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Carles Aleñá: Destined to fall or a hidden weapon for Barcelona?

Domagoj Kostanjšak



Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Ronald Koeman’s arrival was a highly debatable matter in Catalonia, both among the fans and the media alike. The Dutchman is a Barcelona legend, there are no two ways about, but came in as a man whose reputation preceded him, and not necessarily all in good ways either.

He was touted to be a man set in his ways, adamant on doing things the way he envisioned them from start to finish. Some may say this is exactly what Barcelona had lacked prior to his arrival. After all, managerial stints post the Luis Enrique era were quite mellow, to say the least.

Both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién couldn’t really impose their will, neither on the board nor the players themselves, resulting in them becoming puppets that were promptly discarded once their usefulness date expired. Enter Koeman. A strong-willed coach who will have things his way or he won’t have them at all. Sometimes, unfortunately, for the detriment of the whole squad.

So what does all of that have to do with the main protagonist of this story? Well, Carles Aleñá is just one of the players who simply cannot be happy with how things are shaping up in the Catalan capital. Of course, the overall results are poor, that much is certain, but on a personal level, the La Masia gem has experienced a big hit.

Yes, we’ve seen Aleñá feature in a couple of games lately but that was only because Koeman had no other options after injuries galore had decimated the squad. Prior to that, Aleñá hadn’t started a single game for Barcelona since December 2019, which is a disappointing fact on its own.

The reason behind that lies in the change in formation. With the introduction of the 4-2-3-1, Koeman insists on two entirely different midfield profiles for his double-pivot. Those players, at least according to him, have to possess certain characteristics that Aleñá doesn’t have.

“With the players we have, 4-2-3-1 is the best system.”

Ronald Koeman | Post-match press conference

Prior to the game against Osasuna in La Liga some time ago, Koeman addressed this issue in the pre-game press conference, saying:

“The system change cost Aleñá a bit at the beginning of the season, but he is improving a lot to be a pivot for this team. He is changing things he needs to be a Barça midfielder. You have to give him time to improve.”

So clearly, it’s the system change that’s affecting the player’s involvement, not explicitly his overall quality. He also says to give him time so what awaits Aleñá further down the line is anybody’s guess. However, rumours are mounting that he might indeed be sold once the January transfer window opens to accumulate additional funds since Barcelona are, for the lack of a better term, penniless.

But this then begs the question: should Barça be looking to offload him or should they look to somehow make use of his skillset after all? For me, there’s no doubt in my mind the latter option is surely the way to go, with a slight caveat we’ll discuss shortly.

Koeman mentions the system change as the root problem here and says Aleñá is not suited for a pivot role. Of course, in a 4-2-3-1, there’s only ever room for two midfielders in the team since the third and the advanced one is more of an attacker in his own right.

But do players like Philippe Coutinho or even Sergio Busquets deserve to start ahead of the young talent? Aleñá brings a completely unique set of skills to the table, an arsenal no one else possesses or even if they do, it’s not executed with the same proficiency and smoothness. The 22-year-old is a creative outlet that can break the opposition lines but is also shaping up to become the orchestrator whose role is to speed up or slow down the tempo of play according to the team’s needs.

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

This type of versatility makes him an invaluable asset that understands Barcelona’s main principles and executes them perfectly. Add to that his swiftness and agility on and off the ball and you get a La Masia prototype midfielder through and through.

If he wasn’t their own academy product, Barcelona would likely be lining up to buy him for millions and millions of euros from other teams. However, since he is, they take him for granted. There are definitely players that could and should be sold for funds but Aleñá is most certainly not among those names.

Of course, players have to adapt to the system, not the other way around, but when the system is hurting the team, maybe a slight change is needed after all. But such is Aleñá’s quality that he’s slowly becoming a midfielder who can fit Koeman’s mould.

Transitioning to a pivot was never really a route we’d expect him to take but it’s also a welcoming adaptation that will only serve to expand his never-ending arsenal. And all of that at the tender age of just 22.

One thing has to be clear — he’s not perfect and he won’t play every game without faults. But in a team riddled with underperformers, it does feel like selling him of all people would be a travesty. That being said, should he really stay in an environment where he won’t get a chance to play and improve?

Even if that team is the team of his youth, the answer should always be a resounding no. So far, he’s been willing to risk it all for a chance to succeed in Catalonia, back home, but all of that may still change if his exile continues.

Let’s hope Koeman realises this before it’s too late.

I’ve been a Barcelona fan for more than half of my life. What started as blind love is slowly turning into professional writing. Now, I get to write about Barca, analyse them, and voice my opinions on them across platforms. I’m happy to be a part of this big project.



Santiago Bernabeu: Lionel Messi’s conquered ground




Photo via Imago

With the second edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 season less than 72 hours away, the footballing world is once more about to come to a standstill. Its master, a certain Lionel Andrés Messi, has ripped almost all the records pertaining to this tie to shreds. The Argentine maestro holds the record for the most goals as well as assists for any player against Los Blancos and will seek to add to this tally once Barcelona sets foot in Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.

Being a Barça player, every encounter against the eternal rival will be a special one. With the Clásico being played away from the ever-iconic Santiago Bernabéu due to the reconstructing taking place, we here at Barca Universal thought to re-live three of the 6-time Ballon D’or winner’s most memorable games in the Spanish Capital. He is, after all, the individual with the most goals for any player in the Clásico, and with goals come memories that will be indelibly etched in the history books for aeons to come.

3. Pep Guardiola’s False 9
Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona | 2008/09

“Lionel Messi takes his time, and walks it in. Start shining the trophy now, the league may well be Barcelona’s.”

The Catalans’ 2-6 victory over Real Madrid is just one among a host of iconic performances that the Merengues were unfortunate enough to bear witness to in their own backyard. This humiliation in particular, against their biggest rivals, is one that the Madrid faithful will never truly scrape from their minds, not only for their sheer inferiority to Barcelona but the consequences that Pep Guardiola’s tactics would have on their ultimate enemy.

The bald genius, as some call him, gave new life to Messi, and such was his aptitude in this role that he continues to this day to terrorise defences in precisely the same way. Sitting between strikers Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, the Argentine was tasked with acting as a false 9 in such a way that he would attract defenders to himself and punish his hosts for the slightest of lapses in concentration.

Putting theory into practice, La Pulga’s first contribution of the night came in precisely this manner. He lured a familiar foe in Madrid captain Sergio Ramos out of his den by occupying Zone 14, played a delicate chip into Henry who darted into the vacated space, and, cool as you like, he curved the ball past Iker Casillas to equalise the score for the Garnet and Blue after Gonzalo Higuain helped Madrid take the lead.

Lionel Messi at the forefront of destruction. (Photo via Imago)

Bewildered, and with their lead lost, Real Madrid’s incapacity to handle the little man meant that this was just the beginning of possibly their worst nightmare. Carlos Puyol helped Barça take the lead just two minutes after this, and just after the hour mark, Messi would add further gloss to the scoreline.

The Catalans’ asphyxiating press proved too much for their Madrid counterparts to contend with, and it was in precisely this manner that they got their third. Xavi Hernández dispossessed Lassana Diarra following a pass from Casillas, and laid the ball on a plate for the Barça number 10. With acres of space and an infinite amount of time to think, he went one on one with San Iker, and with ice in his veins, placed the ball into the bottom corner of the net to essentially expel all hope Los Merengues had of mounting a comeback.

Even with a quarter of the game left to play, Messi was far from done with his torture of Madrid. Still, in his free role as a false 9, the Argentine drew left-back Gabriel Heinze towards him, released the ball to Xavi and darted into the newly vacated space. Casillas had the chance to make amends for having conceded the early goal, but Messi had other ideas. He faked one shot, and with the Madrid captain’s positioning now off, the Argentine took full advantage, slotting the ball past the Spaniard at the near post to record his 22nd goal of the season, as well as seal the Manita for his side.

Far from finished with his systematic dismantling of Madrid, he would play a massive role in creating the sixth and final goal for three Blaugrana. He lacerated the Madrid backline with a through ball to Samuel Eto’o down the wing. He then delivered a ball to Gérard Piqué, who slotted the ball past his Spanish comrade to record the sixth and final goal for Barcelona.

It was by some accounts his individual best performance against Madrid, but he would have another equally brilliant moment just two years later against his eternal rivals.

2. The best on the planet
Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona | 2010/11

“Away from two, three, four… Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. How good is he!”

The 2010/11 campaign saw Pep Guardiola mould what is largely considered to be the best football team ever to have graced the earth. Their football was as enthralling as it was captivating; their passing as exquisite as it was crisp; their pressing as coordinated as it was choking; and to cap it all off, they had a version of Messi as majestic as he was deadly.

In stark contrast to the 5-0 annihilation and mesmeric football on display in the Nou Camp following the Catalan elections the year prior, this match was marked with a host of needless fouls brought about by the ruthless aggression of José Mourinho’s forces. They were out to avoid, at all costs, the sort of drubbing they had faced just the year prior, as well as end their decade long quest for a European crown. Lionel Messi had other ideas in store for them.

Bombarded by the ludicrous foul play by Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa, the Argentine endured one of his most gruesome matches against the old enemy. Crafty as he is, he still ran circles around the Madrid defence whenever the opportunity presented itself, but such was the marking against him that he would always meet around five or six players laying in wait for him.

The match seemed closer to a draw than it was anything else, as Barça were incapable of finding their way through the white wall of Madrid.

Madrid maintaining social distancing from Messi. (Photo via Imago)

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and for the Garnet and Blue, Lionel Messi was that man. From Barcelona’s right flank, Ibrahim Affelay skipped past Marcelo Vieira with relative ease, and once at the byline, he played a sumptuous low cross into Messi’s path. Arbeloa failed to make any contact, and ready to pounce on the perfectly weighted ball was the bane of their existence, in the form of a little man with a 10 on the back of his shirt. He tapped the ball home, through Iker Casillas’ legs and into the back of the net to get that all so crucial away goal.

Real Madrid were in trouble. Their game plan might have involved shutting Barça out for the most time they possibly could, and perhaps seek an away draw in the Nou Camp to get to the final in Wembley. Disgruntled, and incapable of processing what had just happened, the capital club began leaving enormous spaces, the sort that Messi lives for.

With three minutes left to play, the then two-time Ballon D’or winner played a quick one-two with Sergio Busquets near the halfway line. Even with a sea of white right before his eyes, the Argentine didn’t break a sweat. He gracefully weaved his way past four Madrid players, and one on one with San Iker, he slotted the ball home with his right foot to seal the victory. No one could have foreseen this happening. Well, no one but that little magician in Garnet and Blue.

Even though Rob Palmer said it in a different game, Harry Houdini had nothing on Messi’s magic, and that goal was evidence of that. He had the audacity to craft such a move out of relatively nothing, in a champions league semifinal, and against his arch-rivals no less. Simply Messi.

1. It isn’t over until he says it is
Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona | 2016/17

“Lionel Messi does it again he’s superhuman! Lionel Messi has just, exploded La Liga into life.”

On a run of six consecutive games without either a goal in all competitions against Real Madrid, doubts were raised over just how much Lionel Messi could do in this edition of the Clásico, especially bearing in mind the level of the version of the hosts he was up against. Los Blancos were, by many accounts, Europe’s best team that year. Fresh from a rather controversial 4-2 thumping of Bayern München in the Champions League, confidence was high in the Madrid camp, and with reason.

Barcelona needed to win to keep their La Liga title hopes alive and do so by any means necessary, and win they did, in quite emphatic fashion too.

Much like in 2011, Messi would be the unfortunate victim of a host of fouls from Los Blancos. Casemiro was hovering near Messi, and had already attempted two-card worthy challenges on the Argentine, only receiving one for taking him down near the centre circle. Not too long after, Marcelo Vieira elbowed him right in his mouth, somehow avoiding a red card for what seemed a deliberate offence from the Brazilian.

Los Merengues triggered him one time too many, and with the lion now awoken and infuriated by the needless assaults on him, he went on his hunt for goals. Subsequent to an extensively long possession phase by the Catalans, Ivan Rakitić, from the right halfspace, found La Pulga briskly making a run towards him. With one touch, he put his opponents to a standstill, the second and with their motion against them, he rid himself of all Madrid’s defenders, and with his third, he calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net past a helpless Keylor Navas.

With time going by, hope quickly faded away. Even without Sergio Ramos in defence following his crude two-footed challenge on Messi himself, all of Barça’s efforts on goal were met by save after save from the Costa Rican goalkeeper. To make matters worse, just four minutes from time, substitute James Rodriguez scored the equaliser to kill off the Blaugranas’ spirits — or so he thought.

With twenty seconds left to play, the Garnet and Blue showed their mental fortitude in its finest form. Sergi Roberto skipped past two Madrid defenders and made a darting run into the central midfield. He then laid the ball off to André Gomes, who immediately played the ball into Jordi Alba’s path. The Spaniard instinctively played the cutback to Messi, and for that one second, time stood still.

Dani Carvajal, noticing his error, ran right towards him. Keylor Navas, who by then had already produced at least ten saves, was perfectly positioned on the right. In front of him were two of his own teammates. Everything about this shot should have made it impossible to go in, but with this little man, is impossible even a word? On his left foot, and with 80,000 Madridistas whistling him, the 6-time Ballon D’or winner curled the ball into the back of the net, making it 2-3 in the final quarter of a minute and breaking the hearts of all Merengues before him.

What followed was easily the coldest celebration of all time. In front of hoards of Madridistas and a sea of white, Messi took his shirt off, reminding them who ran the place. It was the ultimate way to score his 500th goal for his beloved club, and in such a way that not a single Madridista will ever forget. All eleven players from the other aisle either fell to their knees in awe or lamented in bitter frustration. They had just been crushed, and crudely so, by a man they once so desperately wanted and could never have.

Iconic. (Photo via Imago)

The question remains, what sort of a mark will Lionel Messi leave on the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium? Well, in due time, in perhaps his final Clásico, with the league on the line, we’ll find out.

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