength is in midfield. Atleti line up with a four-man wall across the middle – Lemar, Koke, Saul, Herrera – supporting their front two of Houssem Auoar and Talles Magno.

A tough prospect to overcome then, and in truth I’d be happy enough with a draw, which is exactly what I get. Oblaks’s excellence makes the difference. I’m pleased to see our efforts to rip them apart, Little God in especially electric form as he tries to reach deep into his massive bag of tricks to find a way through. Ultimately he wins a penalty, which is taken by Harrington Kane, surely as reliable a scorer from the spot as you will ever find. Not so. He shoots wide. The honours are shared, and because we dominate the game I leave feeling a little disappointed by that scoreline.

There’s still nearly a hundred million to splash out on players. The presence of such a massive amount of lolly always leaves me uncomfortable. I want to spend it. I need to spend it. And I know where to, when it’s pointed out to me that Hector Bellerin has requested to leave Arsenal. At 27 the right-back is no longer the plucky youngster who seemed ever on the cusp of super-stardom, but he is a Barca old boy and I sense that in drafting him in I will be able to give Dest a loan move and free Sergi up to play in midfield. He doesn’t come cheap. £49.5 million is what the Gunners want and it’s what I pay, but Hector’s an obvious acquisition and the deal is done.

Going out the other door is Juan Miranda, a 22 year old left-back who doesn’t strike me as an obvious star for either the present or future. Atletico want him. They pay £23 million to make him theirs, which leaves me with nearly £69 million left to spend. There may be more activity before the window closes. We have a full 25-man squad, hitting the La Liga limit, but if Dest goes – Inter have made a loan bid – then there is an available space, and the money is sitting there, like a lead weight in the back of my mind. There are no obvious gaps in the squad, but it’s a long season and I am always in the market for a young gun. At the back of my mind is the feeling that I could use a long-term replacement for Coutinho

Before any of that there’s a home game to play against Athletic Bilbao. More than 90,000 souls are in the Camp Nou on a breezy summer evening, a gorgeous climate in which to play football. I’m keen to add three points after the disappointment of Atletico, and we get it via a hat-trick from Lionel Messi. The Little God is in terrific form, making up for the slight anonymity from Kane as we simply blow the visitors away. I’m also happy with the debut from Florentino Luis, who plays a complete game in defensive midfield to announce his ability. 3-0 will do nicely.

Liverpool beat Real Madrid 3-2 in a cracker of a Super Cup. In a bad-tempered confrontation, Martinez’s winner in extra time splits an even contest that is quite thrilling to witness. Despite conceding three, new signing Bastoni stars for Real in defence.

Sergino Dest moves to Inter for the season, and we are away to Leganes. The promoted side are tipped to struggle, so hopefully we can take advantage with a big win. Their one player who really stands out to me is centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, not for any great ability but the fact he was once a Chelsea loanee who did pretty well at Aitor Karanka’s promotion chasing Middlesbrough. Elsewhere, theirs is an incredibly Spanish side, featuring Barca alumnus in defenders Sergi Gomez and Rodrigo Tarin, and full-back Sergi Palencia. It’s 1-0, hardly an advertisement for our silky skills and a stage upon which Fati and Griezmann struggle to make any great impact. As a contest it reminds me of all those narrow victories achieved at Napoli, where a number of players take the day off from trying their best and rely on our superiority to ease us across the line. Which we do. Pau Torres does well on his debut, but it’s in midfield where we’re special. Ilaix Moriba has a busy, ‘look at what I can do’ game, and Frenkie de Jong scores the goal, something out of the ordinary with a spectacular strike wellied from distance.

Back at home to Real San Sebastian, a side that should be a pretty good one but stands aside here within the Nou Camp. I guess it’s the presence of forward Mikel Oyarzabal, someone to fear but who is well shackled by my defenders, and Xherdan Shaqiri playing on their wing. He does nothing. Philippe Coutinho puts us in front early, before Lionel Messi scores from a direct free-kick. A second-half melee ends badly for Mikel Merino, who has the ignominy of tapping the ball over his own goalline to make it 3-0. This is good stuff. Whilst much of our shooting is off-target and doesn’t test Andrade, we’re clinical when we need to be and Real seem happy to pad out their fouls account.

A home game against Granada rounds up the month. Since promotion in 2019 they have settled into lower mid-table and should be meat and drink for a team of our calibre. It’s another 3-0, notable because we prevent the visitors from so much as having a sniff at our goal while racking up enough shots to turn it potentially into a rugby score. Pau Torres scores a brace, both from set pieces, and Philippe Coutinho comes on for Fati and finds the back of the net from Sergi’s cross. We’re so good that Messi’s penalty, sliced wide of goal, doesn’t become a factor, besides which he has turned provider here, supplying both corners for the Torres goals.

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An easy enough start then, one in which we have won four and drawn one, conceding zero goals while scoring ten. Things will get more interesting in September when we face Valencia, newly moneyed and showcasing the likes of Camavinga, Suso, de Roon and this summer’s £63 million acquisition, Merih Demiral, within their ranks. I think they’ll be a challenger. Also, the Champions League starts. We’ve been handed what I consider to be a tough group. AjaxBorussia Monchengladbach, and top seeds Paris Saint-Germain await. At least we avoided Napoli, right?

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: Meet the Boys 2022/23

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

A rundown of the players who will win it all at the Camp Nou, or it will be my head on the block…

Goalkeepers

One of the first things I had to do upon being appointed was give a new deal to Marc-Andre Ter Stegen ( 30, 24 caps), one of the planet’s classiest keepers; the disaffectedness was threatening to become a crisis. Happily, it was something I could resolve quickly. He deserves it, a perfectionist who reminds me of the need for a great number one. Part of my decision was based on the presence of back-up Neto ( 33, 1 cap), who is a long way off being good enough for a team of this calibre. For all that, he’s a decent enough back-up, though over time I hope to swap him out for Inaki Pena ( 23, 0 caps), a young homegrown product who is getting first team experience with the B team. Some bright spark in the past paid £26 million for Neto and offered him a £105,000 per week contract. He’s worth neither.

Right-Backs

An area I didn’t feel the need to touch. Sergi Roberto ( 30, 22 caps) is a one-club man who can operate either here or in central midfield. A brave and hard-working international baller who’s perfect for the short passing game I prefer, he’s been a consistent and reliable club servant since his elevation from Barcelona B. In 2020 Sergino Dest ( 21, 30 caps) was snapped up from Ajax to serve as back-up. A fast and determined operator, he has the potential to become the main man over time. There’s no rush, but it’s good to see him being available for us. Barca have a couple of good prospects who can be elevated to the first team. Moussa Wague ( 23, 37 caps) is on loan at Club Brugge, and Emerson ( 23, 1 cap) is playing his football for Fenerbahce this year.

Left-Backs

Jordi Alba ( 33, 76 caps) is one of the several club relics who harks back to bright times and is now approaching his career’s end. Now beginning to decline, especially in physical areas, I see it as part of my brief to replace waning players like him and it’s for that reason I have brought Marc Cucurella ( 24, 0 caps) back to the Camp Nou. Inserted initially as a squad player but tasked with taking over eventually, he’s a smart and lightning-fast wing-back who believes innately in the club’s ethics. A long way away from readiness for first team football, Dimitris Tzavidas ( 17, 0 caps) is the one to watch for the future. If my dynastic instincts are correct, then by the time Jordi’s contract is up in two years’ time, Marc and Dimi will have the capacity to take over.

Centre-Backs

A new contract for Gerard Pique ( 35, 102 caps), who’s now earning big wages for being here until 2025. At any other club this would be a reckless waste of money, but he’s our captain and a team leader, and in my early days in charge I think moves like this matter. Even at 35 he’s still excellent, a composed and technically excellent Catalan at the heart of defence who by the end will have completed five hundred league games for us. The first choice to start alongside him is Milan Skriniar ( 27, 52 caps), acquired expensively by Koeman and almost the perfect centre-back. Imagine having Robocop play for you, this perfectionist athlete who’ll never stop working.

Next in the ranking is Pau Torres ( 25, 13 caps), my addition to the unit. A current international who seems determined to up his game to Barca levels, he should be competing with us for years to come. The fourth and probably least of the bunch is Samuel Umtiti ( 28, 31 caps), who after some reticence I offered a new deal to as he’s still very good. Reliable, technically gifted and consistent, he’s accepted squad rotation status and due to our high standards will be liable to play the fewest games among the group.

There are several players with high potential who are bubbling under. I’m happy to keep Ronald Araujo ( 23, 1 cap) around. Homegrown and available for loan, though it’s not a problem either if he remains with us, he represents our future, as does Jean-Clair Todibo ( 22, 0 caps), who is spending the year with Sporting Lisbon.

Defensive Midfielders

I didn’t especially want to sell Oriol Busquets. My preferred plan was to offer him out on loan, however the stability of a permanent deal to a club that will give him the amount of football that he wants was the deciding factor. Maybe I’ll look him up for a re-signing one of these days. For now I can call on his older brother Sergio Busquets ( 34, 134 caps), a vastly experienced leftover from the Guardiola era who has seen and won just about every possible competition in the game. By now waning physically, he’s otherwise excellent and I am sanguine about relying on his veteran presence. The job of Florentino Luis ( 22, 6 caps) is to assert himself as the regular starter, and this first season ought to see the handover take place. Described by the coaches as a model citizen and highly reliable, it’s clear he sees this as his big chance for stardom and an opportunity he will grasp with some relish.

Central Midfielders

The best is Frenkie De Jong ( 25, 38 caps), by this stage an advanced playmaker par excellence, a world class star who is one of the best on the planet at the job that he does and is continuing to improve. Other sides want him – they can want. He’s the senior pro to Ilaix Moriba ( 19, 0 caps), the homegrown firebrand who is steadily emerging as a star player for us. Carefully eased into the first team, my brief is to give him more game time and transform him into the star player that he clearly going to end up becoming.

In terms of our deep lying playmakers we can call upon Miralem Pjanic ( 32, 120 caps), who was at one point the subject of a swap deal with Juventus that handed Arthur over to them. Personally I preferred the Brazilian, however Miralem is a vastly experienced midfielder, a superb team player who wholly belongs at this level. He is battling with Georginio Wijnaldum ( 31, 81 caps) for the starting role. A free signing for us in 2021, Gio is a strong, consistent and technically excellent performer who entirely belongs at this level, and best of all is his sheer enthusiasm to take on the biggest of opponents in our colours.

Beyond Sergi Roberto, who’s perfectly comfortable in central midfield, Barca have several young guns who are out on loan and vying for a place. Monchu ( 22, 0 caps) is a deep lying playmaker spending the year with new Serie A side, Monza. Not quite at our level but great at passing and technical facets, this is his opportunity to assert his first team credentials. Or how about Riqui Puig ( 22, 0 caps), playing the season at Basel and looking great creatively. The coaching staff aren’t sure he is at our level, but I think it may be a case of bubbling under and that he will make it. The one to really watch is Gonzalo ( 16, 0 caps), with Segoviana in the Second Division. There are doubts about his willingness to work towards meeting his massive potential, but he has time to get there. Matheus Fernandes ( 24, 0 caps) is a box-to-box midfielder who is beginning to suggest that he will never quite make the grade, while David Timmer ( 16, 0 caps) and Joan ( 15, 0 caps) represent the brighter of distant hot prospects.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

Barca are blessed here to the extent that I saw little future in the side for Adnan Januzaj and sold him off. Currently it’s the domain of Lionel Messi ( 35, 152 caps), the GOAT and Barca legend who remains a considerable jewel in our crown. Signing a year’s extension to his contract and sticking around until 2024, his abilities remain dizzyingly high even if his physical attributes aren’t what they once were. He holds off Ousmane Dembele ( 25, 35 caps), at one point a staggeringly high £98 million signing and still struggling to justify the price-tag. He has everything he needs to achieve greatness, though his injury record (eleven knocks in two years) suggests there’s a fundamental lack of reliability in his capacity to start match after match.

Sitting neatly behind is Pedri ( 19, 2 caps), off the production line of fantastic homegrown kids and able to play in various positions across midfield. Highly prized and improving quickly, it’s his ability to do the unexpected that makes him such an exciting player for the future. Of the loanees Ilias Akhomach ( 18, 0 caps) might be the best and will hone his talents this year with Gijon. Both Alex Collado ( 23, 0 caps) and Francisco Trincao ( 22, 0 caps), on loan with Levante and Kobenhavn respectively, might never quite make the grade. It’s a staggeringly high one.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

It’s a toss-up here between the experience and reputation of Coutinho ( 30, 91 caps) and the sheer potential and emerging brilliance of Ansu Fati ( 19, 21 caps). It’s a privilege of a problem to have, one being among the great prospects of world football and the other at one point breaking the transfer record, a £137 million acquisition from Liverpool who Koeman transformed into a key player for the team. The clear path is for Ansu to wrest the position over time, but for now it’s a nice problem to have.

Gavi ( 18, 0 caps) is the best of the prospects, an inverted winger who isn’t far from first team level but could use a year’s loan, playing plenty of football, to get himself into position.

Strikers

There’s a tendency at this club to make a statement signing every year. In 2021, Koeman’s pick was Sir Harrington Kane ( 29, 68 caps), bought from Spurs for £83 million. A lifelong Tottenham kid, Harry repaid Barca with an excellent 2021/22 and is surely one of the world’s great centre-forwards. In pre-season, he scores a goal from such an acute angle that I am just as convinced by his sheer virtuosity, as though there were any doubts. He just about holds off Antoine Griezmann ( 31, 100 caps), though in truth the pair are entirely interchangeable and the latter an equally potent presence on the wings. A £108 million signing in 2019, the Frenchman will be a big star for us because how can he not be?

The classic Tiki Taka philosophy of Pep Guardiola, which asserts you don’t actually need strikers, leads to a dearth of potential in this area, however you should watch out for Arni Sorensen ( 17, 4 caps) and Fabian Luzzi ( 18, 0 caps), both working hard in the Under-19s to push themselves to the dizzyingly high standards that Barca demands.

Glory Hunter – Welcome to Barcelona: Summer 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Like that, I’m whisked from adulation in Naples to shrugs and general nonplussed attitudes in Barcelona. My wage jumps to £155,000 per week. With this I can afford a seven-bedroom mansion in Vilanova i la Geltru, built in 1912 and once the summer home of the Bishop of Barcelona. Nice.

The first thing to do is check out the squad. It’s very good, indeed it’s a clear jump from what I’m used to. Whilst at Naples I pondered who to alternate with Victor Osimhen, here I get to choose between Harrington Kane and Antoine Griezmann, a nice headache for any manager to have. Footballing legends like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong pass me on the corridor. Topping off the lot is of course Lionel Messi, the Little God himself, by now 34 and still spreading his divine presence around the Camp Nou.

It’s tempting to believe that there isn’t a thing I need to do to improve this lot, which of course isn’t true at all. Overall the standard is very high; still, I start spotting gaps, notably at left-back, where they still rely on an aging Jordi Alba. He has something to contribute, but it’s for sure that the abilities have waned over the years. Pique, Busquets and even the Little God are all entering their twilight years as top drawer international superstars. And that, I find, is the job here, nothing less than overseeing the transition from a team that still relies on its former deities. It’ll take some doing. You don’t easily replace these guys.

Barca finished in third place in 2021/22. Real Madrid were champions on 102 points, dropping 14 across the entire season and putting a huge distance between them and us. We actually won the title the year before while gaining fewer points, but the white half of Madrid roused themselves into action this time around, and for good measure added the Europa League along the way. Thanks Maurizio Sarri, replacing Zidane and smoking his way to instant success at the Bernabeu. In the Champions League, Porto saw us off in the first knockout round. A sorry second half to the considerable success we produced in 2020/21. It did for Ronald Koeman, and opened the door to your writer.

It’s late June. I’m trying to recruit a team of new coaches because Koeman left me with three to work with the first team, though soon enough I learn that a promise I rashly made in my job interview was to change nothing in the backroom staff. This holds until late December, meaning the first team runs with a tiny coaching team for now. The only change I can make for now is to promote youth coach Ivan Cuadrado.

The Barca transfer budget is a staggering £160 million. There’s nearly five hundred grand left to spend on wages each week – the overall amount is six million, essentially doubling what I had to blow at Napoli. There’s a very nice number of homegrown players in the first team. Prodigious teenagers grown from within like Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Pedri and Ilias Akhomach rub shoulders with the giants, players they all look up to. There are more ploughing away at Barcelona B, a young midfielder like Nico who at most clubs would already be a first team regular. It’s a daunting place at which to work. Talent is everywhere. I need to make sense of this.

Barca expects. They want their league title back, and a final placing in next season’s Champions League would be nice as well. The board aren’t bothered about domestic cup competitions, which shows just where their focus is, but of course I am. Glory Hunter cannot progress without claiming the Spanish Cup along the way, though I can see myself staying here for a little while. There’s something dizzying about taming the beast that is FC Barcelona. The resources available are incredible, and the ever-present challenge from the two Madrid clubs is something to work against.

A number of contracts are up in 2023. These include legends like Busquets and Messi, also Umtiti and Junior Firpo. Gerard Pique demands a new deal, and even at 35 I think it’s worth offering him one. His new deal includes wresting the captaincy from Little God, a change I would probably want to affect anyway so this is a nice, underhand way of resolving it. Georginio Wijnaldum is also hankering after improved terms; I tell him to do one and he accepts that! Everyone is offered an extension apart from Firpo, the left-back who I frankly don’t think is good enough to remain here. He’ll be offered out instead.

The Brazilian ends up leaving, going to Lazio for a fee of £10 million. I want to replace him with an up and coming star to steadily take the left-back spot permanently from Alba. My choice is Marc Cucurella, who grew up here before Koeman sold him to Getafe. We sign him for £32 million, which is more than we got for him when he left but money isn’t really an object at the Camp Nou and my sense is that Marc belongs with us.

Centre-back is another area of comparative weakness. There is one really good player – Milan Skriniar, a signing from Inter last summer, and in Pique we have an aging legend, plus Samuel Umtiti. Below them are young guns who I don’t see as being perfectly ready for the grit of first team football. Jean-Clair Todibo is the best, a 22 year old Frenchman who is close but not there yet and could use a season on loan. Ronald Araujo is a decent Uruguayan prospect, also made available on loan but I’m just happy if he stays as ballast. We need a fourth good one. I go for Pau Torres, the 25 year old Spanish international at Villarreal. He’s someone I lusted after at Napoli. He wasn’t affordable then, but he is now. £57 million is the fee for his services.

In defensive midfield, Barca showcase the two Busquets brothers. Sergio is approaching the back-end of an illustrious career. Oriol is wanted by Lazio, who offers £25 million for him. In my view, I’d rather loan him out, but the Romans are prepared to give him first team regularity, which I never would, so that seals his exit. I go for Florentino Luis as the long-term pick. The Benfica man has a minimum fee release clause of £50 million, and at 22 can operate at the top level for a long time. The deal is done, completed easily because people want to play for us.

The other first teamer I sell off is Adnan Januzaj. Barca already have some bloke called Lionel Messi who operates perfectly from the right wing, with Ousmane Dembele an ideal alternative choice, and Pedri and Akhomach serving as our youthful options. Januzaj, now a long way from the rabbit in the headlights bairn he was under David Moyes’s brief, unhappy stint at Manchester United, was brought in by Koeman in 2021 and barely used. He paid £38 million for the Belgian. We recoup two million less than that in moving him on to Juventus.

Pre-season is a string of bulldozer showings. Ajax, Roma, Basaksehir and Leixoes are all dispatched at an aggregate score of 14-1, and then the league calendar looms. We start at the end of July with one of the toughest tests I’ll face – an away day at Atletico Madrid – before the calendar begins in earnest. You’ll recall that this is the season that will take two months off in the middle for the winter World Cup. Either side of that is a schedule that runs to the very end of May.

Unless something dramatic happens in the month between now and the end of the transfer window, like for instance I make the bizarre decision to rescue Cristiano Ronaldo from his hell in free agency (Juve released him), the squad will not change much from where it stands presently. It looks like this – homegrown (trained in Spain) players are shaded green; homegrown (trained at club) in blue:

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Summer 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Neapolitans entering the final years of their contracts are Koulibaly, Asenjo and De Sciglio. The veteran keeper pretty much accepts the same terms again for another season. De Sciglio demands enough to put me off from offering him anything, and Kouli is still cross with me after I accepted a Manchester United bid for him last summer. It was a lot of money, in truth, however I’m sure this will all be ironed out once he simmers down, given that his love of the club is so fervent that the incident has put him in a year long sulk.

The gap between the wages that we currently pay and the budget ceiling is nearly engulfed as a string of players demand new deals. Their demands are actually fair enough, I feel, even though sorting out the contracts means we have more people on six-figure weekly salaries and, in Fabian’s case, we are splashing out £170,000 per week for his services. That’s the price of stardom for you. The trouble is that it was a case of doing this or probably losing the guy to Liverpool, and nobody wanted that. Eric Garcia’s freshly signed £120,000 weekly spends removes the £40 million release clause from his contract, and that’s important for someone who emerged as a first team player. The two main men in central defence (Kouli and Manolas) are both in their fourth decade now. Garcia is 21. He’s the future and they are not.

I’ve identified centre-forward and left-back as my priority positions to fill, beyond the usual wishlist of picking up good players wherever they emerge. I struggle to find anyone to back up Grimaldo who isn’t going to cost a pretty penny. My underhand scheme is to bring Luca Pellegrini back in for another season on loan, hope that Juve forget that he’s in his last season with them and snap him up for free in 2023. It’s a gamble, but it might just work. High quality players for the role who are prepared to rotate just aren’t lying around right now. This one could run and run.

As for strikers, I am determined not to get it wrong again. The lacklustre performances of Schik and Edouard show just how easy it is to think you’re getting a strike of capability, until to find they are faint of heart when it really matters on the field. Added to that, forwards are often expensive and it’s criminally easy to mess up while having lashed a lot of the club’s money on your mistake.

Alongside three Brazilians, I am as ever following the fortunes of Sebastiano Esposito closely. Winning six of the nine possible Under-19 Player of the Month awards in Serie A this season, scoring nineteen goals in thirty-three appearances for Sampdoria overall, it’s clear enough that he’s a complete forward of real quality, and that this very high level of talent and potential possibly makes his mother team, Internazionale, unwilling to entertain any permanent offers. So it might be one of the three Brazilians, players I’m a little reticent about as Esposito is no stranger to Serie A and they are. In any event, those Samba superstars:

  • Pedro (Flamengo) – 25 year old who has forced his way into the Brazil national side and now finds himself wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City. While the asking price could be as little as £17 million, his agent informs me that Pedro would require Napoli’s squad to be improved significantly before he would even consider signing for us. Bloody cheek.
  • Brenner (Sao Paulo) – he’s broken into their first team at 22, scoring eighteen from twenty-seven appearances and he’s now on the shopping list of various outfits. He’s gettable, but the striker’s perception of himself could put him in direct opposition with Osimhen over who is the preferred first choice. I’m not certain that he’s worth the hassle.
  • Marcos Leonardo (Santos) – the teenage option, a tender 19 who’s attracting longing looks from Manchester United and Atletico Madrid. The youngster has simply been a goal-scoring phenomenon at Santos and I am advised to sign him at any price. This, incidentally, is around the £15 million mark, so he’s affordable, but again he expects to treat the San Paolo as a stepping stone, a showcase for his talents, and that makes him a risk.

Questions, questions, ones that will need answers. In the meantime, Empoli accept a request from Samuele Ricci to go on the transfer list. They haven’t achieved promotion, and so the 20 year old midfielder – one of Italy’s most exciting young talents – wants to go elsewhere. The deep lying playmaker is definitely one for the future, but what a future, and we can get him for £7.5 million, which seems like a reasonable price for someone who should develop into a top player for club and country. The scouts identify 17 year old Bruno Coutinho, currently with Braga, as a great prospect. A ball playing defender who is yet to make a first team appearance, it’s his bravery along with high physical levels that are qualities upon which to build. £1.2 million will do the trick, a tiny gamble for a possible future star.

Tottenham’s attentions on Eljif Elmas convert into actual cash money offers. I knock them up to £53 million before accepting. It will mean seeing off a good and very promising midfielder, but losing him should allow me to go after someone I really want – Milan’s Ismael Bennacer, available it seems for about half the Elmas bid. Bennacer, an Algerian international who has been used sparingly at the San Siro, ticks all the boxes, not least his complete knowledge of Serie A, and selling Elmas is the route to bringing him in.

I believe that my efforts to sell Hirving Lozano are a non-starter until Lazio, still without a manager, show up with a straight £40 million offer. Thanks, we’ll take it! Again, I have someone in mind. The player I would like to replace him is Allan Saint-Maximin, part of the Newcastle side that’s just been relegated. ASM looks like a match winner, and I think he will fit really well within the Napoli set-up. The chance of a fresh start in a different country ought to be really appetising to him.

So that’s where we’re at currently, in the middle of June as the players are on their holidays. Then I get the call from the Nou Camp. They want to interview me for the Barcelona job. I agree to all the things they demand, mainly not wanting anything to be done by the board nor replacing the Director of Football, and then I’m offered the post of manager. At Barcelona. And without further ado I’m off to work at one of the world’s biggest and most impressive set-ups.