In recent days Barcelona has been said to be interested in a physical player to complete the midfield, without realising that football is much more complex than that label.
Paco Seirul·lo, for many years the head of methodology at FC Barcelona and one of the most vital figures in the development of the club’s model over the past decades, explained in the book Pep Guardiola: The Evolution by Martí Perarnau: “People generally speak about phases of the game, and football has always evolved from there. But we deny that attack and defence exist. Denying this concept is denying a lot”. While most tend to separate football into two clear blocks, attack and defence, Seirul·lo defends that they are all united and interrelated. Football is a union of circumstances, situations and contexts, with each of them being different, and thus it should not be reduced into two exclusive stages.
This already hints at the complexity of this sport and, more specifically, of Barcelona’s philosophy. The game is shaped by countless factors, but the idea is to, to the extent possible, have a control over them. This contrasts, though, to the current vision and tendency of the world in which everything needs to be minimised as the result and outcome is almost the only thing that matter. With football transformed into a business and ferocious competition more than ever, concepts and ideas don’t matter, but numbers and figures (and money) do.
❛ The best players in history, Messi, Maradona, Pelé, Di Stéfano…were all small. And the good ones will continue to be so ❜
former manager at Barcelona and its youth ranks
The Barcelona board is going in this same direction, in spite of leading a club that should be renowned for its uniqueness. Maybe it’s their lack of knowledge, or maybe it’s their unwillingness to dig deeper into the complexities of the game, but in any case they seem to stick only with the surface of the problem. The institution’s biggest issues are reduced to mere clichés – which possibly is what is preventing the club from advancing. Instead of analysing the technical reasons, the tactical unbalance or the positional matters, often they exclusively distinguish the subjects into right or wrong. Into good or bad. Into technical or physical.
If Barcelona wants Ndombele, it should be for his global qualities, not for being physical or not | Photo by Imago
Over the past few days, with the absence of football action, all sort of rumours have been mounting in newspapers. But, apart from the usual Neymar and Lautaro Martínez sagas, the debates have been revolving around midfield. In particular, a division seems to have been made between technical midfielders and physical midfielders. Roughly a month ago, local newspaper Mundo Deportivo wrote in its front page: ‘Barça searches muscle’. This was followed by the picture of Tottenham’s Tanguy Ndombele, as well as of Fabián Ruiz. Them, alongside N’Golo Kanté to a lesser extent, have been linked with the Catalans as the club is reportedly looking for a versatile and physical midfielder that can cover a lot of ground. Possibly they did not realise that, more than for his physique, Ndombele stands out for his ability to carry the ball and evade the press. Or that Fabián is an exquisite maestro to dictate the tempo and that has a delicious left foot to pass, distribute and also shoot. Yet, again, the present world seems to be more focused on putting tags to things.
❛ Guardiola remained a lanky teenager with little muscle mass, the opposite of the ideal footballer’s stature. But great art is always born of frustration, and since he lacked the pace and strength to overcome the opposition, he substituted physical power with the power of the mind ❜
in his book Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning
The debate on whether Barcelona needs versatility, energy and a physical profile or not is for another day, even if we should never forget that the blaugranas conquered the world with 1.70-metres tall magicians not so long ago. And, while we try to convince ourselves that modern football has changed a lot since, it really hasn’t that much. Tactically, it has, with slightly new patterns and innovations implemented, but the game hasn’t transformed into a whole new sport. Barcelona should not be afraid to delve deep into its profound problems, and should continue to trust the methods that made them special in the past. Getting back to the club’s roots is the path for the long-desired success.
The pages are blotted with injuries, but Dembele’s Blaugrana story is far from over
Ousmane Dembele runs into the open space ahead of him on the right as Lionel Messi shimmies past a distraught Cesar Azpilicueta. Messi looks up, spots the Frenchman in ample room and nonchalantly passes it towards him. The youngster hurriedly takes the first touch and is left with just enough room to shoot. He then promptly takes it in his stride and fires it into the top left corner to make it 2-0, after which he immediately points towards the Argentinean great.
That was Ousmane Dembele’s first goal for Barcelona after a 4-month hiatus due to an unfortunate injury in his very first season with the Spanish giants. The Cules would’ve been hopeful of him finally coming into his own after that goal, potentially filling a large Neymar shaped hole. Fast forward a couple of seasons and the dynamic Frenchman has failed to make a real impact like people would have hoped of the explosive wonderkid who played for Dortmund.
While Dembele is still young at 23, injuries seem to have derailed his career with Barcelona. Last season Dembele ambled to a meagre 9 appearances in the Blaugrana colours, only 5 of which were starts. Whenever he did play, he looked rusty and lacking game time. Moreover, the emergence of youngster Ansu Fati who presents a similar profile to the Frenchman means more competition, and with him coming off another injury recently and Fati looking grand in the 2-0 victory over Villarreal, his chances of sealing a regular spot look bleak at the moment. It is, therefore, no surprise that Dembele is linked with a move away from Spain, with Manchester United seemingly keeping him on their radar.
Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman, though, could use someone like Dembele. In his first official game in charge, Koeman structured Barca in a 4-2-3-1, with Messi and Coutinho occupying central areas and Fati and Antoine Griezmann occupying the left and right flank respectively. The wingers would regularly tuck in and allow the fullbacks to push up in the broader areas. In an otherwise comfortable 4-0 win for Barcelona, the right flank was a vital issue. Griezmann looked mostly average and did not influence the match much, barring making a handful of runs into the box. He lacked the same explosiveness and directness that Ansu Fati provided on the left flank – looking out of sorts on the right side, having rarely made an appearance in such a role in the past.
If injuries allow him, Dembele could seal his spot in such an eleven. The Frenchman’s primary strength is his skills on the ball, and he loves taking on defenders 1v1. Considering his 18/19 season as his sample size, he stood at 4.81 dribbles completed per 90 with a completion percentage of 67.4 in La Liga. On the other hand, Griezmann had a low 0.64 successful dribbles per 90 in the past season, with a completion percentage of 48.6. Moreover, the 23-year-old dominates in touches in the box, averaging 7.68 touches in the box per 90 as compared to Griezmann. Granted, the 29-year-old is a different kind of player altogether, and could potentially be better utilized in a more central role similar to the one he had with Atletico Madrid, but as things stand, Dembele is the one who provides the directness and explosiveness Koeman is looking for from his wingers. Moreover, his ambidexterity and pace mean he 1. is a threat from either wing, and 2. can pull off the unexpected every now and then, for example, his famous fake shot.
From a creative standpoint, Dembele had 4.65 Shot creating actions and 0.70 Goal creating actions per 90 in 18/19, while Griezmann stood at 2.08 SCA and 0.35 SCA per 90 last season. Moreover, Dembele can also occupy the wider areas and stick to the sidelines when needed – adding to his ability to create space without the ball. This option is unavailable with Griezmann, as he is more intent towards occupying the middle, and is therefore limited in that sense. Even when it comes to defensive actions, Dembele can come toe-to-toe with Griezmann, with 4.43 successful pressure and 0.54 tackles won per 90 in the 18/19 season, as compared to Griezmann’s 4.77 successful pressures and 0.64 tackles won per 90 last season. This is very impressive since Griezmann has a reputation for being a workhorse, and often contributes to Barcelona’s defence.
It is safe to say that Dembele stands out as a great option as a winger, provided he overcomes his injury problems. Although Ansu Fati has stood out since his emergence last season, it is important not to burden the 17-year-old’s shoulders with huge expectations, lest he crumble. New signings Pedri and Trincao are also very talented but are diamonds in the rough. Barcelona must have someone in the side who can provide that tempestuousness and dynamism that they often lacked the previous season, but all while knowing the expectations the Catalan giants hold, even of young players. Ousmane Dembele’s Blaugrana story hasn’t been great so far; injuries botted the pages, but this might be the season to flip the page and start afresh for both him and Barcelona.