Barcelona’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain served as a further reminder for a lesson they should have learned years ago. In yet another important game, the team failed to match their opponent’s quality and energy. The defence was unstable, the midfield overrun, and the attack non-threatening.
With so many key players nearing the end of their careers – at least at the highest level of world football – Barça must make the proper moves to replenish and reignite their squad. Left-back Jordi Alba, centre backs Clement Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets all featured in the humiliations against Bayern Munich and Liverpool, with three of them playing against Roma the year before (2018). If anything, this shows the club’s refusal and stubbornness to make the moves necessary for competing at the highest level.
These players – some of them club legends – still have a lot of quality and can help the team in various ways, however, there need to be clear replacements in line for the day they eventually leave. In particular, Barça need a new centre-back, a new left-back, a new striker, and crucially, a new central defensive mid. However, instead of going all out for three different players, there is one man who can serve as the perfect deputy in each role.
Presenting: David Alaba
After being with Bayern Münich for over a decade, David Alaba recently announced his intention to leave the club once his contract expires in the summer. He is set to be one of the most highly sought-after free agents, with clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Barcelona fighting to sign him. Presidential candidate Joan Laporta is reportedly a huge fan of the Austrian international and would want to sign him should he win the presidency.
Alaba has made a name for himself as one of the most versatile players in the world. He started his career as a left-back for Bayern, solidifying himself as one of the world’s best. When Pep Guardiola arrived in 2014, he took advantage of Alaba’s technical abilities and utilized him as an inverted full-back. Instead of darting down the flanks, he took up more central positions in the midfield.
Over the last two seasons, he has played the majority of his minutes at centre-back, helping lead Bayern to the treble and sextuple. With the Austrian national team, he has played all over the pitch but mainly in midfield.
His versatility would undoubtedly serve Barcelona well, being plugged into various positions that the team need, but more than that, he has all the attributes to make the number 6 position his own, at least temporarily.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the number 6 is the centre defensive midfielder. This player is the anchor of the team, the one responsible for breaking up offensive attacks, recycling possession, and dictating tempo. It is one of the most demanding positions on the pitch.
Sergio Busquets has filled that role for Barcelona for over the past decade and earned his name as one of the position’s best of all time, if not the best. The 32-year old has made 610 appearances for the Blaugrana, gracing the pitch with his composure, passing, and vision. Many clubs choose to have their defensive midfielder(s) fit the “destroyer” archetype, players who are extremely physical and aggressive with their tackles, but that was never Busquets’ forte. Instead, he dominated the defensive side of the game with smart interceptions and astute tackles.
Unfortunately, over the last two seasons, age has caught up to him and severely limited his physical attributes. His metronomic passing and vision are still elite, but his inability to close down opponents, track-back with pace and successfully press like he used to have all diminished. This was all too apparent against PSG, where he was consistently caught out of position and could not provide the backline with the proper cover.
Given the importance of his position, the fact that Barcelona have not yet lined up a replacement for him is beyond comprehension. There are no standouts in the youth academy or current squad that fit his profile (most fill other midfield roles), so naturally, Barça have to look elsewhere. Then again, replacing Sergio Busquets was never going to be an easy task.
A Temporary Fix?
One of Barça’s looming problems over the past few seasons has been the lack of a sporting project, one that acts as a blueprint for everything the club does. Countless players have been brought in to fill in squad deficiencies temporarily, and many more have failed to live up to expectations. While Alaba would admittedly be a temporary fix, there is no better alternative on the market or club to fill in Busquets’ role. He is the perfect fit for Barça in that role and others and will lube the transition into the new era with ease.
As aforementioned, Alaba has all the attributes necessary to be Barcelona’s next number 6. He would be 29 at the start of next season but could still offer a few seasons at a high level, at least until a long-term replacement is found.
Defensively, Alaba makes up for lack of brute tackling with a cerebral reading of the game and expert positioning. In this season’s Bundesliga, he is averaging 2.04 tackles plus interceptions per game. He would also bring much-needed energy and the physical attributes necessary to pressing and closing down opponents. This would do wonders for a Barça team who need to amp up their intensity.
When building up from the back, Alaba can naturally slot in between the two centre-backs, much like Busquets has throughout his career, providing cover for marauding full-backs and an outlet into midfield, whether through passes or ball carries.
Offensively, his passing, whether short or long, balls, composure, and vision would serve the team immensely well. His tactical intelligence would also see him fit right into the squad. Among the top five centre-backs in the Bundesliga, Alaba is in at least the 96th percentile (per 90 minutes) of various stats: passes into the final third (8.68), passes into the penalty area (1.10), progressive passes (6.59), progressive carries (7.21), and progressive carrying distance (225.21 yards).
These stats are extremely telling. He’s leagues ahead of most centre-backs in terms of ball-playing and is an elite distributor of the ball. That, paired with his on-the-ball ability and defensive acumen, make it perfect for him to move higher up the pitch and slot in at centre defensive mid.
At Barça, Alaba can form the base of a midfield trio with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, with Sergio Busquets, Riqui Puig, and Illaix Moriba coming off the bench, to name a few. That trio’s potential combination of composure, vision, and quality on both sides of the ball would surely do wonders.
A Sinking Ship
The Catalans need a lot in order to get back to competing at the highest level. Holes on and off the pitch are growing larger by the day, and plugging them in with ill-informed transfers won’t help. On the other hand, if David Alaba is brought in with the clear intention of making him the starting defensive midfielder, even for only a few seasons, while slowly phasing Busquets out, the team would greatly benefit from it. Furthermore, his versatility could see him slot into a myriad of other positions if needed.
His salary demands are reportedly high, but the quality he would bring is unparalleled, especially given the scarcity of players Barça can target for the number 6 position. He is a player tailor-made for the Camp Nou. Additionally, if the Catalan giants lose heavy-earners like Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, and maybe Antoine Griezmann/Ousmane Dembele, fitting the Austrian in will be far from complicated. Not to mention how much space Messi’s departure could open up.
With the right moves, this sinking ship can slowly but surely stay afloat and get back to ruling the high seas.
How can Barcelona continue to get the most out of Antoine Griezmann
An analytical look at how the in-form Frenchman should be utilized in order to continue to maximize his performance.
Life at the Camp Nou certainly did not get off to the best of starts for Antoine Griezmann. An inconsistent debut season in which the club failed to claim a single trophy was not what fans would expect from a signing of the World Cup winner’s pedigree and price tag.
The beginning of this season, too, was plagued with shaky form and low production. However, more recently, there seems to have been a sizable uptick in the Frenchman’s output and happiness on the pitch. He has brought about a French revolution in recent weeks, helping Barcelona believe.
This has been on display in key performances in the Spanish Super Cup, late heroics in the Copa del Rey against Granada, and increased end product in La Liga. For many, this recent version of Griezmann is reflective of the quality player Barça decided to splash the cash for.
Griezmann: “I know I have the confidence of the coach and my teammates, that is the most important thing.” pic.twitter.com/pZvg482o7P— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) February 3, 2021
With that in mind, how can the club keep this form going? Is it sustainable in the long run? Where should be Griezmann playing? To answer these questions, it is time to dive into the numbers that reflect the forward’s form, as well as the tactics that influence it.
Getting better with time
The Frenchman’s start to life under Ronald Koeman brought the same worrying signs as the previous campaign – perhaps even worse. It would take Griezmann until his sixth La Liga appearance of the season (seventh total appearance) to record his first goal or assist.
On the flip side, his last 11 competitive matches have yielded 13 goal involvements. With this incredible reversal of fortune, it still has to be asked, though: Has this recent run of games been a lucky hot patch, or has their been actual improvement to his underlying performance?
To test this, we can examine Griezmann’s non-penalty expected goals – a measure of how likely a shot is to result in a goal based on factors such as the distance and angle to goal, the positioning of the goalkeeper, and more.
Additionally, we can gain insight into his chance creation using his expected goals assisted. This applies the same logic as expected goals, but to the shots which were assisted by Griezmann rather than taken by him.
Courtesy of Football Reference, here is Griezmann’s expected attacking output in this season’s La Liga and Champions League on a five-match rolling average:
Clearly, the slump at the beginning of the season was not just due to poor luck or a few missed chances. Instead, Griezmann was unable to get into threatening positions to score or set up his teammates in threatening positions.
Both his expected scoring output and expected assisting creation did begin to peak around the midway mark of the season thus far, before cooling off a bit. However, Griezmann’s numbers are back on the rise, and they remained far better than his early-season woes.
It is also important to keep in mind that this data does not include Super Cup or Copa del Rey matches, where the former Atlético Madrid man has been most dangerous.
So, Griezmann has not simply coughed up a few lucky goals and assists, but improved significantly in terms actually getting into positions where he can make those dangerous plays. This goes a long way into making his form sustainable down the line.
The improvement is also evident compared to last season as a whole. In the 2019/20 La Liga season, Griezmann averaged 0.42 non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes. That is up to 0.68 for 2020/21.
In addition to getting more involved in the end of attacking sequences, the French international has become more effective in the build-up phase. For that, we can look into his progressive passes and progressive carries, which reflect how often he passes or dribbles the ball significantly closer to the opposition goal.
Once again, there have been clear improvements following a mediocre start to the campaign. He has grown further and further out of his shell, giving him more confidence to look up the pitch instead of playing more pragmatically.
See Griezmann’s assist to Lionel Messi against Granada in La Liga matchweek 18. He initially picks up the ball all the way back in the defensive half, before driving forward towards the attacking penalty area. He then has the composure to release the ball to the Argentine at the correct moment, setting up a goal.
This resurgence really boils down to improvements in a few key areas, all of which are interconnected: positioning, involvement, and confidence. Knowing that it has not just been a crazy few matches where Griezmann has randomly banged in some insane finishes, the questions now become:
- How did these improvements come about?
- How can they be continued?
Thriving in specific areas
In recent weeks, Ronald Koeman has been utilizing Griezmann either on the left or in the centre of the attacking trio. This contrasts his positioning on the right to start the season, in addition to the traditional winger profile at Barça.
The likes of Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi are examples of the inverted winger that has grown to be associated with the Camp Nou. These players utilize their dynamism in one vs one situations to cut inside on their preferred foot before looking to shoot or pass.
The thing with Griezmann, though, is that he clearly does not match that profile. The Frenchman has not averaged more than one successful dribble per 90 minutes in any of the last three La Liga seasons. Messi, on the other hand, has not dropped below four per 90, and even Fati is averaging 2.35 in his young Barça career.
With that in mind, it does not make sense to force the World Cup winner into a role that relies on such attributes. By placing him on the left, these deficiencies can be minimized in a couple of key ways.
The first is that Jordi Alba can provide much of the width and pace down that flank. Secondly, playing on the left, with Messi’s vision on the opposite side, one can provide as much value off the ball as they could on it.
This was on display for Griezmann’s heroics in the Copa del Rey against Granada. For both goals at the end of regulation, his runs into the penalty area were spotted and found by a Messi pass over the defence.
In a slightly different fashion, Griezmann was able to cut open Real Sociedad in the Super Cup. Still on the left, but more tucked in, the former La Real forward made a run off of Martin Braithwaite. The ball was played into his path, and an assist to Frenkie de Jong ensued.
From an analytical perspective, these types of passes show up in Griezmann’s most frequent pass clusters – the types of passes he completes most often based on their start and end locations.
That third cluster in blue mainly reflects how Griezmann can be influential on the left. There, he does not have worry as much about beating defenders and finding a defence-splitting pass. Rather, the Frenchman can rely more on his off-ball movement to get down the flank and into the penalty area, before playing more square passes on his left foot.
For one last example, let us look at how these same concepts can apply to Griezmann in a central role. For his assist to Messi against Rayo Vallecano, the Frenchman started from deep in a very typical centre forward area. With a quick cut and run in behind the defence to the left, he set himself up to play a simple square ball to the Argentine.
While Griezmann is not a typical Barça attacker, that does not mean his skillset can not provide value to the team. Recently, it must be said, it has actually helped make the side more unpredictable.
By keeping the French international further to the left, but not forcing him to play like a traditional inverted winger, Griezmann’s intelligence and ability as an off-ball runner can be maximized.
Sharing space with Messi is not always bad
A common theme in the history of Barcelona and positional play is stressing the importance of balance and spacing. This is, of course, beneficial, as it stretches out the defence and opens up gaps.
However, where some tend to take things too far, is thinking that any two players occupying the same area is automatically a sign of disorganization and poor awareness. This is something that can tend to happen with Messi and Griezmann.
Some of Griezmann’s top clusters for passes received show him getting the ball in traditional “Messi” areas.
Some of this can be attributed to Griezmann starting the season on the right and drifting over when Messi is not in the team, but not all of it. For instance, in the 4-0 victory over Granada, there was quite a bit of overlap between the areas where the two attackers played their passes from.
How did that match play out, though? In addition to the massive victory over a formidable opponent, both Messi and Griezmann ended up netting a brace, with Griezmann assisting one of the Argentine’s goals.
But, how can a partnership like this work without the two players simply getting in each other’s way and making things too compact? The key lies in Griezmann’s unique profile.
Simply put, Griezmann is not a ball-dominant player. Not in the way the likes of Dembele, Pedri, or Messi are. He loves to split defences through passes, not by dribbling past them. As mentioned previously, he rarely looks to take on defenders, he often does not take many touches on the ball, and he provides a lot of value with his positioning and movement.
In contrast, Messi will always be the ball-dominant force in the Barça side. Because of this, it can actually be very beneficial for the two to drift close to each other at times.
Take this example from the Copa del Rey match against Granada. Messi receives the ball centrally, turns, and holds it up while scanning for options. After a few seconds, he cuts to the right and slips the ball into Griezmann, who has checked in from the edge of the penalty area.
The Frenchman returns the ball to Messi with a first-time pass, where he then tries to knock the ball ahead to Braithwaite.
While the partnership can definitely flourish when spread over long distances with those aforementioned Messi through balls, the two also complement each other well in more contained areas.
This is particularly important to remember when Griezmann plays at centre forward. When Messi drifts inside, things can look very congested, but the understanding of spaces and movement between the two is growing, which can be crucial when breaking down defences.
The feelings of Barça fans towards Antoine Griezmann have become far more positive recently, and rightly so. He has become far more influential across multiple competitions and against a variety of opponents, and he has done so in a manner that can not be attributed to variance or luck.
Statistically, the Frenchman’s numbers for the 2020/21 season are even stacking right up to those from his final years at Atlético Madrid.
To keep this up, it seems the best course of action for Ronald Koeman is to stick with Griezmann at centre forward or as a left-winger who stays tucked inside. This formula has worked well recently to play to Griezmann’s strengths, while not forcing him to utilize his weaker attributes constantly.
If the Frenchman’s confidence and connection with his teammates continues to grow, his second season at the Camp Nou could end in a much brighter spot than his first.