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Barça DNA across the world: A special starting XI



Photos via Imago

In this series so far, we have discussed players such as Lyon’s Rayan Cherkhi, Ajax’s Kian Fitz-Jim, Villareal’s Pau Torres, etc. As is apparent from the name, the series focuses on players who aren’t from La Masia or Barcelona but still show the qualities necessary to play in the traditional Barcelona system. In this special episode of the Barça DNA Around the World series, we will construct an XI of players who show the qualities and technical ability to play for Barcelona someday.

We must keep in mind that when saying that a player plays with the Barca DNA, it refers to the traditional positional play derived from total football. With their three-person backline and lack of directness down the wings, the current Barcelona side is not what it is referred to.

To build this team, the formation used will be a 4-3-3, arguably the best formation for Barcelona’s style of play. Though the team may transition into various other formations during the 90, this would remain as the core.

GK: Kjell Scherpen

As is widely known, Johan Cruyff famously proclaimed that the goalkeeper is the first attacker in his team. This is seen clearly in teams in which the game model is built upon that of Cruyff’s. Ajax’s Onana and Manchester City’s Ederson are prime examples of goalkeepers who are essentially outfield players. Kjell Scherpen is someone who can follow in their footsteps.

21-year-old goalkeeper Scherpen signed with Ajax from Emmen in 2019. At 6’8”, the Dutchman is tall even by goalkeepers’ standards. Thanks to this, he is dominant in the box. His timing when running out is particularly impressive, rarely making mistakes in such situations. However, the Ajax shot-stopper occasionally lacks focus, which reflects in him being vulnerable to shots from longer ranges. In possession, he is essentially faultless. Scherpen’s reaction speed is particularly impressive.

A massive presence between the sticks. (Photo via Imago)

Often his lightning-quick saves are followed by quick recoveries and passes to launch the counter-attack. This is aided by his passing, which is very accurate, both with his feet and when launching the ball by hand. These attributes make it easy to see why Ajax are betting on Scherpen to be the mainstay between the posts for the coming years.

RB: Yan Couto

A highly attacking full-back from Brazil with great dribbling skills, a track record of providing assists and extreme confidence on the ball? The comparisons to Dani Alves are inevitable. Yet, 18-year-old Yan Couto considers World Cup winner Cicinho his role model, especially mentioning he likes his dribbling. The influence of the retired Brazilian full-back on Couto’s style of play is apparent, with mazy dribbles, quick link-ups with his teammates, and the lack of hesitation when facing players in 1v1s.

The 2019 U-17 World Cup was where most of the world got its first glimpse of Yan Couto. Apart from providing two assists in five appearances, he was one of the brightest players in a Brazilian side, overflowing with talent. In the final third, Couto is lethal. He can be seen driving towards players centrally from wide areas or dribbling down the touchline to launch a cross into the box. Crossing, however, is an aspect of his play that needs improvement.

Pep Guardiola’s latest discovery. (Photo via Imago)

Now on loan at Girona, already making 17 appearances this season, he is set to return to City next season. Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, it won’t be a surprise if this raw gem shines bright as a diamond.                            

CB: Tanguy Nianzou

Paris Saint-Germain have a highly underrated academy. Growing and nurturing talents like Kingsley Coman, Presnel Kimpembe, Adrien Rabiot, they have also lost many exciting players recently. The loss that has angered and saddened the club’s fans more than any other in recent history is that of Tanguy Nianzou. Yet another French defender with immense potential, he was snapped up by Bayern Munich in 2020.           

Nianzou is a natural leader, even captaining PSG’s sides when playing against older players. He is very composed in possession. At 6’2”, he is fairly tall, and he makes the most of this in his aerial game, which his coaches describe as absolutely incredible. This is thanks to his physique but also his timing. In fact, timing and anticipation form the basis for his excellent tackling ability.

Unbeatable in the air. (Photo via Imago)

A ball-playing defender, he received recognition from international media after his performance against Galatasaray in his Champions League debut for PSG under Thomas Tuchel.

A passing accuracy of 95.5% was matched by a similarly high accuracy with long balls. Winning all of his aerial duels and most of his ground duels, Nianzou was imperious in defense. Despite all this, he is still just 18 and looks like the defensive leader of Bayern’s next-generation alongside Dayot Upamecano.

CB: Anel Ahmedhodžić 

The oldest player in this XI at 23, Bosnian defender Anel Ahmedhodžić joined Nottingham in 2017 from Malmö FF. He was in England for around three years but he barely played. Returning to Sweden, he played at Hobro IK to get accustomed to Swedish football, after which he became a first-team regular for Malmo. Winning the title with the Swedish club, he has maintained his level since then.

Unlike Tanguy Nianzou, this defender is reliant on his physique to dispossess players rather than timing. This is not to say that he lacks the finesse to acutely time a tackle, but he utilizes his 6’4” physique to the maximum.

Strong on and off the ball. (Photo via Imago)

Since he is considered to be a player with ‘Barcelona DNA’ in this article, he is naturally very comfortable in possession. Always looking for the progressive passing option, he takes risks but, more often than not, progresses the ball successfully. His passing is a joy to watch due to the incision and accuracy, but he sometimes chooses the wrong passing option when under pressure.

Looking at his overall play, one cannot help but think Ahmedhodžić has already outgrown Malmo. Most scouts would agree, as he has been linked to many Champions League-level clubs. Wherever he ends up, he could end up becoming one of the best centre-backs in world football if he continues progressing steadily.

LB: Rayan Aït-Nouri

Arguably France’s most promising left-back in the U21 category, Rayan Aït-Nouri, was representing the French U21 side at just 19 years of age. He was heavily linked to Barcelona amongst other massive European clubs when at Angers, eventually ending up at the Molineux playing for Wolves this season.  Scoring on his debut, he immediately displayed what makes him a player to watch. The young Frenchman showed the intent to attack at every chance possible without sacrificing defensive solidity.

Though Aït-Nouri can play as a winger, his athleticism makes him someone who can run up and down the wings all day. This quality is one of the many making him a reliable defender. Akin to Jordi Alba, he isn’t especially strong in purely defensive situations.

Rather, you can count on him to progress the ball forward, link up well with teammates, and trackback to slow down the opposition’s attacks. When defending in a 1v1, he might commit too early, but when attacking in a 1v1, few players can keep up with the 19-year-old’s quick feet.

Lightning-quick feet. (Photo via Imago)

Rayan Aït-Nouri has been one of the positives in a season where Wolves have underperformed. His loan ends at the end of June, but Wolves maintain an option to buy.

RCM: Édouard Michut

Paris Saint-Germain’s academy consistently produced high-quality players, but Édouard Michut looks like he has the potential to be the one to beat. Michut recently turned 18, but scouts worldwide were following him from way back in his childhood.

Picked up by PSG from Versailles in 2011, he was immediately, very prematurely, compared to some of the best players in the world. His skillset is well-summarised by how far his comparisons stretch. Some said he would be the next Veratti, while some dubbed him to be the next Messi.

Despite these illogical comparisons, his skill on the ball, agility, and technical ability certainly helps. From the fundamental movements, receiving on the backfoot, shoulder-checking before receiving, receiving on the half-turn, to the more advanced shuffles of the hip to feint, la croquetas, Michut makes everything look easy. In a 4-3-3, he performs exceptionally well as he tends to receive behind the lines. Not exactly a metronome, but more of a playmaker; he is a player tailored to positional play.

Talent and poise in equal measure. (Photo via Imago)

Making his debut in the 89th minute this season in his only appearance, he has essentially no experience at the first-division level. But this is quite normal since he is just 18. Next season and the one after will be how Michut’s protagonism within the team increases.

The young Frenchman is very likely to thrive under Pocchetino in the role Veratti has been playing. Under the guidance of the Italian metronome, Michut can develop into a first-team regular if he comes anywhere near to achieving his full potential.

DM: Lucien Agoumé

In their first season in Serie A, Vincenzo Italiano’s Spezia are above the relegation zone so far. It has been a season like the one they expected. Twice the number of losses than wins, one of their main problems has naturally been adjusting to Seria A. 19-year-old midfielder Lucien Agoumé, however, has never looked out of place. The team is completely different with him on the pitch. There is a level of calm restored along with another dimension to their attack.

At Sochaux was where Agoumé caught the eye of Inter Milan. The French-U17 international chose to move to Italy, snubbing both Barcelona and Manchester City in 2019. At 5’11”, he is tall for a midfielder. This allows Agoumé to cover a lot of ground when intercepting the ball in midfield and in general when pressing. However, he is more than just a strong defensive presence.

Agoumé can put the ball on a sixpence. (Photo via Imago)

Constantly showing great vision and awareness, there are few players in Agoumé’s age group who can match his passing range. This means he can play essentially anywhere in midfield comfortably, but he does best as a single pivot or as a regista. Returning to Seria A winners Inter Milan, it will be hard for Agoume to get steady playtime, but if he does, Agoume is sure to repay the coach’s faith.

LCM: Tiago Dantas

 Some players just stand out the first time you watch them play. Tiago Dantas certainly fits the description. Akin to Thiago Alcantara or Riqui Puig, everything Dantas does on the pitch looks silkier and classier. From Benfica’s academy, now playing for Bayern Munich, Dantas was on Hansi Flick’s radar for more than five years, and it’s not hard to see why.

In a 4-3-3, Dantas can occupy either of the spots beside the defensive midfielder. The Portuguese is clearly attacking-minded, having played as an attacking midfielder in his youth teams. His line-breaking passes have pinpoint accuracy and extreme incision. In a possession-based team is where he shines brightest.

The 20-year-old’s comfort in playing under pressure is commendable as he is eager to receive the ball behind the lines, turn and progress the play. In the final third, he frequently unlocks the defense with his well-weighted through-balls. To add to this, Dantas is a dead-ball specialist.

Press-resistance of the highest order. (Photo via Imago)

There are certain weaknesses to his game, as is expected from such a young player. One that stands out is his inability to make his presence felt towards the start of most games. Though he grows into it, this is an area he needs to improve to become a reliable midfielder. Whether his future lies at Bayern, where he is low in the pecking order, or elsewhere, Tiago Dantas is a unique player; a player who it’s a pleasure to watch regardless of the scoreline and the team.

RW: Ömer Faruk Beyaz

A 17-year-old with ambitions to win the Ballon d’Or can either be viewed as arrogant or as confident. Apart from your perspective, it would naturally depend on just how good the player is. In the case of Ömer Faruk Beyaz, one can see why he keeps such ambitions.

A product of Fenerbahce’s youth academy, Beyaz is naturally a number ’10’, but he also plays as a right-winger. At 5’6”, he is relatively short. Like all greats, he has turned his physical attributes into advantages. The agility and low centre-of-gravity allowed by a small frame are utilized to the maximum by Beyaz.

The Fenerbahce winger rarely loses balance. Whether he is on one of his mazy runs with players looking to stop him by any means, or when he is being pressed by all sides and yet manages to produce a perfectly weighted lobbed pass over the defense to set his teammate through on goal, it’s very tough to dispossess the Turkish youngster.

A diminutive left-footed number ’10’ ? Sounds strangely familiar. (Photo via Imago)

Beyaz is a brilliant player. Not only is his quick thinking easily visible, but he also shows great maturity in choosing passing options. However, he needs to improve his finishing. Often, he ignores good shooting opportunities to tee up a teammate in a worse position.

Citing Lionel Messi as his idol, the Argentine legend’s influence is apparent on Beyaz’s game through brilliance in passing apart from the aforementioned dribbling. Being a left-footed number ’10’ means comparisons to Messi are expected. How accurate these comparisons are in terms of their career success remains to be seen.

CF: Kaio Jorge

Each year there is a lot of hype regarding a few South American talents hyping them up to be the next big thing. These predictions have been focused on a few players in a special Brazilian generation born in 2002. Amongst them is Santos’ promising striker Kaio Jorge.

One of Kaio’s strongest assets is his awareness in and around the box. He knows when to shoot, which seems basic enough but lacked by many strikers. Finishing joint top-scorer in the FIFA U-17 World Cup, he has also scored consistently every year, including this season, with five goals in 12 appearances in the Libertadores.

Kaio’s movement is known to be something that distinguishes him from most strikers. He isn’t exactly a fox in the box, nor is he a pre-false-nine. Kaio is just a striker with excellent movement, allowing him to be a threat with and without the ball, especially during set-pieces.

A defender’s nightmare in and around the box. (Photo via Imago)

Compared to Roberto Firmino for his work rate, the similarities are apparent. Though Kaio isn’t as involved in the buildup as his Brazilian compatriot, he looks to press intensely and tackle whenever possible.

The hype around Brazilian youngsters has been the bane of many careers as they’re expected to replicate the same form after coming to Europe. Now 19, Kaio might face the same obstacle in the coming few years. If he navigates these waters well, the young striker looks set to have a solid footballing career.

LW: Naci Ünüvar

Naci Ünüvar originally went viral for an incredibly audacious assist. Dribbling down the left-wing, quite near to the touchline, he was about to enter the final third. Seeing his team’s striker making a run down the middle, Unuvar struck the ball with the outer side of his foot, producing an incredible curve. This single-pass eliminated multiple players as it traversed the entire final third, curving inwards at the last moment into the striker’s path.

However, the 17-year-old from Ajax is full of various tricks apart from this one.

Currently playing for Jong Ajax, Ünüvar suffered a dip in form towards the start of the season. However, he has been excellent recently, bringing his tally to seven goals and an assist in 29 matches. When a club buys Ünüvar, they’re getting more than just the goal contributions. They’re getting an electric winger who shows intelligence while maintaining courage and inventiveness. They’re getting a youngster who can have a team built around him.

An all-round menace. (Photo via Imago)

Ünüvar’s passing is incredible. He regularly spots space where there wasn’t space a moment ago and launches a ball forward. In the final third, his passing shines as he plays incisive one-twos to progress the ball when possible. If he is isolated, he will be ready to take the defender on in a 1v1 as well. The Dutchman is efficient in the box and regularly finds space to finish off attacks. This is only an addition to his arsenal as he can easily strike the ball accurately from outside the box as well.

Essentially, Ünüvar is someone who is a threat regardless of the situation and someone the opposition will always be wary of.

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