As Frenkie has had to switch from Ajax’s 4–2–3–1 to Barça’s 4–3–3, the question has been revolving around whether he should play as an interior or a pivot. And, crucially: can De Jong and Busquets play together?
The Barça midfield is where all the witchcraft and wizardry takes place. It is the department that makes Barcelona so distinctive and peculiar. However, in recent years, the creativity and innovation Barça’s midfield brought is simply disintegrating. While there are various reasons to this, the most prominent cause is the fact that the blaugranas are depending on two fairly defensive interiors. Arthur is certainly someone who has improved his attacking aspect, however, the Dutchman is evidently struggling to occupy his current role, considering it deprives him of the freedom he usually has at his disposal.
There is no denying that Busi is arguably one of the best players to orchestrate attacks. Him moving forward just to provide a helping hand has benefitted the cub various times this season already. Unfortunately, there’s one problem: De Jong becomes a hopeless case.
Frenkie, at Ajax, was a player who created the build ups, he worked from a defensive role and was the one who carried the ball to the interiors. Also, the moment he regained possession, he would generate a rapid attack. Basically, he fulfilled every task Sergio is currently handling. Unluckily, at the moment, he’s deprived of that liberty as he finds himself restricted and captivated as an interior. With him so clueless and lost in the center of the park, its only Arthur who can add that little sprinkle of creativity.
“The position he is playing now is different to the national team and Ajax. He’s learning to play further forward like this, it’s not all bad, but it’s not his best position. For me, I think he performs better playing deeper”
There was one stand out game for the Dutchman this season, which came against a brute Betis side. What was so remarkable about that particular performance was simply that De Jong understood what Busquets, infact the entire team, asked of him. He made a piercing run through a rigid Betis backline that allowed him to score, but what was so laudable about him was that he always looked for openings and never barged into anyone’s zones. He made darting runs forward and didn’t seem to collide with his Spanish partner in crime’s position too often. Such discipline and regulation on the field helped him thrive, but sharing a field with Busquets means those performances don’t come too often.
At the end of the day, its fair to assume that Busquets and De Jong playing together is not going to work for the club in the long term. Both individuals require certain privileges and it may not be wise to pair them up. In the Valverde era, Busquets’ role was quite unimportant as he sat incredibly deep, while Frenkie was the man who had the liberty to stamp his authority wherever he went. Although that still wasn’t enough to bring the best out of De Jong, with Setién, he’s even more confined and constricted since Busquets is given more authority.
While De Jong hasn’t necessarily been bad, he has failed to had the impact he had at Ajax | Photo by Alex Caparros via Getty Images
At this very moment, many would prefer to choose Busquets to be the regular pivot. He’s experienced, more reliable at the back and also, Quique seems to have a sweet spot for him. Even so, there is a way Frenkie can be somewhat more influential on the pitch. What the club must do is start natural wingers such as Fati or Braithwaite so that there is more flexibility and freedom in midfield. Congesting the center of the park will only work when there is the width on the flanks; this will automatically allow De Jong to be able to break the lines and play more naturally. Spectator have seen countless times that Fati operating on the left makes the former Ajax youngster a lot more comfortable on the field. Setién’s narrow 4–4–2 formation proved to be costly in the Clásico and, woefully, it seemed to affect De Jong the most. He simply lurked around the opponent’s box cluelessly, looking like nothing but a lost soul.
Despite playing in a post that seems quite unfamiliar, the 22-year-old has actually done a reasonable job. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the world and has the second most deep progressions after Messi. Of course, by no means does an advanced position bring the best out of Frenkie, however, it’s impressive to see his ability to adapt to foreign surroundings. Nonetheless, if the club truly intends to make the most of this prodigy’s talents, he must gradually replace the veteran currently occupying the single-pivot position. With De Jong’s energetic pair of feet and defensive superiority, he will undoubtedly surpass his mentor in due time. For now, given Setién’s limited options, featuring both these players together is possible, but it should only be a temporary solution for this transitional phase.
The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers
“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”
At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.
He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.
Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.
It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.
There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.
Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.
The prototype of a Barcelona number nine
Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.
To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.
Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.
Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.
La Masia strikers and their progression
Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.
Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.
But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?
Possible problems and solutions
Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.
In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.
This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.
Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.
As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.
Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.
Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.
Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.
One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.
This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.
We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.
They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.
“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”
Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.
“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”
“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”
“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”
“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.
I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”
“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”
“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”
“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”