Riqui Puig makes a case for himself in the Barcelona lineup more than anyone. Barça Universal looks at three ways Ronald Koeman can utilise the youngster in the starting XI in the absence of the injured Philippe Coutinho.
As Barcelona’s cracks continue to decay on the field and the team looking as dysfunctional as ever, Riqui Puig’s demand proceeds to resurface. It’s almost a no brainier that Ronald Koeman is yet to view him as an asset, in stark contrast to the vast Blaugrana community.
However, with the recent injury to Philippe Coutinho and the pressure of maintaining consistent performances mounting like never before, it may finally be time to reconcile with the young starlet and make amends, especially now that his extension is in the works.
Riqui Puig could undoubtedly be the missing piece in Koeman’s puzzle, but although he appears to be a huge solution, where does he truly fit in? Barça Universal takes a deep dive into the three scenarios where the Blaugranas could extract the best out of Riqui Puig.
1. The traditional 4-3-3
In Barcelona’s previous encounter against Huesca, the traditional 4-3-3 formation seemed to have been employed by the coach. While there were signs of encouragement, particularly in the first half where the Catalans had utterly dominated Huesca’s low block, lack of penetration through the centre was unquestionably a worrying sight. Oftentimes lethargic circulation of the ball would devalue the incredibly long spells of possession the visitors enjoyed, with creativity direly lacking.
Had Puig featured in the lineup, it’s hard to argue whether Barça would have suffered the same consequence. Partnering Pedri and Puig in a midfield three could certainly add more spark and flair in the centre of the park with the duo expressing their charismatic abilities on the same field.
Berthed as an interior, it is well known Puig can disorientate defences single-handedly through his innate vision; in Quique Setién’s reign, his dazzling pair of feet paid his side dividends on various occasions.
However, while Pedri and Puig both possess tremendous amount of quality, a downside with this set-up could possibly be collisions in positioning. As demonstrated in Puig’s previous season, he tends to inhabit similar positions as Pedri, which could find them frequently facing positional conflicts.
Additionally, to incorporate the diminutive virtuous as interiors, an argument of misusing Frenkie de Jong could surely arise as well. It is well documented that the Dutchman performs best higher up the pitch when he has more liberty at his disposal.
As a result, playing in a single pivot could prevent Frenkie from being his inventive self as well as leave far too much burden to provide defensive aid. Pedri and Puig being players that excel between the lines could lead to the defence being habitually exposed — particularly with the full-backs frequently found bombing up-field as well —, leaving de Jong as the only cover-up in midfield.
2. Koeman’s beloved 4-2-3-1
The second option is to stick with Ronald Koeman’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system and simply deploy Puig as a lone number 10, a role the La Masia gem is by no means is unfamiliar with either.
As a central attacking midfielder, Puig could arguably showcase his talents with utmost comfort, mainly due to the fact that his defensive responsibilities would be lessened and he could thrive between the lines without any significant interruption.
As opposed to Philippe Coutinho or Antoine Griezmann, Puig is far more cunning in possession, knowing what move he must make before even receiving the ball. Hastening the flow of possession is where the 21-year-old truly thrives; operating in tight areas and playing progressive passes in the middle could enable the Blaugranas to be exponentially imposing on the front foot.
It is worth noting that Puig has had several occasions where he has bamboozled oppositions with his supremacy on the ball in this position, the most noteworthy exhibitions being last season’s clash against Atletico Madrid and the recent Champions League encounter with Juventus, albeit the Spaniard was only awarded a meagre 20 minutes.
The only notable disadvantage with this formation is, however, shortage of width on the right flank. Pedri has displayed his talent comfortably, even while being situated in the wider areas of the field. Still, it indisputably is not his best position, and it makes a case for Ousmane Dembele. On the right, however, Lionel Messi’s tendency to drift a bit too centrally often leaves Sergino Dest with heaps to do out of possession.
3. The left-of-centre 3-4-2-1
Barça have very scarcely depended on a three-man back-line over the course of the campaign, but during its brief existence, there certainly look to be promising signs. In spite of the set-up appearing awfully unconventional, Puig operating in a double pivot alongside Frenkie de Jong may prove to be a game-changer.
Fielding Riqui as part of the pivot in a 3-4-2-1 could allow the Spaniard to play a vital role in and out of possession as he can effectively block passing lanes through his energetic play style and steadfastness. Puig’s stamina would undoubtedly give the team an edge in terms of pressing too, a facet an ageing Busquets no longer possesses.
With the security in defence – including three defenders and wing-backs who can frequently chip in the defensive end from time to time –, the Spaniard can conveniently meander around and occupy the half spaces without having to worry about his services at the back, illustrating his vibrance up-field.
Nevertheless, Frenkie de Jong has always preferred to have players alongside him that complement his surges moving forward. With Riqui as a partner, De Jong may be forced to occupy defensive zones that may once again impede his performances. Situating two high voltage players that cover large distances and like to spring up-field could misbalance the team.
In every lineup, pairing Puig with either Pedri or de Jong is bound to bring an opportunity cost. However, given how lacklustre the previous few outings have proven to be, it’s quintessential to field a profile as dynamic as Puig. If there’s one thing the La Masia prodigy has shown during his time at the first team, he not only flourishes through his unparalleled understanding of the game but also ingeniously slips into positions and exploits spaces; but he also helps players surrounding him prosper.
In contrast to Coutinho, who customarily behests teams to be built around him with the Brazilian being the focal point of attention, Puig is far from the stiff number 10 Coutinho is — he knows how to accommodate others and his first touch of the game is as impactful as the last.
Simply put, Puig does not demand time to be grown into the game or ask for positions where his individualistic qualities can be highlighted. His influence can be seen spreading to the entire team, no matter where he is deployed.
Therefore, while Ronald Koeman may be obliged to sacrifice certain elements of his gameplay, and alter his lineup in order to integrate young Riqui Puig, it will eventually be for the greater good of the team; a gem such as him is capable of yielding significant results, and with the squad further depleting in Coutinho’s absence, it’s now or never.
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.