In 2019's most bizarre transfer move, Barcelona nabbed up Sassuolo’s bulky attacking whirlwind Kevin-Prince Boateng on a loan deal until the end of the season, with a reported $9 million option to buy in the summer. When soccer enthusiasts woke up on Monday, KPB was still a fun curio, a “remember when he...”-type of player plowing away in Italy’s mid-table.
By the time those same enthusiasts had gone to sleep on Monday, this had happened:
The news—first reported by Italian journalist Gianluca Di Marzio and seemingly confirmed hours later by Spanish reporter Gerard Romero—is shocking only because it feels like every transfer is preceded by months of conflicting information before a deal is actually put to paper. To have one of the biggest clubs in the world keep something under wraps until the home stretch is not unprecedented, but it is unique; one need only look at Barcelona itself during last year’s January window drama featuring former Liverpool man Philippe Coutinho for comparison. That move was rumored for ages, so much so that Liverpool (rightfully) felt like Barcelona was trying to influence the move through the press.
As for the actual Boateng purchase, it isn’t that strange at a macro level. A top club buying a veteran player for depth as the hunt for a treble kicks into gear is sensible, even commendable. Barcelona just sold perpetually underwhelming academy product Munir to Sevilla last week, and currently had no backups for Luis Suárez at the number 9 position.
“But isn’t Boateng a midfielder?” Well, person who has only kept up with the Ghanian due to the FIFA video games, he used to be a marauding midfielder, yes, but in recent years Boateng has used his bulk (he runs 6-foot-1 and weighs nearly 200 lbs.) up top as a target-man striker, with ball distribution skills to boot. In 13 games for Sassuolo, he’s scored 4 goals and assisted 2 others. It’s only strange to think of him as a beefy striker because our collective soccer memories remember him doing shit like this (coincidentally, against his new club, who was more than happy to tweet these out):
Or this, in his last go-around in La Liga:
But it’s precisely those skills that make him so interesting up front as a striker for a club like Barcelona. Sure, his day-in day-out quality is nowhere near what one of the top clubs in the world would normally be looking for, but his specific set of skills are exactly what the blaugrana need out of a backup striker. Boateng can hold up the ball while Lionel Messi gets some breathing room, and he can spray passes out wide, not just to the GOAT but to ever-running fullbacks Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. He also gives Barcelona an aerial threat that they can sub on if in need of a late goal. Sure, the club rarely goes for that Route 1 approach—preferring to pass the ball into the goal—but a plan B never hurt anyone.
Getting Boateng up to speed and unlocking his skills might be a challenge on the field, but the real win for Barcelona here comes off the field, as the club’s bizarre transfer strategy chalks up another smart piece of business. While the loan did cost the La Liga leaders around $1.2 million for the rest of the season, that’s chump change for one of the richest teams in the world, and they can basically utilize this loan period as an extended trial for a potential squad player. It’s not the flashy “Barcelona is going to buy both Mattias De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong” news that cules might have hoped for, but like the December capture of Valencia’s Jeison Murillo on loan, it’s one that Barcelona will be thankful for later this season.
To win a Champions League while also staying ahead in your domestic league, as is Barcelona’s stated purpose this year, you need depth. Sure, you can send out your glistening Best XI for the big European matches, but when you have to travel to Real Betis in the middle of March, you better have some good players on the bench to give your stars a rest. Suárez is getting older and it’s starting to show, so having someone who not only can step in but who actually has experience in La Liga—Boateng played at UD Las Palmas in the 2016-2017 season—will allow the Uruguayan some days off.
Maybe Boateng will bomb out and head back to Italy this summer. Maybe he’ll fit perfectly, score half a dozen goals while getting fed inch-perfect Messi through balls, and become a Barcelona folk legend as the team wins its third treble ever. The variance here is enormous, but the risk is not. Frankly, I’d like to see more top clubs take gambles like this, or like last year’s $50 million Paulinho experiment; remember how much that decision was mocked before the Brazilian became a key cog in Barcelona’s dominating league form?
Like so many things the club has helped innovate over the last decade (the false 9, crowding referees to get better calls, selling out to Qatar), Barcelona is already at the head of the pack here. Every club wants to sign the next young supernova, like Kylian Mbappé, but veteran depth is becoming something close to a market inefficiency.