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.
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.