Is new-look Barcelona poised to better last season's double-winning season?
BEAVERTON, Oregon -- The Barcelona squad that touched down in Portland this week was unrecognisable from the one which arrived in New Jersey 12 months ago. That's mainly because Ernesto Valverde's still unable to call on Barca's World Cup players. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who crashed out in the group stages in Russia with Germany, will join up with the squad in Dallas, but there are no plans for the rest to head to the United States.
However, even if he did have his full armoury at hand for this year's International Champions Cup, there would still be significant changes to the squad he inherited from Luis Enrique. Last season's tour down America's east coast was dominated by the Neymar saga. Would he or wouldn't he sign for Paris Saint-Germain? He would. He has since been followed out of the exit door by dressing room leaders Javier Mascherano and Andres Iniesta. Paulinho has also left Camp Nou, less than a year after signing.
Their replacements are bets for the present and the future. Ousmane Dembele and Malcom are exciting 21-year-old attackers who can support Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez; Philippe Coutinho and Arthur will be tasked with supplying some Barca DNA and control in midfield; and Clement Lenglet and Yerry Mina (who may yet leave the club this summer) have arrived to create competition for Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti in central defence.
Coutinho aside, though, Valverde is looking at the relative unknown. An injury-hit first campaign in Catalonia means the jury is still out on the obviously talented Dembele. Malcom, meanwhile, has impressed in France but is he ready for the demands of Barcelona? Arthur, too, is untested outside of Brazil and Lenglet and Mina are by no means guarantees in the same way that Pique has been for a decade.
On paper, though, there are reasons to be positive. If Dembele and Malcom live up to the hype, Barca will benefit from pace, trickery, quality and, perhaps most importantly, depth in the final third. Coutinho showed at the World Cup he's one of the world's best. Arthur has been billed as a natural Barcelona midfielder: touch, pass and technique. Lenglet and Mina, meanwhile, are young defenders who have impressed for Sevilla and Colombia this year respectively.
Barca, in Valverde's first year in charge, won the league and cup double. They stomped over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final with a stunning display and eased to the La Liga title. It was only in their 37th and penultimate game, against Levante, that they were finally beaten in the league. That loss, though, coupled with the shock Champions League elimination against Roma in the quarterfinals, meant that the merits of a two-trophy season were left open for debate.
What's the point of wiping the floor with everyone in La Liga if you fall short in Europe? Is the Copa del Rey worth anything? Was a lack of squad depth to blame for late-season tiredness? Those were some of the questions which raised a chuckle from Valverde last spring.
Now the question is: Are Barca better equipped for this season than they were for last season? It's a tricky one to answer. As Toni Juanmarti writes in Diario Sport, "the 'new' Barcelona has gained youthfulness but lost experience."
And considering Barca only lost three competitive games last season (excluding the Spanish Super Cup losses against Real Madrid which kicked off the campaign), it's going to be tough for youth to better experience, without going all Alan Hansen "you don't win anything with kids" -- although kids plus Messi is a different prospect.
However, despite those statistics, there was always a lingering sensation that Barcelona were riding their luck at times last term; lacking something. In that sense, the Roma loss, if not the nature of it, wasn't completely unexpected. The complaints have been excessive but the requests for improvements and reinvigoration have been necessary.
The only doubts are, perhaps, in midfield. Which is why Barcelona are still courting PSG's Adrien Rabiot, as well as Ajax's Frenkie de Jong. Replacing Iniesta was always going to be a huge task and it would be unfair to expect too much, too soon from Arthur.
Elsewhere, there looks to be more depth and hunger. The funny thing is, though, they may well be less successful statistically than last season's team -- the Champions League has become the ultimate goal again after three successive last-eight exits -- but there's the nucleus of a more exciting team. Will Valverde, a more pragmatic coach, be able to get them to deliver?
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.