Our Guest Author: Kai Iliev
When Martin Braithwaite arrived for €18 million from Leganés to Barcelona, the Danish forward was unknown, his move critiqued, his transfer laughed at. Barcelona were allowed to sign him following the long term injury to Ousmane Dembele courtesy of a ‘joker window’ rule in La Liga.
Nine months later, Braithwaite is still a Blaugrana, and has, somehow, managed to earn the legendary ‘9’ jersey! With Luis Suarez departing to Atlético Madrid for peanuts, Braithwaite has remained Barcelona’s only striker option. But where does this equation head?
Braithwaite’s history since his move to Barcelona can be defined with one word: Surprise. Predicted to have no place in the team, a useless transfer and low-tier striker, Braithwaite has positively surprised angered Culés. Predicted to continue the hilarious legacy of Kevin-Prince Boateng who left after a six-month long loan, Braithwaite has comfortably overwhelmed fans.
Coming on as a substitute for Griezmann in the 72nd minute for Antoine Griezmann against Eibar on February 22nd, Braithwaite assisted both Lionel Messi and Arturo Vidal when Barcelona won 5-0 against Eibar.
It seemed like the perfect way to start. After all, Leganés is not Barcelona. In fact, they were 19th, a place above last when Braithwaite’s transfer was made official. However, Braithwaite failed to impress in Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat against Real Madrid. But then, he scored one goal against Mallorca a month later. He didn’t play regularly, though – and rightly so, he was never supposed to be a starter.
Despite getting more and more playtime towards the end of the season, Braithwaite’s importance reduced, eventually linking him with a departure. Fans wanted him out, not understanding why he should stay there. Talks multiplied in the media; Braithwaite was going to leave in the summer. A move never materialized and Braithwaite stayed.
Suarez moved to Atlético, and suddenly, Braithwaite was Barcelona’s only striker, to the general surprise. Not only was he the only striker, but he also received Suarez’s jersey number.
Braithwaite stayed, but Sétien did not. Ronald Koeman arrived at the helm to lead the club, and Braithwaite’s future went bleak. He was not a positive surprise anymore, but the forgotten one.
Against Getafe, in mid-october that Braithwaite finally played his first game of the season, coming off the bench for ten minutes. Games followed, but the 29-year-old did not manage to get more than ten minutes per game, often coming on around the 80th minute.
However, his performance against Dynamo Kyiv might motivate Koeman to give the Danish striker more chances. Not only was this his first start of the season, but also the second time he was on the pitch for the entire 90 for Barcelona.
When the lineup was announced, his inclusion over Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann was questioned, but he ended the game with two goals and an assist. Not to mention, he won the penalty kick which he eventually converted.
It is no exaggeration that the forgotten Danish forward is back to the heart of the topic: Does Barcelona need off the ball runners like Braithwaite, especially when players like Griezmann or Philippe Coutinho fail to perform?
His heatmap against Dynamo Kyiv suggests so. Contrary to Griezmann, Braithwaite does not need the ball to accomplish his work. Whilst Lionel Messi, Coutinho and Griezmann all earn record-high salaries, Braithwaite is a modest player. However, he has a presence in the box that neither of Griezmann or Coutinho have, and that is what he brings to the table. Multiple times could the Braithwaite be seen running to catch what could have been an assist.
Unless Barcelona get to have a proper #9, it’s probably best to keep Braithwaite. In Koeman’s system, a striker is needed, and Braithwaite might be a solution at times. Whilst it seems unlikely for him to start regularly, Koeman should review his options and re-consider his stance on Braithwaite.
Barcelona do not need superstars, they need modest players, and Braithwaite is one of them. Before rushing to conclusions, it is best if the Danish international is given more chances, and hopefully not in the form of a Stan Lee-cameo each game, for yesterday he proved what he can bring to the table — relentless running, a predatory instinct, and a never-dying attitude.
Araujo and Mingueza: The future is bright
After years of poor squad planning, expensive signings and underperforming veterans, two young talents have, once again, shown the value of La Masia. This has come in the form of defenders Ronald Araujo and Óscar Mingueza. Both are establishing themselves as reliable and confident centre-backs with huge potentials.
This campaign is crucial for Barcelona. The club has been on a gradual decline for several seasons and, in that time, faced some of the worst defeats in its 121 years of existence. As Ronald Koeman has stated so himself, this truly is a transitional season for the Blaugrana.
The team was in desperate need of new blood and rejuvenation in the squad. Though this was partially completed, Barça found themselves short in some positions. This was particularly the case when Gerard Piqué sustained a long-term injury against Atletico Madrid. The Catalan side found themselves without any experienced right-sided centre-backs. On top of this, Samuel Umtiti has rarely been fit enough to start, and Clément Lenglet’s form has dipped this season.
However, from this concerning position, it has allowed others to thrive. Araújo and Minguea have both played nine matches in La Liga this season and are taking their chances. The Uruguayan has impressed with his imposing figure and defensive capabilities, while Mingueza has shown his versatility and confidence on the ball.
Being forced to rely on La Masia has meant both Araújo and Mingueza have been given first-team chances. The youth academy has been underappreciated and young talents have not been handled correctly. With the young defenders performing so admirably, surely these are the signs that Barcelona will show more faith in their homegrown players again.
Having played most of his youth career in Uruguay, Ronald Araujo joined Barcelona in 2018. The 21-year-old did not need long to gain first-team minutes. He appeared six times for the Blaugrana in La Liga during the 2019/20 season. After a slow start to the current campaign, Araújo looks to be establishing himself as the heir to Gerard Piqué.
The Uruguayan defender has the brains and the brawn to go with it at such a young age. Araujo is positionally aware and shows great anticipation and awareness of danger. This sense, combined with his pace and strength, means he is almost impossible to get past.
Having that pace is important as he is able to stop counter-attacks against quick oppositions. The La Masia graduate displayed this against Iñaki Williams in the Super Cup final as he limited his chances of getting in behind the defence.
Another one of the defender’s strengths is his ability to recover and make important challenges. On several occasions already, Araujoo has shown how quickly he can track back and stop strikers getting the chance to score. It is a useful trait as Barcelona play with a high line that can be exploited by opponents getting in behind the defence.
The big Uruguayan is not the finished product yet though. There are some areas where he could improve to become the ideal Barça centre-back. The most notable weakness is his passing, with Araujo not always looking the most comfortable on the ball. He struggles to find progressive passes into the midfield and break the lines of the opposition’s press. This is an important aspect of any Barcelona centre-back, but one he can develop.
Against Athletic Club, Araujo showed his aerial dominance winning five out of six aerial duels. Though his side conceded three goals, the young centre-back continues to show his leadership qualities on the pitch. The defeat will be a difficult one to take, but Araújo has a promising future at the club.
Óscar Mingueza is another young defender who is stating his claim for a starting position. At one point, he was considered the fourth-choice centre-back for the Barcelona B team. Now, Mingueza is playing regularly for the first team and is showing he is capable of performing at this level.
The Spaniard is a determined defender and is ready for a physical battle. He is fearless like club legend and former captain, Carles Puyol, and commits to every challenge. Though the number 28 has a long way to go to be compared to club legend Puyol, there are some signs. The 21-year-old times his tackles well and is confident in one on one situations with attackers.
Mingueza is versatile and has proven he can play as a centre-back and a full-back. Similarly, Carles Puyol began his career as a right-back and eventually transitioned to a central defender. This versatility has been an asset to Barcelona this season with injuries in both positions leaving the Spanish giants short of options.
In contrast to his teammate, Ronald Araújo, Mingueza is excellent on the ball and comfortable in passing. This is more natural to the Spaniard as he has spent more years in the Barça youth system. The two defenders complement each other well and are both fast, strong and committed.
Though the number 28 did not start for the Blaugrana in the Super Cup final, he came on at half-time to replace Sergiño Dest. In a difficult contest, Mingueza performed well and showed a great work ethic. He should continue to get regular minutes and develop with the first team. There is no doubting his quality and his future also looks encouraging at Barcelona.
With Eric Garcia’s signing in the summer almost inevitable at this point, it is safe to say that he will come to his hometown to face more competition than he would have expected. Ronald Araujo and Oscar Mingueza’s rise to the first-team is proof that La Masia can still be trusted. Or rather, should be. The season is long and hectic, but there is littl to no doubt that Araujo and Mingueza will keep shining.