Football Features

11 players who thrived after leaving Barcelona

By CJ Smith

Published: 17:00, 22 September 2020 | Updated: 23:18, 24 November 2022

Barcelona are getting ready to start a bid to win their La Liga title back with a new era under Ronald Koeman, having shed some pretty big names.

Ivan Rakitic has left the club, as has Arturo Vidal. Luis Suárez and Nelson Semedo are expected to join them as Barcelona perform a “soft” revolution and look to move on. But will they miss those departed men?

After all, for every player that leaves Barcelona a disappointment, there are some who take their talents elsewhere and shine. With that in mind, here are 11 players who thrived after they said goodbye to the Blaugrana – many of whom would probably go a long way to improving their current squad.

1. Thiago Alcantara

Age: 29

Barcelona appearances: 101

Current club: Liverpool

We might as well kick off with one of the biggest transfer disasters in recent Barcelona history: Thiago Alcantara.

The 29-year-old has spent the past seven years proving his worth as one of Europe’s finest playmakers with Bayern Munich, making over 233 appearances and winning no fewer than seven straight Bundesliga titles and he capped his time in Germany with a Champions League win and Treble just a month ago.

It seems absolutely ludicrous, then, that Bayern acquired him for just €20m back in 2013 as the Spaniard followed Pep Guardiola to Germany. Given the lack of creativity and mobility in the current Barcelona midfield — exploited by the man himself recently — Thiago would walk into Ronald Koeman’s side.

To cap off the madness, Barcelona didn’t try to sign him back this summer when he made it clear he was leaving Bayern. This allowed Liverpool (the previous team to humiliate Barcelona in Europe) to snap him up unopposed for the low price of £20m.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Age: 38

Barcelona appearances: 46

Current club: AC Milan

Scoring 22 goals in 46 games and winning La Liga with Barcelona is no mean feat but it’s true that Zlatan Ibrahimovic never really suited Guardiola’s possession-heavy style and, after just one season in Spain, the Swede departed for AC Milan in 2010, first on loan then permanently.

Since saying goodbye to Barca, Ibrahimovic has firmly established himself as one of the greatest strikers ever to play the game, mopping up goals and titles with Milan (now for a second time at the age of 38), PSG, Manchester United and LA Galaxy.

488 club goals and counting, Zlatan.

3. Juan Roman Riquelme

Age: 42

Barcelona appearances: 42

Current club: Retired

Riquelme arrived at the Nou Camp from Boca Juniors as arguably the most highly-rated player in Argentina in 2002 but after just one year and three La Liga goals, he joined Villarreal, first on a two-year loan, then permanently.

He then showed Europe what he was truly capable of, scoring 51 goals in 187 games across all competitions and guiding the Yellow Submarine into the Champions League in 2005.

Riquelme returned to Boca Juniors in 2007 and remains a fondly remembered figure at El Madrigal – the home of Villarreal.

Quick reads & football nostalgia:

4. Thiago Motta

Age: 38

Barcelona appearances: 139

Current club: Retired

Thiago Motta began his European adventure with Barcelona, making 139 appearances between 2001 and 2007, but it’s with Inter and PSG supporters that he’s held in the highest regard.

Motta was never a regular with Inter but became a very important squad player and man for the big occasion for Jose Mourinho’s treble-winners in 2009/10, while for PSG, the 32-time Italy international won no fewer than five Ligue 1 titles, earning himself a spot in the 2013/14 Ligue 1 team of the year in the process.

5. Alexis Sanchez

Age: 31

Barcelona appearances: 141

Current club: Inter

Oh, how Barcelona could do with a prime Alexis Sanchez now.

The Chilean was wonderful during his time with the Catalan giants, scoring 47 goals in 141 appearances across all competitions and winning the 2012/13 La Liga title. That said, he was never a guaranteed starter and it was no surprise when he left for Arsenal in 2014 as the club needed to make room for Luis Suárez.

Given how his career curtailed with Manchester United, it’s easy to forget that Sanchez was a force of nature in north London but perhaps his 80 goals and two FA Cup medals in three-and-a-half seasons might help jog your memory. Now he’s fully settled in Italy with Inter you can expect a real career renaissance.

6. Mark Hughes

Age: 56

Barcelona appearances: 36

Current club: Retired

Signed for £2m from Manchester United in 1986, Mark Hughes was supposed to be the battering ram which allowed Gary Lineker to flourish with Barcelona. However, while the latter did indeed impress in Spain, Hughes scored just five times across all competitions.

After a year on loan at Bayern Munich, Hughes returned to Old Trafford in 1988 and went on to lift two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup over the next seven years. He also won FA Cup and League Cup trophies with Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers respectively as his career wound down.

If only his managerial career was as successful…

7. Paco Alcacer 

Age: 27

Barcelona appearances: 50

Current club: Villarreal

Barcelona spent €30m to bring Paco Alcacer from Valencia in August 2016 but despite being a constant goal threat from the bench, the Spaniard never quite made the grade at the Nou Camp and was loaned out to Borussia Dortmund in 2018.

Alcacer’s loan spell with the Bundesliga side was a raging success, netting 13 goals in just 18 games and although things have slowed down a little since he ended his time in Germany with 26 goals in 47 games and is now back in La Liga and scoring with Villarreal.

8. Cesc Fabregas

Age: 33

Barcelona appearances: 151

Current club: Monaco

Another player who, in his prime, would help the current Barca team no end. Cesc Fabregas has left the Blaugrana twice during his career and both times, he has absolutely vindicated his decision.

First, he joined Arsenal in 2003 and went from fresh-faced teen to club captain in just five years. He made over 300 appearances, won the FA Cup and appeared in a Champions League final for the Gunners before rejoining Barcelona in 2011.

Fabregas found more success back at Barca winning La Liga and Copa del Rey titles, but was often shifted out of his favoured midfield role to operate as a false nine, while he was usually one of the first players dropped or substituted.

And so, Fabregas returned to England in June 2014, this time to join Chelsea where he once again displayed his full range of creative skills to the Premier League, lifting the title in 2014/15 and 2016/17, also claiming FA Cup and League Cup trophies along the way.

Fabregas now finds himself at Monaco but will likely be scratching his head at what has become of his boyhood club.

9. Mark van Bommel

Age: 43

Barcelona appearances: 36

Current club: Retired

Given his reputation as a midfield destroyer, it does strike you as odd that Barcelona took the decision to bring Mark van Bommel from PSV back in 2005, even if it was a free transfer. Then again, he did inspire the Dutch club to an Eredivisie title and Champions League semi-final that year.

It wasn’t a surprise, then, when he failed to fit into Frank Rijkaard’s team and after just one season, Van Bommel was off to Bayern Munich in what was arguably the greatest decision of the Dutchman’s career.

Van Bommel went on to win two Bundesliga titles and two DFB-Pokal trophies with the Bavarians, while he also reached the 2010 Champions League final. The midfielder then won Serie A during a two-year stay with AC Milan before seeing out his career with a single season back where it all began at PSV in 2012/13.

10. Adama Traore

Age: 24

Barcelona appearances: 4

Current club: Wolves

It’s taken a while, but Adama Traore’s decision to leave Barcelona in 2015 has finally begun to be vindicated.

For a long time — during spells with Aston Villa and Middlesbrough — it looked as if the lightning-fast winger would simply be a speed merchant with no end product but at Wolves, Traore has shown us all exactly what he’s capable of.

2018/19 saw Traore grab just one goal and one assist in the Premier League but this season, he’s arguably been Nuno Espirito Santo’s best player, grabbing six goals and nine assists in league and Europa League play combined as well as registering a phenomenal 183 completes take-ons in the Premier League, the highest single season total since records began.

His form, explosiveness and versatility in being able to play as a winger, wing-back or forward led to a number of reports linking him with some European giants over the summer. But for now he remains at Wolves, thrilling fans and terrorising opponents whilst awaiting the arrival of another Barcelona boy Nelson Semedo (a player who will likely join this list by the end of the season).

11. Yaya Toure

Age: 37

Barcelona appearances: 118

Current club: Free agent

After playing as a deep-lying midfielder, and even filling in at centre-back, Yaya Toure was allowed to leave Barcelona after three seasons in July 2010, joining Manchester City for £24m. From there, he not only ignited his own career, but also the Sheikh Mansour era at the Etihad.

Toure was an absolute colossus across eight years and 316 games for the Citizens, scoring 79 goals and lifting Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup titles, while he was named in the PFA Team of the Year on two separate occasions.

The Ivorian undoubtedly goes down as one of the greatest players ever to don the Manchester City shirt and even when Toure didn’t get his birthday cake, he still always brought his A-game on the pitch.