Barcelona have had some legends up front – Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi. And now they have Martin Braithwaite.
The La Liga title contenders have become the first team to take advantage of a rule in Spain which allows them to sign a player outside of the transfer window – and they have moved for 28-year-old Leganes forward Braithwaite, paying the Denmark international’s 18m euros (£15m release clause).
They could do that because Ousmane Dembele was ruled out for six months, with Luis Suarez also injured.
This raises a lot of questions. Is that rule fair? Do Barcelona actually need Braithwaite? Can a man who technically started the season at Middlesbrough end it as a La Liga champion with Barcelona?
BBC Sport attempts to answer some of these.
Why were Barcelona allowed to sign Braithwaite?
La Liga rules allow clubs to apply to make new signings if a player is ruled out for more than five months. Barcelona had to prove that Dembele was out for six months before being allowed to make a move.
Barcelona are the first club to utilise a clause that Fifa asked the Spanish FA to remove in 2016, but Valencia are trying to follow them after injuries to two centre-backs.
Every player in Spanish football has a release clause in his contract – some more realistic than others – and Barca were able to pay the £15m to sign Braithwaite, who joined Leganes from Middlesbrough in the summer.
He is not allowed to play in the Champions League because the date for registration has passed, but he can play in all of Barca’s remaining 14 La Liga games, possibly picking up a league winner’s medal if they overhaul Real Madrid’s one-point lead at the top.
“La Liga need to look at this rule,” said European football reporter Raphael Honigstein on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily. “It makes sense for goalkeepers. But to pick up another striker because one player has an injury is crazy.
“They sold two strikers in January. One of the things which keeps their financial power in check is the transfer window. If you allow teams to circumvent that through the back door, then there’s no point having these legislations.”
Did Barcelona actually need him?
The fact is that Barcelona still have great forwards. Their front line against Malaga on Saturday included arguably the greatest footballer in history, the fourth most expensive player of all time and one of the world’s most promising youngsters – Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and Ansu Fati.
Barca’s lack of forward planning has annoyed plenty of observers – this shortage of strikers has not come out of the blue.
Dembele has not played since November – and Suarez’s injury prognosis was confirmed on 12 January.
In the closing days of the transfer window, Barca sold Spain Under-21 wingers Carles Perez and Abel Ruiz to Roma and Braga respectively – and signed Braga forward Francisco Trincao but let him stay with the Portuguese club until the summer. Ironically, on the same day Braithwaite’s move was confirmed, both Perez and Ruiz scored for their clubs in the Europa League.
“Abel would have been useful,” said Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague. “They don’t think he is ready for the first team but in these circumstances some people raise their game.”
In January, they were interested in Valencia forward Rodrigo – but would not pay the fee of almost £50m the club wanted – as well as RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
“They made some mistakes in planning,” said European football expert Mina Rzouki on BBC Radio 5 Live. “They sold Perez and Ruiz. They knew Suarez’s injury would take long. Why can they change their bad management and Leganes can do nothing?”
Barca even have two senior international forwards in the B team, which plays in Spain’s third tier.
Hiroki Abe, 21, won three caps for Japan in last summer’s Copa America. He played 79 times for Kashima Antlers before moving to Barca B last summer and has a £33.5m buyout clause, which will rise to £83.9m when he joins the first team.
Rey Manaj – who was on the bench against Malaga – has played 16 times in Serie A for Inter Milan and Pescara. The 22-year-old has also featured 12 times for Albania, scoring two goals in Euro 2020 qualifying.
Will Braithwaite actually play at Barcelona? Will he be there next season?
Last season Barca made the surprise loan signing in January of Kevin-Prince Boateng from Italian side Sassuolo – but the Ghanaian midfielder only played four times. The signing of Braithwaite is much different – he has cost a significant amount and signed a four-and-a-half-year deal.
But is he ready to go?
Balague said: “He needs a lot of tactical instructions. I’ve just been with [Spain legend] David Villa and he told me he only learned about tactics as a wide forward player when he went to Barcelona.
“With Barcelona you need to know so much. That’s my worry – Braithwaite won’t have time to learn that in one go.
“They reckon he will be used immediately – maybe not against Eibar on Saturday – and see if that has worked and take it from there. Will he play much? Nobody knows.”
Balague says he will not be shipped off in the summer: “He’ll be there next season. They still need another striker.”
Was he *that* bad for Middlesbrough?
“His time at the Riverside will be remembered as a player who promised plenty, delivered rarely and frustrated an awful lot of fans,” said BBC Tees reporter Robert Law, who covered Braithwaite during his time at Boro.
“When I first interviewed him he came across as very confident. He compared himself to Boro legend Juninho and said fans would be ‘in for a treat’.”
That did not pan out – the Dane scored nine goals in 40 appearances and asked to leave twice.
He was one of several big-money signings in the summer of 2017 – for a reported £9m from French side Toulouse – as Championship club Middlesbrough looked to bounce back to the Premier League.
Braithwaite showed glimpses of his ability under Garry Monk, the manager who signed him, but he was sacked and replaced by Tony Pulis in December. The Dane played three times under Pulis before going on loan to Bordeaux for the second half of the season.
He surprisingly returned that summer and scored three goals in Boro’s opening four Championship games last season. But he again asked to leave just before the August transfer deadline.
Boro said no and he failed to score a goal in his following – and final – 14 appearances for the club before leaving for Leganes in the January transfer window.
In March, he completely burned his bridges, saying: “I’m not coming back to Middlesbrough. Pulis has a strange way to play football. It’s really kick and rush.”
Pulis reacted angrily: “To show the disrespect he’s shown to this club by saying he’s not coming back, to Steve Gibson, who’s made him a multi-millionaire… is amazing
“I’ve dealt with players all my life, some can make your hair curl – not mine. But for him to come out and say that, it just puts him up there as such an ungrateful person.”
Braithwaite joined Leganes permanently at the end of the season, and Boro fans were not sad to see him go.
One tweet replying to his ‘goodbye post’ told him “that tweet is literally the most effort you have put in at the Boro in the last two years”.
A second said he was the worst Boro signing of the past 25 years, and another said “my second team is now whoever Leganes are playing”.
What type of player is he?
Denmark international Braithwaite has played for hometown club Esbjerg, Toulouse, Middlesbrough, Bordeaux, Leganes and now Barcelona – scoring a total of 85 goals in 348 club games.
The 2013 Danish Cup with Esbjerg is his only silverware to date.
Who better to describe his style of play than Braithwaite himself? In an interview with Barcelona’s TV channel this week after joining, he said: “I’m a technical player. Also physical – I’m fast, I’m strong.
“My best attribute is my intelligence. I move intelligently and study the game. I call myself a football student. I think the way we play here my movements will help the team a lot. Of course the main thing is I’m a goalscorer – I’m here to score goals.”
Balague added: “He’ll be asked to do constant runs in behind, constant movement which is something Barcelona needs. He’s got it in his game, he’s physically very strong and he can be important in set-pieces defending and attacking.”
And what about Leganes?
One of the biggest issues people have had with this scenario is that Leganes, who are in the relegation zone, are now without their main goalscorer – and with no way to replace him.
Braithwaite has scored eight of their 18 La Liga goals.
Leganes are furious and failed in an appeal to La Liga to be able to sign a replacement.
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Chief executive Martin Ortega said: “This rule is not fair and Barcelona have benefited from it while Leganes have been harmed by it. We want to raise our voices because we’re in a very serious situation and have suffered a lot of damage.
“We cannot understand the ruling that allows a club that has an injured player to carry out an operation like this unilaterally and transfer their problem to another club.”
Rzouki added: “I don’t see who benefits. Barcelona have paid almost 20m euros for him for 14 matches. You wonder is he even going to play?
“People will go around thinking Barcelona can do what they like. I’m not sure it’s a great marketing move. They have Unicef on the back of their shirts and they’re basically relegating another team.”
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