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Analysis of the left-back problem at Barcelona

Sudarshan Gopal

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Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

On the 22nd of June in the year 2012 Barcelona re-signed once one of their own, Valencia speedster, Jordi Alba, for 14 million Euros. Once part of the club after coming through the esteemed La Masia academy, he was to replace Eric Abidal, the French left-back who had given much to Barcelona over the years but his unfortunate health problems meant it was the need of the hour to move onwards. Fast forward 8 years and a massive 335 appearances for the Blaugranas, the man who was initially dismissed as ‘too short’ by the Catalan club stands as a gargantuan figure who made the left-hand side his own. 

It is unpropitious for Barcelona that time cannot be rolled back, because if they could, they would definitely look no further than the little man they signed in 2012 to fix their current concerns at left-back. As things stand, however, Alba is 31 and clearly regressing as each season passes. While he still has an excellent command on his attacking skill, it’s the defensive issues faced by him and the other fullbacks that puts the team in hot water consistently. Moreover, one of the key aspects to his game is the pace and acceleration he brought near the touchline, and that is one area that is bound to regress with age. It is, therefore, the correct time to look for a replacement for the Spaniard; otherwise, the Blaugranas risk being set back a few years as happened with replacing Dani Alves. 

This train of thought was what Barcelona had in mind when they signed Junior Firpo from Real Betis in August 2019. He was, at that point, a highly well-regarded prospect in La Liga, with several teams including Real Madrid and Manchester City posing interest in the Dominican. However, Firpo’s attacking threat was nowhere close to the Spaniard. In the 17 appearances he did make, Junior Firpo had a low xA (Expected Assists) of 0.06 per 90 last season as compared to Alba’s 0.14 per 90. Additionally, he had 3.71 passes into the final third per 90 as compared to Alba’s 4.75. Finally, Firpo was never able to recreate the kind of understanding Alba had with team captain Lionel Messi which made the duo lethal. The young left-back never makes the same runs into the box as Alba and the Argentinian is often left wanting more in that regard. 

Junior Firpo, at the moment, simply does not match up to Jordi Alba at all.

Defensively speaking, Firpo did attempt more tackles than the Spanish veteran – 2.12 tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 1.03 per 90 in 19/20, but it is often due to necessity as he is caught out of position very often. This trickles down to the fouls, which stand at 3.1 fouls per 90 for 24-year-old, as compared to Alba’s 0.74. Consequently, Firpo picked up 5 yellow cards while Alba picked up 7 in a little more than double the starts, indicating a lack of discipline in Firpo’s case. The duo is similar with regards to successful pressures, as Alba had 2.8 successful pressures per 90 last season and Firpo had 2.65 for the same. 

Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

For what it is worth, Firpo does bring a touch of aerial dominance into the picture, but that is hardly a requirement for the left-back of a team like Barcelona. The youngster’s growth has stagnated over the season, and he showed no signs of adaptability when it came to moving from a 5 at the back system at Betis to a flat 4 at Barcelona. Maybe with time, Junior Firpo becomes an able replacement, but with multiple players past their peaks, including long time mainstays Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique who have been so crucial to the Blaugrana’s defensive system, Barcelona must bring in a fresh face. Someone who can fill the massive shoes of Alba quickly. We, at Barca Universal, therefore, look at 3 possible replacements for the Spaniard who can complete the Blaugrana’s search in that position.

Going the Jordi Alba route: Alex Grimaldo

A name Barca connoisseurs will be familiar with, Alex Grimaldo is also from the once-famed La Masia, and was one of the highly touted prospects before he chose to move to Benfica, eyeing the possibility of more playing time since Alba had a tight hold of that spot at Barcelona. Now that Alba is ageing, it might be time to dive in for another trusted La Masia prospect who will know the workings of the club from his academy days. 

Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images

Grimaldo is a short and lean player, with a boosted acceleration – a profile very similar to that of Alba. Often used as a midfielder in his earlier days, he has the decision making and a great handle on what to do when he has possession of the ball, which is a massive bonus for a team like the possession hungry Catalans. He has a tremendous attacking output and is genuinely fearless, something Firpo is clearly lacking. The 24-year-old Spaniard has racked 22 assists in 88 games in the Primeira Liga and is one of the top fullbacks in the league. His xA per 90 stood at 0.21 as compared to Alba’s 0.14 last season, and he also led the numbers for tackles, making 2.34 successful tackles per 90 as compared to Alba’s 0.58. When it comes to passing, Grimaldo completed 83% of his passes last season, whereas Alba made his passes at a completion rate of 87.1%.

While Grimaldo is short in stature and teams often look to go over him, he still has the positioning to make up for the same and has the pace to make up ground if he falters. Something prime Alba can massive relate to. 

The short-term, big success option: Nicolas Tagliafico

The red and blue of Barcelona owes a lot to the red and white of Amsterdam. From players like Johann Cruyff and Jari Litmanen to more recently, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong, there have been a plethora of players who have represented both the clubs. Now that Barcelona have been looking to offload the regressing Suarez, Nicolas Tagliafico could turn out be an interesting option to entice Ajax for a swap deal.

Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

The Argentine left-back moved from Independiente in 2018 and has since appeared 65 times for Ajax. While he is not as much of an attacking threat (8 assists in 2 seasons), the 28-year-old does give Barcelona something they desperately need in their current predicament – defensive solidity. Compared to Alba’s 25 tackles attempted in the 19/20 season, Tagliafico attempted almost four times that number (96) and successfully completing 61 of them, compared to Alba’s 14. He was also able to block 10 shots compared to Alba’s 5.

However, the defensive side of the game is not all he provides. He is solid while in possession as well, completing 86% of his passes, and playingi in one key pass every game. He also created seven big chances last season, of which only four were converted. Tagliafico stands at a modest 5’7”, but he does have the lung-bursting stamina in him, which will be a criterion to consider while replacing Alba. In buying Tagliafico, Barcelona could potentially look to employ something their Blanco rivals in Madrid successfully did after buying Ferland Mendy – plug the defensive errors from the wings and solidify the defence as a whole. 

The left-of-centre option: Jose Gaya

Barcelona looked towards Valencia in 2012, and maybe the solution lies there in 2020 as well. Jose Gaya has been one of the most highly-rated left-backs in La Liga for years. Despite, that, he is only 25 years old, but has already racked up 144 appearances for the club. With Valencia having a fire sale, it would be the perfect time for the Blaugranas to target their academy graduate. 

Gaya is a very attacking fullback who tends to occupy areas on the left-hand side byline a lot. He is an outstanding crosser and attempted 3.08 crosses per game in the 19/20 season. He had a total of 939 touches in the mid and final third combined, showing his tendency to push up in the opposition half and receive the ball high up the pitch. If he loses the ball, Gaya has the electric pace that can help him catch up with opponents quickly. He is not afraid to complete a challenge and is hard to take on, given his short, but robustly built. Gaya was one of the standout players in what was a rather disappointing season for Valencia, and Barcelona should grab the chance to buy him with both hands, especially after his excellent display against them in La Liga this season. 

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Ronald Koeman and a case of poor game-management

Michael Gathige

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Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

Ronald Koeman has had a rollercoaster of a start to life as Barcelona manager. He had an excellent opening week, claiming a thumping 4-0 home win against Villarreal as well as a 3-0 away victory at Celta Vigo, but since then, things have started derailed.

From no goal against and seven for in his first two to six apiece over his last four matches, the Catalan side seems to be crumbling under the immense pressure being placed on their shoulders. The cherry on this miserable cake was his poor game-management against Real Madrid as Barcelona chased the game for the last 30 minutes, eventually succumbing to a 3-1 loss.

The starting line up

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Neto
Dest – Pique – Lenglet – Jordi Alba
Busquets – F. De Jong
Pedri – Lionel Messi – Coutinho
Ansu Fati

On paper, this is one of the best starting line ups that Koeman could have played against Real Madrid. Sergiño Dest was finally playing in his rightful position, Jordi Alba was back from injury, Sergio Busquets was there to provide defensive aid to de Jong and Pedri, a 17-year-old in phenomenal form was deservedly called up to play. Normally, this should have been a good game given the perfect blend of the zeal and zest that comes with youth and the calmness and composure that comes from the experience; however, it was anything but.

Busquets has seen far better nights in his time as a Blaugrana. In the game, he was often poorly positioned, lost possession countless times and was simply incapable of playing through the pressure imposed on him by the defending champions.

Pedri meanwhile made little to no impact. This was to be expected given the fact that he is most influential when playing down the middle but Koeman decided to use him as an out and out winger instead with no explanation.

Pedri was no by means poor; but was a lot less influential than what he can be. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Perhaps due to his injury, and the fact that he was completely out of position, Philippe Coutinho wasn’t as effective as he has or could have been. Jordi Alba had a rather good first half and easily could have had two assists, but his influence decreased as both the game and his legs wore on.

The substitutions

Real Madrid were forced into making their first change early on, but unlike his counterpart, Zinedine Zidane made a tactical change at a time when the player in question had adequate time to make an impact. Given the fact that Pedri, Coutinho, Busquets and Alba simply weren’t having their day, and that Koeman had five substitutions at his disposal, he should have taken them off well before the 82nd minute, when his first change was made.

Keeping in mind the strength in depth that the hosts had on the bench, Koeman should have made like for like changes in the team to both add some of the much-needed dynamism in play as well as maintain a structured shape when in possession of the ball. Instead, he opted for the following:

  • Antoine Griezmann for Fati
  • Ousmane Dembele for Busquets
  • Fransisco Trincão for Pedri
  • Martin Braithwaite for Alba

These substitutes served to worsen the team’s functionality in possession, as no one was anywhere where they could actually make an impact on proceedings. The formation essentially went from what was a fairly balanced 4-2-3-1 to a 3-1-6 and with no clear plan for how the six forward players were to position themselves.

Subbing off Alba for a striker seemed like a bizarre decision. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Even with Junior Firpo and Miralem Pjanic at his disposal, players who would help in ball circulation while maintaining a reasonable offensive shape, Koeman decided to patch up the holes he saw in the team by adding more attacking players but this inadvertently made them bigger.

The Dutchman made the same mistakes against Getafe, bringing on Riqui Puig for Sergi Roberto in the dying minutes of the game. Not to mention he subbed on Braithwaite for Frenkie de Jong which crumbled the team structure.

What does this tell us about Koeman?

Sergio Ramos scored the penalty that put the visitors in the lead in the 64th minute. There was more than enough time, for Koeman to think of the changes that he could make which would — at the very least — last 25 minutes.

While the sample size is rather small, thus far we could say that he doesn’t seem to have a plan B whenever the team is in a losing position and that his fear of defeat impedes his judgment. Koeman had an abundance of quality on the bench but has made deplorable use of it. This stems from either out of a complete lack of trust in his players’ suitability in the team or distrust in his own tactics.

As a result, the players on the pitch, such as Griezmann – who made just a single touch in his short cameo role – were just as clueless, if not more than their manager.

Where do the improvements lie?

There is obviously an improvement in the football that the team is playing thus far in La Liga. As Jose Bordalas said, Barcelona is more direct than they were in previous seasons but this exuberance can only last so long, especially with players like Busquets who are on the wrong end of thirty. In games like this or the one against Getafe, the manager needs to have a clear and concise plan in mind on what to do whenever the team is trailing.

Bartomeu is gone, and Koeman’s fate lies in the hand of the new president. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

While he could be forgiven for a shaky start to the campaign, he will not be given a lot of time, not as much as Ernesto Valverde got, especially given a change in administration due very soon. Xavi is a clear target for most of the presidential candidates and if Koeman wants to keep his job beyond this season, then he needs to work on his squad management. This can come by shaking up the setup from time to time and showing some more faith in what is one of the best, most complete squads Barcelona has had in years.

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