The Afellay Principle

One reason this place always gets so quiet in the offseason is that we writers get busy with other projects (examples from the writers this summer: starting a new job, moving, travel, producing original community theater, etc). Another is that I can’t stand transfer season. I don’t enjoy the endless speculation, the wild click-bait headlines which produce their own click-bait headline-denying headlines, and the long-winded fantasies of what amazing players might come this year…if only money, geography, and possibly the space-time continuum weren’t factors (“What are Sevilla’s chances of signing a 1974 Maradona? What about a 2036 Bambinho? Click here to learn more!!!” (Terribly, terribly, really, terribly sorry about that. Ugh, I feel just awful about that. Really sorry.)).

But a paragraph by Kxevin in a post over at Barcelona Football Blog got me thinking, and thinking got me writing, and before I knew it, I had an offseason post. Kxevin writes that this summer Barca must:

Make a decision on Afellay. His talent is immense. His playing time will be minimal. He has skills as a winger, ball handler and attacker and is a unique player. The question is whether he is a unique player who will be happy with the playing time scraps that he will be getting from us next season. I am in favor of keeping him, as I think he does things that Cuenca/Tello can’t do. But if we keep him, we are going to have to actually use him, and integrate him into the side so that he isn’t Stranger in a Strange Land when he comes in. You could see him as part of an attacking trident that included Villa and Sanchez, or in midfield with Thiago for Copa matches and the like.

It’s an interesting problem Barca have with Afellay: they bought a very good player for very little money, and presumably believe he could become something great. But is there room for him in the squad? How do they develop him? How do they even play him at all? What’s his use in the squad? As Kxevin notes, he has a lot of talent and very little opportunity to play; a terrible combination for any player. If you’re a long-time reader of this space, it won’t surprise you that the above paragraph reminded me of when Barca signed Afellay, and of our response at the time, and of the conversation with Barca fans that happened both in the comments of that post and over at BFB. If you don’t feel like reading through internet comments of partisan soccer blogs (which would mean that you are an intelligent, reasonable person with important real-life things to attend to), I’ll summarize the exchange. On both sites, Sevilla fans lamented their club having followed Afellay closely for some time, only to have a much bigger club swoop in and grab him up; we lamented the loss of the player but also the likely loss of his chances to develop into a great player. Barca fans pointed out that Afellay was free to go where he wanted, and that Barca was free to sign who they wanted, and that finally Afellay very well could develop into a star within the confines of FCB. That led to a further discussion that gets at the point of this post, which feels like it needs its own paragraph (and this is getting long, so what the heck–let’s throw a jump in as well!).

The trouble with Barca (and any of the biggest clubs in the world but especially Spain’s big two) signing Afellay (and any player you’d put in that category of having tons of potential but absolutely no experience or proven success in a major team or league) is that those big teams are simply not built to develop those kinds of talents and integrate them into a squad. La Masia (and really Real Madrid’s Fábrica, too, but for simplicity of this discussion I’ll just focus on Barcelona from here on out) is obviously renowned for turning kids into superhuman soccerbots, but the skill set and resources required to develop hundreds of promising 10-year-olds into a couple great 23-year-olds are very different from what goes into polishing a 20-year-old talent into a 25-year-old great. In La Masia, coaches have the luxury of years of time and the knowledge that a pretty low rate of return is acceptable–that some amount of failure is ok and even planned for. Away from the brightest lights, players have the opportunities they need to make mistakes and learn from them. Contrast that to the two-horse race we’ve all resigned ourselves to calling La Liga, where an unproven newcomer steps onto Camp Nou knowing that it’s basically unacceptable to drop any points, ever, all year long. Combine that with the fact that fans of both big two teams will basically come unglued at the seams for winning anything less than one major trophy, and you’ve got something less than an ideal learning environment. “Good luck out there, don’t cost us the season” is not what you want to hear from your coach (or in your mind) as you touch the grass before playing for your team for the first time.

This is a bit of a side note, but it’s worth comparing Afellay’s situation to Dani Alves. There are several important distinctions to make (briefly, Afellay was 5 years older and 6 times the cost of Alves and already in Europe at their respective times of signing), but it’s worth thinking about. To begin, there’s the likelihood that Alves wouldn’t have become Alves if he’d signed to Barca at 19 from a small club in Brazil. Although he’s nominally a defender, Alves is like a pure attacking player in that his style inherently requires risk-taking for any success. Can you imagine Alves ever developing his skills bombing up the right while trying to prove himself to Rijkaard in 15 minute spurts of game time? “Great cross Dani, but you conceded a goal so you won’t be seeing the pitch again for some time”. It’s very hard to imagine little 19-year-old Dani Alves becoming The Best Right Back in the World® on Barca’s bench behind Belleti, Zambrotta, etc. Alves to Barca in 2002 (not that it was on anyone’s mind at the time) would have been bad for all parties involved: Dani Alves wouldn’t become a superstar, Barcelona would almost certainly have fewer trophies, Sevilla wouldn’t have gotten the €50 million they’re probably still living on, and La Liga would have one less great story and team to talk about in the 2000’s, and quite possibly one more team in financial ruin. Alves coming to Sevilla was good for him, good for Sevilla, and ultimately good for Barca and even La Liga.

I think when Barca fans (and probably lots of Sevilla fans) think about the story of how Alves came to them, they think how shrewd (and fortunate) Sevilla was to find a talent on the cheap and make a fat paycheck on him a few years later. From this standpoint, Sevilla are simply good businessmen (maybe even middlemen) investing in an asset and making bank on Barca, who sort of played the chump in the deal. If you see it that way it makes sense to think that Barca, too, should try to do good business and make those same investments instead of always being the sucker who’s overpaying. But of course Sevilla wasn’t simply feeding Alves Pixie Stix and showing him Roadrunner cartoons during his time with the club; he was being trained, taught, and groomed into the player he has ultimately become. And again: Barcelona simply doesn’t have it in them (in their “DNA”, as they might say) to realize that kind of conversion. To put it another way: Sevilla has very little money but lots of the resources necessary to develop talent, while Barca has much more money for finished products than they do roster space for prospective talent.

And that brings us, once again, to Afellay. From Barca’s perspective, they have a player they paid €3 million for, who’s probably worth €8-9 million right now. But of course anyone who looks at Afellay sees the €20-25 million player he seems destined to become. So while Barca could profit a few million by selling him now, it feels like a loss. But it’s very difficult to imagine a future in which Afellay becomes that €20M player at Barcelona. He not only needs to overcome Villa or Alexis or Iniesta or Pedro (depending on where you see him playing), he must also overcome the Masia kids that have moved up while he’s been injured (Cuenca, Thiago, Tello, etc), AND the canteranos that are just now developing and need to be integrated into the squad. Maybe Afellay becomes a consistent sub in this context, but he’s not going to become the player that Barcelona presumably saw him one day being when they signed him. It’s important to note that while this outcome is less desirable than the win-win-win situation I’ve described for Alves, it’s easy to see that from Barca’s perspective this isn’t a loss–probably something more like “a good problem to have”, with a €5M cherry on top. After all, they could make a small profit by selling him, and have not really lost anything in terms of developing their other players. But I’d argue this scenario would be a loss: Barca needed the player that Sevilla (or a handful of other clubs that are good at this sort of thing) would produce, but didn’t need the money or the player they bought and can’t develop.

So what’s the point of this? Why am I talking about Barca’s overcrowded roster of megastars teeming with talent on a Sevilla blog? The thing is, the Barcas of the world need the Sevillas of the world, and vice-versa. Especially in La Liga, where the TV revenue is such that non-hegemony teams have to find alternative revenue streams just to survive, it is vital for everyone (the big two, the little guys, the players themselves, and La Liga in general) involved that the big guys let the little guys do what they do best, and then pay them handsomely for it. The monied clubs of Europe (and again, especially Spain) are good at buying expensive, finished products. They’re just as suited to developing an unproven player as Sevilla is at buying a Cavani or a Van Persie. When the Big Two try to do this job they disrupt this process, and unless they find a way to do what at this point they’re not really capable of doing, they create a string of negative consequences. Real Madrid and Barca can buy up all the Canales’s and Afellay’s with whatever’s in the couch cushions and then let them stagnate on their bench or loan them out, and it’ll look like a win for them because they paid €3M instead of €30M for the “same player”, but in reality they’re missing out on the player they need. And the consequences of that loss will impact not just the big clubs, but the players themselves, the other clubs, and even the Liga we all love.