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Arturo Vidal leaves Barcelona: Goodbye and good riddance?

Alexandre Patanian

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Header Image by David Ramos via Getty Images

Arturo Vidal spent two years at Barcelona and now leaves for Inter Milan, where he will be reunited with Antonio Conte. Let’s review his time in the blaugrana colours.


The historical clubs in football usually have a unique identity. No matter how big or successful they are, they will always stick by their rules and principles, not even when the best players in the world are not interested.

To understand how traditions work in football, one should take a look at one of the three clubs that hasn’t suffered the agony of relegation from La Liga in its century of history, and that is Athletic Club, mistakenly called “Bilbao” by casual fans. Athletic is one of the most historic clubs in La Liga, with Los Leones having one of the best academies in Spanish football, with no less than eight of players who have emerged from their academy featuring in the last game of the 2019/20 La Liga season. Heck, even their manager, Gaizka Garitano, was once an academy graduate at San Mamés and theen returned to make Athletic one of the most feared defensive sides in Spain.

The reason Athletic use that many youngsters is because they have an only-Basque players policy which prohibits them from playing foreigners in the squad, which is at the same time admirable and impressive. Admirable, because in today’s day and age, after the Bossman ruling, next to no teams have stuck with as many natives as Athletic have done. Impressive, because they have had a superb level with a team that doesn’t rely on foreign stars, unlike Barcelona, Madrid or Sevilla, for example.

Sticking to your principles will always yield you results, if not on the short term, they will see the fruits when their youngsters grow to become legends of the club they will never leave. For example, Iker Muniain has been plying his trade in Bilbao since 2009 and is still Athltic’s talisman in the attack. Many have emerged recently, such as Iñaki Williams, Iñigo Córdoba, Unai Núñez or Yeray Álvarez, who battled cancer a few years back and is now primed and ready to become Spain’s next big thing in defence.

While clubs like Athletic have kept their identity and beliefs, others have strayed away from their principles and philosophy because of their board. The Barcelona board has taken a team which was on the top of the world in 2011 and brought it back to its old ways of self-destruction an misery.

Ever sine Sandro Rosell was elected president, Barcelona have lost their principles and their philosophy and have instead gone to another form of thinking football, which is less effective. The most prominent example of this could be comparing the players who composed the midfield in Barcelona’s latest debacle and the 2011 Barcelona squad. Comparing prime Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta to a midfield four made of a declining Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal as a number 10 is disrespectful to the former three who were the best trio in Europe. The latter is the epitome of the differences between the elegant Xavi and Iniesta.

Arturo Vidal Juventus leaves Barcelona

Vidal’s profile generated much controversy at Barcelona | Photo by Paul Gilham via Getty Images

Arturo Vidal is a warrior and a bully, someone who is willing to run the whole length of the pitch but is in no way, shape or form the smartest with his feet. At least that was the speech some culés had when they saw their beloved club sign a 31-year-old midfielder on too high wages for a fee close to 20 million in 2018.

In his first year, Arturo Vidal came as a surprise in Ernesto Valverde’s system. Finally relieved of his knee injury, Vidal was rejuvenated in that midfield and was a competent player in a system that didn’t always shine. He ran into space well, as he was often used as a number 10 or even, inexplicably, a left winger. He had a body built for running and pushing away opponents, and this signing couldn’t have been further than what Barça had only a decade ago.

When you think Thiago Alcânatara, former Barcelona player and Vidal teammate, was let go seven years ago only for Barcelona to search for a successor to either Xavi or Iniesta, you would be surprised the Bayern Munich midfielder they got to replace the newly-gone Andrés Iniesta was Vidal, who had a great career but who isn’t a Barcelona midfielder.

All 2018/19 season long, Vidal impressed, and his supporters kept saying how much he would have helped Barça in the Roma debacle, where no one raised their head and had the energy to do something. Then came to Liverpool. With a 3–0 win at the Camp Nou, one would think that not conceding four goals is a formality for a team that has been rejuvenated by a warrior in midfield who would scream and shout in midfield and run like a lion.

Instead, this defeat was worse than Roma, because even if Barcelona played better than in Rome, they had the character, the energy and enthusiasm to at least score a goal, but failed miserably, and who was here to keep his head up? Not Vidal, who got substituted in the 75th minute after a horrific performance.

“Barcelona have done things that don’t fit with a team at the top level. In the end, you realise this when you face an organised team, a team that has a winning mentality, with players that are physically prepared and that has a very strong game plan. Barcelona first have to change the way they think because football has evolved a lot. DNA is being left behind and other teams are improving in other aspects. Nowadays, football is more physical, more about strength and speed, and technical ability can sometimes come second. Barcelona have to change lots of things.

Arturo Vidal‘s controversial words in late August 2020

The Liverpool debacle hurt insanely and, even if Vidal wasn’t directly at fault for any of the goals, where was he when Barça needed to keep focused when they were sinking at the start of the game? His physical presence was incredibly missed, and he started the game! His voice was also missed, and he started the game! How could one have been this foolish to think physique and stiffness in midfield were what Barça needed?

After that debacle, Barcelona needed a clearout, which they did not do. Arturo Vidal went into this season playing well, statistically speaking. One of the top scorers of the squad, he was deployed as a 10 and left winger for long parts of the season, even starting the second Clásico of the term on the left, when Ansu Fati would have eaten that backline alive. The Chilean had good moments, but it’s no wonder his last moment as a Barça player will be crying on that billboard after being eaten alive by the proper culé midfielder that is Thiago Alcântara.

“A club, which I think is the best in the world, can’t have 13 professional players and the rest youngsters. Not because they don’t deserve to be there, but they have to be competing with the best and with who has to play. Every club has 23 players fighting for a place, improving and getting better every day. But when they don’t progress, when you think you can always win with your DNA, that’s when you’re mistaken”

Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal kept winning the dressing room’s confidence and has had a say in many things, but when he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, that is where he lost everyone. Speaking before the Bayern game only to get thrashed like a schoolboy and then having the nerve to trash talk Barcelona’s former philosophy that has yielded so much success for them before leaving to Inter Milan, where he’ll be reunited with Antonio Conte and, more importantly, relieve Barcelona from his astronomical wages. Goodbye to the warrior and king.

As a Lebanese teenager who never had the chance to support their local team, I fell in love with the club that was FC Barcelona at the start of the decade. I always was passionate about writing and this is exactly what I am looking for: sharing my insights and opinions on football.

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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”

At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.

He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.

Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.

There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.

Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.

The prototype of a Barcelona number nine

Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.

To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.

Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.

La Masia strikers and their progression

Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.

Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?

Possible problems and solutions

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.

In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.

This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.

Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.

As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.

Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.

Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.

One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.

This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.

Fan’s opinions

We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.

They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.

Navid

“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”

Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”

“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”

“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”

Single Pivot

“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”

Sam

“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”

“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”

“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”

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