BARCELONA, Spain -- Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez has spoken without filters about his transfer plans for the summer. Top of his wish list was Lionel Messi and a replacement for the departing Sergio Busquets. However, Messi has already slipped away, announcing his intention to join Major League Soccer side Inter Miami, and Xavi's top target to substitute Busquets, Real Sociedad midfielder Martin Zubimendi, is, as things stand, out of Barca's price range at €60 million.
Therefore, it's back to square one, with the scene set for another frantic summer of ins and outs at the Catalan club.
Last year, Barca sold off club assets -- including a percentage of future earnings from television rights -- to land the €150m-worth of players Xavi had requested: Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde among others. Even then, they had to wait until the eve of the new campaign to register their new signings.
This year, following a change to LaLiga's financial fair play rules, they will not be able to replicate that strategy. To comply with the league's spending limits, they will have to move players on, reduce the wage bill and find new revenue streams if they want to strengthen the team. Xavi has said it is essential that they do so if, after winning a first LaLiga title since 2019 this season, they are to improve in the Champions League, where they have failed to get out of the group stage in the last two years.
So, as rivals Real Madrid are unveiling Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham at a cost of €103m and being linked with €120m-plus moves for Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe and Tottenham Hotspur's Harry Kane, sources have told ESPN that Barca are working on various scenarios from best-case to low-cost alternatives and everything in between. It all depends on how much money they can spend. It is not the most effective way to plan for a new campaign and not all potential signings will be willing to wait -- Messi certainly wasn't.
The financial situation
Due to asset sales last summer, Barca had an inflated spending limit of over €650m this year. League sources estimate it will fall to no more than €450m next season, although the exact figures constantly change. The spending cap dictates how much a club can spend on sporting costs (wages, amortisation payments, etc.) It equates loosely to a club's revenue minus non-sporting expenses and debt repayments. If a club is in excess of their limit, which Barca are, they are still permitted to invest in signings but can only spend 40% of anything they save or raise.
The departures of captains Busquets and Jordi Alba, two of the biggest earners at the club, have freed up some spending space. The closure of Barca TV, which cost over €10m to run annually, also helps.
Barca have to factor in other sporting costs to their spending limit, too. What they spend on the academy, the women's team, the basketball side and other sports teams is also included in their expenses by LaLiga. That could be why the basketball team's top earner, former NBA player Nikola Mirotic, announced that the club are not extending his contract this week.
All those savings don't equate to €200m, though, which is roughly how much Barca need to raise to move away from the 40% rule. However, they are hopeful it will be enough allow them to register the contract renewals signed by Gavi, Ronald Araujo, Sergi Roberto, Marcos Alonso and Inaki Pena in recent months. It could even be sufficient for them to bring in defender Inigo Martinez, who ESPN previously revealed has agreed to join from Athletic Club on a free transfer this summer.
Meanwhile, Barca continue to seek new sponsors. It was recently announced that Ambilight TV will appear on the team's shirt sleeve, while sources say there is also the possibility of adding a sponsor for the shorts. But these are small gains and the quickest way to sign is to move players out first.
With Alba and Busquets gone, there are then different groups of players Barcelona will listen to offers for.
The first consists of those who are returning from loans: Clement Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti, Sergino Dest, Alex Collado, Nico Gonzalez and Abde Ezzalzouli. Barca need to free up their salary space and, if possible, bring in a fee for those players. Sources say that does not mean the door to the first team is closed -- especially in the case of Nico and Abde -- but the club are courting interest.
In the second group are the first-team players who have not enjoyed regular football under Xavi. Sources say Franck Kessie, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati are among these, although are reluctant to leave.
The final group contains players that, ordinarily, are not available. Club sources insist there are several that are untouchable, although some agents and intermediaries consulted by ESPN suggest there is a feeling Barca would have to listen to big offers for most players in the squad.
What Xavi wants
Xavi never hid his desire to bring Messi back. At any opportunity he said that this Barca side, who won the title on the back of 26 clean sheets, need to add creativity in the final third. He thought the 35-year-old, who he played alongside during the the club's most glorious period, was that player.
The Barcelona coach has also been glowing about Real Sociedad's Zubimendi as a replacement for Busquets. However, he has a prohibitive €60m release clause. For the sake of LaLiga's spending limit, the cost of signing a player annually is roughly their salary plus amortisation payments on their fee. At €60m, if he signed a six-year deal with a €10m salary, Zubimendi's move would cost €20m on the club's books (his wage plus the cost of his transfer broken down over the length of his deal, so €60m divided by six, equalling €10m.) For that level of investment, adhering to the 40% rule, Barca would have to save around €50m.
Even then, Zubimendi is not demanding a move. He recently renewed his contract with La Real and is looking forward to Champions League football next season with his boyhood club.
The alternative candidates to replace Busquets do not generate a consensus among the club's transfer committee, which is made up of Xavi, director of football Mateu Alemany and new sporting director Deco -- with input from president Joan Laporta, his advisors Enric Masip and Alejandro Echevarria, and vice-president Rafa Yuste. Wolves' Ruben Neves and Fiorentina's Sofyan Amrabat both fall into that category, sources say, while Fulham's Joao Palhinha and Benfica's Florentino Luis have also been linked.
In-house options include playing Frenkie de Jong deeper, or giving another chance to academy graduate Nico as he returns from a loan spell at Valencia, while defenders Eric Garcia and Sergi Roberto have also been tried there this season. But Xavi has been clear that investment is needed to fill the Busquets hole. Youngsters, such as Marc Casado and Pau Prim, aren't deemed to be ready for that responsibility.
What sources say Xavi really wants is creativity in midfield -- especially if he is to continue playing with a box midfield four instead of a front three. Speaking last week, he said this Barca side lack a "Santi Cazorla-type player."
Bernardo Silva is perhaps the dream option and sources confirmed Barca's interest last year, but there is no indication they believe a possible €70m deal for the Portugal midfielder would be financially possible this summer as things stand.
ESPN has revealed that Ilkay Gundogan, whose Manchester City contract is due to expire, and Villarreal's Alex Baena are both targets. Gundogan scored 11 goals and set up seven more as City clinched the treble this season; Baena, who can also play wide, netted 12 times and assisted six goals for Villarreal.
Further business will depend on the finances. Reports suggest Barca have already agreed a deal worth potentially €40m for young Athletico Paranaense striker Vitor Roque. The 18-year-old has already been capped by the senior Brazil side and would arrive as Lewandowski's understudy and potential heir. Sources did not confirm those reports to ESPN, but said talks, led by Deco, were progressing well.
Elsewhere, Barca feel safe with Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal, while Martinez will arrive as a free agent to complement a strong centre-back pool which includes Andreas Christensen, Araujo, Kounde and Eric Garcia. At left-back, Alex Balde and Marcos Alonso will compete for the starting role, but there are doubts at right-back. Kounde has made it clear he would rather play in the middle; new arrival Julian Araujo and Dest (once he returns from loan) are the other options but their futures may lie elsewhere.
Despite that, Xavi has said signing a right-back is not the top priority. If it was, and money was available, he would go for Villarreal's Juan Foyth. The Catalan club, sources have confirmed to ESPN, have also enquired about Real Valladolid's 18-year-old Ivan Fresneda, although given the competition with Dortmund, Arsenal, Milan and Juventus for his signature they may have arrived too late. City's Joao Cancelo, whose agent Jorge Mendes has a close working relationship with Laporta, is another name on the table and they might be able to land him on loan.
Further forward, beyond Roque, any additions will depend on exits. Winger Ousmane Dembele is in talks to renew his contract and Raphinha has made it clear he wants to stay, while Fati and Torres are also, for now, resisting the club's attempts to move them on.
"He will stay," said Mendes of his client Fati this week. "You have a phenomenon on your hands. He is a future Ballon d'Or winner."
Waiting in the wings is Atletico Madrid's winger Yannick Carrasco. Barca have an option of between €15m-€20m to sign the Belgium international, but whether they will execute it or not remains undecided. Abde, following his impressive season on loan at Osasuna, is also pushing for another chance, although sources say the club are not convinced the 21-year-old is consistent enough.
Another player already on the fringes of the first-team attack is Lamine Yamal, the 15-year-old who made his debut in April. Minutes are likely to be hard to come by, but he is one of the youngsters at the club who sources say could be in and around Xavi's squad next season, along with defender Chadi Riad, midfielder Aleix Garrido, and forwards Estanis Pedrola and Angel Alarcon.