With inexperience, lack of trust from the manager, and most importantly injuries plaguing Barcelona’s central defence, what options does the club have to improve their performance at the back?
This season, Samuel Umtiti has played only 36 minutes, Ronald Araújo and Gerard Piqué have gone down with injuries, Frenkie de Jong has been forced to cover in central defence, and Óscar Mingueza has been called up from Barcelona B and thrust right into the starting eleven. Not to mention Clement Lenglet’s constantly dipping form which has seen him move to a bench position in the last two games.
In addition to all the chaos, there has been plenty of inconsistency from those who have played. As of December 18th, Barça rank 13th in La Liga for expected goals conceded with 16.2 through 12 matches.
Taking this into account, Ronald Koeman — if he survives any longer — and the board could surely be looking to add quality, experience, or even just depth to the most depleted area in the side. That would mean investing in the centre back market in the oncoming January transfer window.
A significant factor here is the status of Piqué. The veteran’s knee injury against Atlético Madrid will have him sidelined for at least a few months. Plus, at his age, there is reason to worry over what level he will be able to return to, especially since he opted for conservative treatment.
Losing the club’s most experienced, accomplished defender, its leader in the backline, and a key piece in the side for over a decade is a massive blow. With this in mind, the ability to take over some of Piqué’s duties will be crucial for a potential signing, or centre backs already in the squad who will be looking for more match time.
So, what are the best options available for Barça? Who makes the most economic sense? Who will benefit the club the most in the long term? Time to examine the different choices.
Put faith in Óscar Mingueza and Ronald Araújo
Of course, there is always the option not to spend at all. For Barça, this would mean Koeman trusting two youthful centre backs – Óscar Mingueza and Ronald Araújo. Both have shown great promise at times in their young Barça careers, meaning it could be precious for the club to stick with them and try to develop them as much as possible.
Never a high profile talent, most were not even expecting to see Mingueza in the first team this season. However, he was called up to start Barcelona’s away fixture against Dynamo Kyiv, where he seized his opportunity.
On the ball, the Spaniard was immaculate. He completed 82 passes in the match, the second-most in the squad, and misplaced only five. His progressive passing distance – distance his passes travelled towards the opposition goal – of 560 yards was the highest on the team, and so were his eight completed passes of longer than 30 yards.
That passing efficiency is truly where Mingueza shines. His 392.4 progressive yards passed per 90 minutes in all competitions this season and 92.3% pass completion rate are exceptional tallies. In fact, they compare very well to Piqué himself, who was averaging 349.6 progressive passing yards per 90 on a 93.9% completion rate.
The Spaniard is smart with his defending as well. This season, he has faced a one vs. one dribble attempt seven times and been dribbled past only once. In terms of reading passes, Mignueza has also averaged two interceptions per 90 minutes, with an impressive three coming in that Dynamo Kyiv match.
While the sample size is rather small, and still needs some polishing, case in point the first goal Barcelona conceded to Cadiz. Mingueza has the right qualities to be a Blaugrana centre back. Putting faith in the 21-year-old could yield great long term rewards.
Then, there is Ronald Araújo. Compared to the likes of Mingueza and Piqué, the Uruguayan does not provide as much of a progressive passing presence. In his time at the club, Araújo has averaged 238.5 progressive passing yards per 90 minutes — significantly less than the tallies put up by the two Spaniards. However, the former Boston River defender is definitely not poor on the ball.
His performance in the 1-1 draw against Sevilla earlier this season backs this up. It serves as an example of the passer he can be with a bit more development and consistency.
That match saw Araújo complete 59 of his 65 attempted passes, racking up a progressive passing distance of 387 yards – the second highest in the squad. He also completed a team-high 11 passes of longer than 30 yards, including an absolute peach of a ball to Ansu Fati just outside of the Sevilla penalty area.
While the Uruguayan is not an elite ball-playing centre back yet, the foundations are there. He shows great promise on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Araújo has only been dribbled past once so far in his short-lived Barça career from seven attempts. He showed great ability to contain attackers and time his challenge in that Sevilla match.
Another strength of Araújo’s is his mobility, which can be crucial in the Barcelona system. Playing a high line of defence and having the opposition looking to counter can lead to dangerous balls in behind. The Uruguayan has all the tools to deal with these situations and long passes over the top.
Finally, when it comes to filling in for Piqué, Araújo has the clear upper hand over Mingueza for aerial ability. In their Barcelona careers so far, the Uruguayan has won 1.79 aerial duels per 90 minutes to Mingueza’s 0.89 with a success rate of 70% to Mingueza’s 44.4%.
Both have their distinct characteristics and strengths that make them exciting prospects for the future. Based on the opposition, Koeman could rotate between the two at right centre back to pair with Clément Lenglet on the left, or as they showed in Barça’s 2-1 victory over Real Sociedad, and to an extent against Valencia, the two can work as a pair themselves.
Ultimately, Araújo and Mingueza lack much top-flight experience at all, and especially experience in the biggest matches. However, if the club are looking to save money and develop players from within, both deserve an opportunity to continue to start matches.
Signing a high profile talent
On the flip side, if Barça were willing to spend on a transfer, and potentially a substantial amount, who are some well-known centre backs they could be looking at?
Realistically, Barça will not be able to pursue just any centre back they want. Thus, someone like Dayot Upamecano, for instance, will be excluded here. There is very little chance of the club being able to afford someone in a team playing Champions League football, that has lots of money, and has no reason to sell their key players. This is especially true considering the already bloated wage bill on Barça’s books.
With that in mind, the most realistic option here has to be Manchester City’s Eric García. The La Masia product’s contract is expiring at the end of this season, and he has been heavily linked with a return to the club by Fabrizio Romano. This could either be for free in the summer or for a reported £22 million to bring him in sooner.
The teenager is already a world-class ball progressor, both with his passing and carrying. He is also very skilled in terms of anticipating and intercepting passes. Where García still has a lot of room left to improve, though, is with his performance in duels. He is poor in the air and can be muscled off the ball easily, meaning he is not completely the “next Piqué” some make him out to be.
Another highly-rated Spaniard Barça have been linked to is Pau Torres of Villarreal. With Villarreal currently in the race for a top-four spot, they certainly will not want to sell, but since they are not a traditional powerhouse or an extremely wealthy club, they might be forced to.
Interestingly, Torres is left-footed. This raises questions over how he would fit into the squad, but the quality to do so is definitely there. Like García, Torres is a high volume progressor of the ball, although he could look to improve his efficiency in that department. Torres is also much more adept at duelling with attackers on the ground, but still lacks the aerial presence of Piqué.
The next option certainly does not lack aerial ability. He may be the least popular of the three, but his stock is quickly rising, and it is easy to see why – it is Robin Le Normand. The Real Sociedad centre back has played a key role in their hot start. While there have not been strong links between Le Normand and Barça, he is an option the club should consider.
The Frenchman is truly exceptional in aerial and ground duels and would bring a strong presence in that area, similar to what Piqué has provided. Le Normand is still a bit raw, as reflected by his low volume of interceptions and relatively low passing accuracy, but his ceiling is one of the highest in world football right now.
Out of these three, García is the most likely target and the most economically reasonable. Still, though, he would need much defensive improvement to be a true Piqué heir, and the other options should not be ignored for the unique strengths they bring to the table.
A short term solution
When considering a Barcelona signing, there is no way to rule out an older player. From Paulinho to the likes of Jeison Murillo and Kevin-Prince Boateng, there have been a few of these short term options brought in over the last few years. Which veteran centre backs could Barça be in the market for?
One who has been linked is Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger. The German has been frozen out of the lineup in London and is now reportedly the subject of Barcelona’s interest for a loan or cheap transfer. A surprise move, for sure, but the quality Rüdiger has displayed over his career is nothing to scoff at.
On paper, the German is near-perfect fit to fill in for Piqué. He is solid in the air, a skilled passer, and comfortable carrying the ball. The one key area he does not match the Spaniard is with his reading of opposition passes. A loan or transfer for a 27-year-old is not ideal, but Rüdiger has the potential to fit in well.
Up next is someone playing for the same club from which Barça acquired Jeison Murillo a couple of years ago: Valencia’s Gabriel Paulista. The 30-year-old would be a concise term solution, but Valencia have shown they are willing to part ways with experienced players for minimal transfer fee. Couple that with some of Paulista’s key strengths, and this is a move Barça could look into.
The former Arsenal man is decent in the air, a smart defender who intercepts passes and does not foul often, and a good long passer. It would be a low reward purchase for the club, but looking at the Brazilian’s well-roundedness in a largely struggling Valencia side means it would also be low risk.
The third potential veteran option is a bit of a little-known name, but Patric of Lazio is a decent option and a La Masia product. He also has experience as a right-back, which could be valuable given that Sergi Roberto is another defender recovering from an injury.
Defensively, Patric is not a great fit to go up against world-class opposition, and he is inferior in the air. However, for a potentially cheap fee, he would bring lots of quality on the ball, and be a steadfast option for cover or for breaking down weaker opponents.
Antonio Rüdiger is the most realistic option here and looks to possess the most overall quality as well. Barcelona’s track record with older signings has been poor, but when done right, they can provide great value for money.
An under the radar young defender
For our last signing criteria, we have some young centre backs who are a bit obscure but have quite a lot of potential. The thinking behind these options is somewhat along the lines of a signing like Jean-Clair Todibo. Except, these defenders are all currently playing outside of the big five European leagues.
Seeing as these guys are a bit less established, it is likely someone of their calibre would be brought in either to compete with Araújo and Mingueza for a starting spot or provide cover initially and potentially grow into something special.
Someone who could fit the bill is Danish centre back Victor Nelsson, who currently plays for FC København. The 22-year-old has racked up a vast amount of minutes already in his home country, and he has European experience with ten Europa League starts in 2019/20.
Style-wise, Nelsson matches up with Piqué very nicely. The Dane especially excels with his aerial prowess and passing efficiency. The jump to Barça would be a sizable one, but links to the likes of Celtic and Aston Villa reflect the growing buzz around him.
Up next is another young centre-back with Europa League experience: Braga’s David Carmo. Standing at 196 cm tall, Carmo is a man mountain at the back, but he is far more than just a big frame. There could be strong competition for his signature, though, as Manchester United and Roma are reportedly targeting him.
The Braga man is unsurprisingly brilliant in the air and is adept at ball progression. Where he tends to struggle is with his “on the ground” defending – cutting off passing lanes or going against dribblers one vs one. Either way, Carmo looks like a real talent, and there is already a relationship established between the two clubs after Francisco Trincão’s move this past summer.
Luis Abram, the ninth and final potential transfer option, currently plays in Argentina for Vélez Sarsfield. There, under the management of Mauricio Pellegrino, who actually had a brief loan stint at Barcelona in his playing career, Abram has flourished as one of the league’s best ball-playing defenders.
Quite frankly, no other centre-back in the last year has been able to match his ability to pass and carry the ball forward. Defensively, he is firm with ground duels and surprisingly average in the air given his lack of height.
Both Abram and Carmo are left-footed, so they could be seen more as cover for Lenglet — especially given Umtiti’s lack of minutes — who still help the squad make up for Piqué’s missing qualities.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that Barça will make a move for one of these three players. However, it is this line of thinking and scouting for smart investments which the club need to be doing more of, and there are some very good options to find, like Nelsson, Carmo, and Abram.
The path Barcelona end up going down at the centre back position will play a key role in the side’s success this season, but more importantly, its long term development. Making the right decision here is crucial, but there may be more than one.
Upon seeing some top performances from Ronald Araújo and Óscar Mingueza, it definitely seems smart to keep their development on track and save money by trusting them. Given their inexperience against top-class opposition, though, can the club be blamed for wanting to bring in a high profile signing?
Eric García seems like the most viable option, but Barça could also wait for the summer to get him for free and elect to loan in someone like Antonio Rüdiger for short term cover.
Years from now, fans could be looking back at this coming transfer window and thinking, “Wow, I’m glad we went with this player.” For the future of the club’s defence, let us hope that is how things play out.
Stats courtesy: FBRef
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?