Barcelona had a rather winter busy transfer window spearheaded by the new sporting director under Joan Laporta’s board – Mateu Alemany. It has been a long time since someone in an administrative role has received the admiration and reverence that the Alemany has garnered, and rightfully so.
For a club that was horribly mismanaged under the last administration, a smart transfer window, combined with shrewd contract renewals, is just what is needed.
Now that Xavi has the signings he asked for, his concept of the Barcelona he envisions is starting to flesh out. Granted, there are some unfortunate circumstances, specifically Ansu Fati’s injury and Ousmane Dembele’s failed renewal.
In this article, Barça Universal will aim to nail down three ways in which the team can line up with external factors taken into account.
Ideal lineup: 4-3-3
Abde · Ferran · Adama
Pedri · Busquets · de Jong
Alba · Araujo · Pique · Alves
The first lineup we explore is the one that will focus on balancing the team’s strengths and player roles while minimizing weaknesses. In goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in all three lineups. Despite his somewhat shaky performances this season and before, he is the best goalkeeper that Barcelona has. Similarly, Jordi Alba is the first-choice left-back by far.
Since a 4-3-3 is the ideal formation for Barcelona from what we have seen under Xavi, it makes sense for the optimal lineup to employ the same formation. Defining the roles and choosing the players goes hand-in-hand.
Though some argue, and rightly so, that the player’s qualities can often override the importance of a certain role being essential to a system, our focus is on making the team’s strengths and the player roles work in symbiosis.
This means that even though Gavi can play as a left-winger, he ends up dropping inside. That isn’t necessarily a drawback, as Jordi Alba gets more space as a result. But for Ez Abde to play as the left-winger, he would be in a preferred role as an inverted winger and preferred position as well.
In theory, he would cut in often as well, allowing Alba to occupy the more expansive spaces. In fact, the gravity that Abde as an inverted winger would exert on the opposition is arguably more than Gavi would as a false winger.
Alongside the Moroccan winger, Ferran Torres should start as the striker. The ex-Manchester City striker links up reasonably well with the midfield and is comfortable in tight spaces. However, his ability to be in the right spot at the right time in the box is vital.
A case can be made for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to start as well. The main issue against this argument is the fact that he hasn’t played in a similar system successfully for more than two years. In contrast, Ferran has played for Luis Enrique’s Spain side as well as Guardiola’s Manchester City team as a striker.
On the right, Barcelona’s new winger Adama Traore looks to pin down the spot. Ousmane Dembele is the only other realistic option here alongside Abde, but with the uncertainty surrounding the Frenchman’s playtime as well as Traore’s excellent debut, the Spanish winger has to be the optimal choice.
As Adama will do best when occupying wide areas and dribbling down the line rather than cutting in often, Dani Alves would complement his playstyle better than Sergino Dest.
For one, Alves is a better passer than the American right-back. Secondly, he has looked more comfortable in that role, and thirdly, he has been in great form. Another issue with Dest starting over the Brazilian is that the latter is much more comfortable when operating in the channels rather than solely on the wing.
As a result of Gavi’s exclusion, the optimal midfield trio becomes apparent. Sergio Busquets is still Barcelona’s untouchable pivot who can be partnered with the latest Golden Boy, Pedri, and Frenkie de Jong.
The reasons are evident to anyone who has watched Barcelona this season. Pedri has been crucial to the team’s possession-based play ever since his return from injury. De Jong, meanwhile, has struggled for a long time now, but with Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, and Riqui Puig being the other realistic options, he can comfortably slot into the starting XI.
The only player who could give the Dutchman a run for his money at the moment would be Gavi. The young La Masia midfielder has shown immense talent and has performed well, even when tasked to be a false-winger.
In fact, an argument can be made for the Spaniard being better than de Jong in many matches recently. Despite this, his experience, impeccable rotations with his teammates, and decision-making mean that he is a better interior than Gavi for Barcelona at the moment.
In defence, the full-back spots have been nailed down, and the centre-back pairing is just as straightforward. Gerard Pique and Ronald Araujo have been in good form, contribute a lot to set-pieces, and have been solid if not for some communication errors that should reduce the more they play together.
Now that the lineup that balances the roles with quality has been nailed down, we take a look at two alternatives to this. The first alternative will focus on a team that neglects the tendency to make errors in defence and will suit a team that wants to sustain attacking play with as many players as possible.
Secondary lineup: 4-3-3 hybrid
Ferran · Aubameyang · Adama
Gavi · Busquets · Pedri
Alba · Araujo · Pique · Dest
Though a 4-3-3 on paper, this team will essentially transition to a 3-4-3 when attacking. The system will utilize Busquets’ incredible line-breaking passes while taking into account his sub-par pace to ensure the team isn’t caught out on the counter-attack.
To do this, though, Busquets starts as the pivot, he will drop back between the central midfielders as a half-back as he did under Pep Guardiola. This will help him not only to gather the ball and play it forward but also when the team is defending.
Simultaneously, the team will focus on forcing the opposition wide by having narrow centre-halves. Again, Araujo and Pique being paired up would be the optimal solution. Eric Garcia would be a great addition to a back-three. But since this formation doesn’t utilize a conventional back-three, he misses out yet again.
Here, choosing Dest in the right-back spot is the more viable option since in a 3-4-3, both full-backs will need to cover a lot of ground. At thirty-eight years of age, the Brazilian full-back can’t really play multiple games a week and act as a wide midfielder. The question here isn’t of quality but of endurance.
This way of lining up means that the team can, in theory, form a back-five at the back. This possibility in itself means the midfield can be more inclined offensively than usual. As a result, Gavi can be chosen alongside Pedri in midfield.
Despite all of de Jong’s technical excellence, Gavi simply offers more verticality and incision in terms of playing the ball through. Riqui Puig does provide more than Gavi when it comes to playing the final ball, but Gavi trumps him in his defensive work rate, positional sense, and timing off the ball.
In attack, Ousmane Dembele would have been a perfect fit, but his contract situation and current controversies, combined with good performances by other forwards, mean he will not make the lineup.
Ferran Torres, instead, can start as the left-winger. This is, in fact, his least preferred position out of the front three. Ferran Jutgla starting over him when talking about the left-wing spot has some merit as well. But in the end, Torres is just a much better and more experienced player at the moment.
Adama Traore is Barcelona’s best bet at right-wing, especially for a formation as attacking as this, and he made that abundantly clear on his debut against Atletico Madrid. In attack, what this formation can aim to do is make Ferran Torres and Aubameyang play off each other.
There are immediate drawbacks to this. Both of them perform better as sole strikers, and Aubameyang has explicitly struggled in a two-striker system.
However, the potential that this partnership has is highly prolific. Aubameyang would be the main striker, and the kind of crosses that bring out the best in him will be delivered by Traore and Alba. The penalty area would be his point of concern, first and foremost.
Ferran would act as a left inside-forward. This entails occupying spaces in the box in order to open up avenues for the Gabonese striker, combining well with Alba and the midfielders, as well as finishing off any chances that Aubameyang fails to execute.
Essentially, this formation will maximize Aubameyang’s ability in the box while sacrificing the number of chances coming to Ferran, who has a much better conversion rate and does very well to sniff out any opportunity in the box.
Experimental lineup: 4-4-2 diamond
Aubameyang · Ferran
Pedri · Nico · de Jong
Alba · Garcia · Pique · Araujo
The third lineup is more of an experimental one. It is one we could have seen if the team was in a more comfortable position in the league. It does have great merits, though.
For one, it is unlike the usual 4-3-3. Every team should have multiple formations, even if they have the same base principles. This can sometimes be the difference in first and second place, especially when neither team is significantly better than the other in pure quality.
The sheer unpredictability, as well as potential payoffs this formation could produce, are enough to give it a try.
Retaining ter Stegen in goal, he has a different back-four in front of him in this formation. Jordi Alba continues at left-back, of course. But this time, Eric Garcia slots in as the left centre-half, Gerard Pique will be his defensive partner with Ronald Araujo as the right-back.
On paper, this is a 4-4-2 diamond. But in practice, a back three would be formed, with Jordi Alba essentially being the left midfielder.
The midfield is where the most significant changes will be seen. Nico Gonzalez would start as the pivot. He has done tremendously in that role at Barcelona B, and with Frenkie de Jong as one of the interiors, he has defensive help as well.
De Jong would be assigned more vertical movement as compared to the other interior, Pedri. In the attacking midfield position, Riqui Puig shows the most promise.
Puig’s vision, agility, and incisive execution of passes are precious to a team like Barcelona. His weaknesses, namely defensive positioning and decision making, will be minimized in this position.
Ahead of him, Ferran Torres and Aubameyang would form a striking partnership. This formation focuses more on chances created through the middle rather than the wings.
The main benefit this formation has for the two strikers is that both of them will be able to play space-oriented roles rather than ball-oriented roles. What this means is that someone whose strength is dribbling, such as Traore, would be a worse fit than someone who thrives in situations requiring situational precision, such as Torres or Aubameyang.