Why Barcelona can't afford to lose versatile, experienced Sergi Roberto
Two years ago, Sergi Roberto could have left Barcelona without much of a fuss. He was 23 and had failed to earn a regular place in Barca's midfield. It's easy to see why he would have been tempted by the offers he'd received from mid-ranking Premier League clubs and nobody would have resented him if he'd chosen to take on a new challenge.
There was one man prepared to fight for his Camp Nou future, though: Luis Enrique. The former Barca coach sat down with Roberto at the beginning of the summer and explained his vision of transforming him into a right-back.
Dani Alves was ageing and couldn't play every minute of every game. When he was injured, suspended or rested, Roberto would play. He would also continue to get minutes in midfield when necessary, and Roberto bought into the idea. He had never really wanted to leave Barcelona, the club he joined as a 14-year-old, but he needed a reason to stay.
Two years later, he might need convincing again. This time, it's top-ranking clubs that are giving him a headache: Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan and Juventus have all been credited with an interest in signing him. Barcelona have told ESPN FC they will not sell and they're confident the player will stay, but as with Neymar, they might not get the final say.
Roberto's buyout clause, agreed in 2014, is €40 million. While that once might have seemed high, it now seems like a pittance for a player with so much top-level experience at one of Europe's biggest clubs. That's why Barca hope to bring forward contract talks (currently planned for next year) that would allow them to increase the clause to more than €100 million. Until anything's signed, though, the club remain in danger of losing another player against their will this summer.
Diario Sport and Mundo Deportivo both suggest that Roberto, who initially had no plans to leave the club, might now be prepared to listen to offers. He started 26 league games under Luis Enrique last season, mainly as a right-back in the post-Alves era, and earned a place in the club's history with the winning goal in the 6-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain, but the early signs under new coach Ernesto Valverde are that he will once again revert to being a squad player.
It was only preseason, but the fact he didn't start a game during the club's tour of the United States will undoubtedly weigh on his mind. Back in Spain, he played just 28 minutes against Chapecoense and only 22 more against Real Madrid in Sunday's Spanish Super Cup first leg defeat. Valverde stressed he sees him as a midfielder, not a right-back (although he values that versatility), but the reality may be that he sees him as a backup option.
The latest blow to Roberto's morale, according to Sport, is the signing of Paulinho and the knock-on effect it could have on his role at the club. Barca confirmed an agreement on Monday to sign the Brazilian midfielder for €40 million from Guangzhou Evergrande. At that price, you'd imagine he comes to start.
Former Barcelona B striker Jonathan Soriano, who now plays in China for Beijing Guoan, envisages Paulinho taking on an important role at Barca, though he wonders at what cost it will come for the club's academy players, perhaps with Roberto in mind.
"Paulinho covers the whole pitch; he's good with the ball and he's good defensively," said Soriano. "I don't know if he'll start but he will certainly contribute to the team. He's in good rhythm because he's been [playing] in a competitive league and he starts for Brazil.
"It surprises me Barca don't bet more on the academy, though. The academy must be an important part of the first team."
Soriano isn't the only person inclined to think that way. For a number of reasons, Paulinho's arrival has already been met with a mixture of anger and doubt on social media. If it were to then come at the cost of Roberto -- for the same price -- then that anger would undoubtedly double.
On Wednesday, then, Valverde has a chance to try to do what Luis Enrique managed two years ago: convince Roberto that his future still lies with Barcelona. The Blaugrana trail Real Madrid 3-1 going into the Super Cup second leg and to a certain extent, the former Athletic Club coach has a free hit at the Bernabeu. There's no reason not to start Roberto and show him that he values him and doesn't want to lose him.
The need to show him some love transcends just what he can or cannot offer on the pitch, too. This time it's bigger than that. Catalan by birth and formed at La Masia, and after a transfer window which has seen teenagers plucked by Monaco and Manchester City and PSG nab Neymar, Barca can ill-afford another loss to squad depth. If they were to lose Roberto this summer, a great deal would be made about it.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.