As the last days of the January transfer window were getting closer, Barcelona sporting director Deco received an unexpected visitor at his office.
Waiting behind the door was Oriol Romeu. The 32-year-old midfielder, aware that his impact has been below the expectations Barca had when they signed him from Girona last summer, had decided to push for a move out of the club.
His former club were interested in taking him back, and Romeu was aware of it. Girona, La Liga title contenders this season, were trying to find the right profiles to bolster their squad depth last month. Romeu fit the bill perfectly — a player who knew the club, who starred for them last season, and who plays in a position they needed to strengthen.
It seemed like a great idea to Romeu, but Barcelona’s sporting director Deco did not need much time to tell him they were not open to any move.
Deco rejected the prospect of Romeu’s departure because Barca would not have been able to bring in a replacement due to their financial limitations. The club is still above the salary limit set by La Liga, and the competition body would only have allowed a small share of any money from a sale to be reinvested in the squad.
Led by Deco, Barcelona had been looking for a midfielder to stand in for Gavi, who is recovering from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, but could only do so because of La Liga’s rule that allows for flexibility when a player suffers a long-term injury. According to article 77 of La Liga’s financial regulations, the affected club can register a replacement as long as their wages do not exceed 80 per cent of the injured player’s salary.
In the end, it meant Barcelona could accelerate the signing of 18-year-old forward Vitor Roque. When Alejandro Balde was ruled out for the rest of the season, after it was decided the left-back would undergo surgery on a hamstring injury suffered on January 24, this opened up the possibility of bringing in another emergency signing.
Club sources — who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions — told The Athletic they explored options until the end of the transfer window, but there were no appealing options available to take on loan. Any money spent on new salaries over the rest of 2023-24 would still be deducted from Barca’s salary limit for next season.
Also according to club sources, Romeu’s return to Girona was denied because Barcelona did not want to strengthen a team they are directly competing with. Girona are second in La Liga, two points behind leaders Real Madrid and six points clear of third-placed Barcelona.
Romeu had no other choice than to accept Barca’s will — and this was not the only blow he had received during the past few weeks.
The chances of Romeu winning back a place in Xavi’s starting XI already seemed fairly remote before last weekend but on Saturday, he saw defender Andreas Christensen deployed in his holding midfield role.
Xavi had been trying Christensen out for the position in training sessions months ago and the coaching staff knew he had played there for Denmark. To finally bring him into action at Alaves, where Barca won 3-1, was an unofficial confirmation of Xavi’s new strategy to fix what he sees as Barcelona’s weakest spot.
Christensen did not have a brilliant game in defensive midfield, but he was solid enough. He did not make his game too complicated, most of his interventions on the ball were first-touch passes, and he tried to hold his position to enable Frenkie de Jong, Ilkay Gundogan and Pedri to unleash the team’s attacking moves.
But Xavi could not have been happier with the outcome, judging by his post-match comments.
“Andreas Christensen in this position gives us a good balance,” he said. “He can help in possession too, but the biggest addition he provides is a boost on the defensive coverage, which is something we lacked in there.
“We are very satisfied with the result today, and he’s told us he was happy too. We’ve been trying out Christensen in there for months and he has all the technical capacities. It’s not easy to play in the inside pockets with Barcelona, he needs to keep improving and find his place.”
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Xavi repeat Christensen’s new role in upcoming games, especially because it ticks another box for him — it allows him to play Pau Cubarsi.
The centre-back, who only turned 17 last month, has hardly put a foot wrong in the six appearances he has made for Barca’s first team, three of which have come as a starter, including at Alaves. On Saturday, he offered another dominating display on the ball, proving how well-suited he is to Barca’s build-up process as he completed 73 passes from 77 attempts, the second-most of the game, one fewer than De Jong.
“We were joking with him and the staff after the game asking Pau how old he was,” Xavi said. “He looks like a veteran. His build-up is just outstanding, but it’s everything overall. He just enjoys defending in all the departments of the game.”
After the previous weekend’s league fixture against Villarreal, it seemed Cubarsi had already moved ahead of Christensen in the manager’s pecking order at centre-back. Christensen was subbed off at half-time in that match, a 5-3 defeat that prompted Xavi’s announcement that he would step down at the end of the season, after committing a mistake in his marking for Villarreal’s opener.
Cubarsi started the next match at home to Osasuna, with Christensen an unused substitute. His development seems to be one of the legacies Xavi wants to leave at the club — another teenager established in the first team with the potential to become a key player for the next decade.
This put Christensen’s chances of minutes at risk, until his successful deployment in midfield. It is a situation that benefits everyone, except Romeu.
The midfielder now appears to have little alternative than to wait until the summer for another sit-down with Deco to assess his situation in a different context for all sides.
(Top photo: Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)