It’s 2008. A young Pep Guardiola has just taken over the reins at Spanish giants FC Barcelona , previously having played at the club and winning several trophies under Johan Cruyff. Barcelona are playing some of the best football the world has ever seen under him, dominating teams for the next 4 years, winning a sextuple for the first time in history and two Champions Leagues in that time. Snap!! Fast forward to 2022, Barcelona are no longer even contenders for the UCL trophy. They have dropped down to the Europa League knockout stages after finishing 3rd in their UCL group.
They’ve only managed to secure the biggest prize in Europe once in the last 10 years, and faced a series of disappointing defeats to Juventus, Roma, Liverpool and Bayern in the Champions League knockouts, the worst among them being the 8–2 loss to Bayern in 2020. A storm has raged through the club, with both former Presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Bartomeu getting arrested, after completely destroying the club financially and sportingly. Lionel Messi has left for free to PSG (!!), and Barca’s fans don’t have much other than past glory to be happy about.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, the future looks better. With Xavi coming back to the Camp Nou as the manager, the club is on the brink of a new dawn, especially with Juan Laporta as President. Today, I’ll take a look at why the Blaugrana could be looking forward to a bright future!
Looking at the team profile, Barcelona have the perfect blend of young talent and experience. With most players under 24, they also have their veterans to guide the youngsters and provide experience. While the veterans have been overly criticised for their performance until now, players like Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are still irreplaceable for Barca, both performance-wise and experience-wise. That being said, let’s take a closer look at the team’s Defence, Midfield and Attack.
The defence definitely needs some strengthening. Currently, Ronald Araujo seems to be the best option for the centre-back position. With a monstrous presence in defence, he is also perhaps Xavi’s most trusted player, having played in all 4 positions at the back. The viz below highlights how impressive Araujo has been this season.
Next up, another defender who has really impressed after a relatively slow start is Eric Garcia. With Araujo, who mostly starts, not being the best in the ball playing department , we can see how much Barcelona suffers in build-up play without Eric, struggling to pass the first line of press. Pique may be good for that, but in all honesty, he has become too slow to play the ball around. Coming in second in terms of on the ball actions in the La Liga, only after Kroos, there’s no doubt how good he has been.
Other than these two, there aren’t many good options in the centre-back position. Both Pique and Lenglet are quite good ball distributors, but honestly, they aren’t performing at the level they should. Lenglet could be decent option in a 3 at the back system where there is less defensive responsibility, but he suffers in a centre-back pairing. Pique is good, providing experience, but as mentioned earlier, he has lost pace and is too slow on the ball.
In the full-back department I personally feel there is no better alternative than Jordi Alba in this team. The numbers are nothing short of remarkable and I personally feel there’s no one better than him for this job. Take a look at the viz below.
But other than Alba, there is no other clear option in either of the flanks, the keyword being clear. First, Alba has no clear replacement other than Balde who is too raw to start at this juncture. This forces Araujo out to the left and what more can be said about a 200 pound defensive monster doing step overs on the left-wing? On the right, Dani Alves is the only clear option, given how Sergino Dest has fallen out of Xavi’s plans recently. Alves being 38 doesn’t help either. Roberto being out injured too, means that only Mingueza is available as a back-up, someone who like Lenglet, is better suited to a 3 at the back. So, yes, the defence needs a lot of reinforcements!
The midfield is possibly the most exciting part of this current Barca setup. It’s stacked with players of the highest calibre. Pedri, Gavi, Nico, Frenkie, Puig, Busquets…the list goes on. There is immense potential in this department and I believe there isn’t an immediate need for reinforcements in midfield.
Pedri is only 19, but the way he plays, with such high levels of maturity and positional awareness, you could easily mistake him for a seasoned veteran. Him being injured in the beginning of the season accentuated Barcelona’s midfield crisis. However, what surprised everyone was Gavi’s meteoric rise to the top. In the span of a year, the young Spaniard went from starting in a Barca B team, to starting for Spain. And rightly so. He has genuinely become a critical part of this team, injecting freshness into the side.
Nico Gonzalez has also been really good, and showed that he can perform at the highest level. For a midfielder of his age, he has quite the bulky stature, who seems to do everything in slow motion, but surprisingly does it all quite smoothly.
Frenkie de Jong, on the other hand, hasn’t been as good as he was last season, but just about good enough. Frenkie is a player who thrives more when the ball is with him, that is, he is more of a carrier. Now, with Gavi, who likes to play more attacking, coming into the team and Busquets, who is ageing and cannot run as much as he used to, defensive duties on Frenkie increased, not allowing him to make the runs in the midfield he does best. With Pedri, who excels in off the ball movement and ball retention, coming back from injury, I expect Frenkie de Jong to return to his best form. Below is a viz highlighting Barca’s young midfielders’ numbers this season. I’ve excluded Pedri here cause he has only played two matches in La Liga so far.
With Gavi, Frenkie and Busquets starting most of the games this season, I looked at their pass sonars. As you can see, Frenkie is important for the team in terms of ball circulation to the right, given that neither Gavi or Busquets pass to the right side that much.
Even without the talented players, there are squad players like Alvaro Sanz and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of a proper interior midfielder in the team, Sergi Roberto could be a good backup to a young Nico Gonzalez.
Whatever it may be, I still believe the Barcelona team midfield requires no signings whatsoever and is fit to develop for the next few years.
While Messi leaving for free has hurt Barcelona’s attack, there have been some promising signs, to say the least. A general lack of clinical finishing has meant that the Blaugrana rarely take their chances in front of goal, despite creating a lot. That although has somewhat been reduced by a rather surprising name, Luuk de Jong. Before his inclusion to the team, Barcelona were lacking a central presence in the box, something that would allow them to dominate their opposition.
The ball was, and somewhat still is, mostly being circulated down the left, which meant a lack of penalty box presence, something which Luuk brought into the side. Memphis Depay has shown glimpses of his class as well, especially when considering he’s predominantly been played out of position. And, what more to say about Ansu Fati? He’s generational, in one word. He has been out injured 2/3 times this season but has always returned with a goal in the first match he played. Unreal mentality. Then there is Ferran Jutgla who has started turning heads as well. Though not as talented as the others, he is very hardworking, and has scored a few goals to help the team out.
Talent on the wings is pretty evident, with players like Abde Ezzalzouli and Ilias Akhomach, two dynamic, fast-paced wingers breaking into the first team. Of course there is Ousmane Dembele, who although having regained his place in the team, is looking set to leave after refusing a contract extension. The signing of Ferran Torres further bolsters the team, especially with his versatility. You can read my analysis of Ferran Torres here.
As you can see in the viz above, there is a stark absence of penalty box presence in this team. While it can be attributed to their style of play, where a false 9 is much preferred, a striker is the need of the hour, to keep the opponent busy in the final third with his movement and allow the team to dominate possession.
At the moment, the club lacks a striker to make some runs or even some clinical finishing in front of goal. Depay is suited to more of a creative role, and while Ferran could play in a false 9, it would mean depending on just two players- Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati for goals. Also, Xavi likes his wingers to hug the sidelines, and Abde and Ilias don’t possess much of a goalscoring threat, so expecting goals from the wingers is probably not it. In this situation, Barcelona could either go for a good striker, thus reducing Depay’s influence in the team and probably even selling him, or, they could opt to buy a backup striker if Depay starts banging them in on a more consistent basis.
In conclusion, Barcelona have one of the brightest squads in Europe currently, and apart from a few signings required in the defensive positions and a striker, the team looks good to go for the next few years. They are rumoured to sign José Gayà from Valencia and Noussair Mazraoui from Ajax, besides being strongly linked with Juventus’ de Ligt, these are certaintly the profiles we should be going after. Barcelona also look to be in the race to sign Erling Haaland, and signing him would certainly be a boost to this young team. Overall, the future is certainly looking very bright, especially under a competent President- Juan Laporta and a passionate coach- Xavi.
Written by Pramit Bardhan (@Cruyyfismo)| Feature Image by Albert Gea/Reuters | All data visualisations created by the Author
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