The contribution of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati to Barcelona lately has been huge, but are they ready to start in the Champions League?
Barcelona have had a below-average season by their standards so far. They have won neither of the three trophies they could have won, in the La Liga championship, the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Supercup. The only one remaining is the Champions League. The global pandemic of COVID–19 has affected every aspect of our lives and football is not an exception. The Champions League, along with many other tournaments, had been pushed back and it begins now.
For a team like Barcelona, winning the European tournament is a aim every season. With a 1–1 score against Napoli, the Italians come to the Camp Nou next. One of the decisions manager Quique Setién faces is whether or not to play Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig. The two youngsters have been among the top performers recently for the club, despite they lack experience. So what exactly are the pros and cons of selecting them? And what should he do ideally?
How do they help the system?
Let’s disregard the players’ current form for a moment. What do Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig have to offer to Barcelona regardless of their form?
Barcelona always look to sustain attacking momentum and keep possession in the opposition’s half. In such situations, something they have lacked this season especially has been a direct attacker. Lionel Messi is still an insanely good player but his blistering pace and mazy runs aren’t as predominant as earlier. Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann lack any of the directness Barcelona need. Ousmane Dembélé is just recovering and won’t face Napoli, making the bench in the best case. Luckily, Ansu Fati possesses the pacey dribbling, the one-on-one skills, and the ability to take the opposition head-on.
The La Masía youngster is excellent at knowing when to stretch the opposition’s defence and when to get in narrower to allow Jordi Alba to overlap. His dribbling is very dynamic and he is usually successful when he goes against an opposition defender one on one. Time and time again, bringing him on has changed Barça’s complete style of play from stagnant to bright and energetic.
With him on the left, Barcelona have always looked sharper down the left as well. The imbalance caused by the influence Messi has on the right has been seen often, but Ansu’s presence and efficiency has seen the play being distributed down both more wings more evenly.
Ansu Fati has already stood out in the big stage, while Riqui Puig is yet to debut in the Champions League | Photo by Imago
Meanwhile, since Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández’s retirements, Barcelona haven’t had any midfielder who can play those kind of balls forwards. The blaugranas have had and currently have some impressive midfielders. And though no player has come even close to what Xavi and Iniesta did in midfield, Riqui Puig has the most similarities to both those playmakers.
His vision is excellent, always enveloping the whole pitch. Along with this, his pinpoint accuracy passing is superb at picking out his teammates. Very often, he plays the type of pass which puts the forwards through on goal very easily. His passing range is impressive as well, as he is very capable as long pings and well-weighted chipped balls into the box. It’s already well-established that Riqui’s passing is wonderful. Nonetheless, he contributes to the team in many ways apart from this.
Something that Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig both do very well is linking-up with their teammates for quick one-twos. This is something that is expected of La Masía graduates. This link-up play allows for Barcelona to advance quickly and efficiently. Along with this, Puig is excellent at pressing and winning the ball back. The combination of his passing, pressing is complemented by his ability to operate in tight spaces and carry the ball forward. All these make Riqui a completely refreshing option in midfield for Barcelona.
The only drawback
These two wonderkids have a drawback which they, and many young players share. Lack of experience. Neither of them has experience in European football. This is a difficult decision for Setién. It could of course lead to them showing that they are good enough to play against top sides throughout Europe. But if they don’t perform well, the pressure at such a huge stage is enormous. If a player’s mentality isn’t strong enough, it could lead to their confidence getting a huge blow.
Pep Guardiola chose to start the young Phil Foden against Real Madrid in the Champions League: will Quique Setién do the same with young starlets Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati too? | Photo by Peter Powell / Pool /AFP via Getty Images
Even though we may think that they have that mentality, it is finally the coach who knows them best, or rather, should know best. The quality that these two possess is undeniable. Their selection however, isn’t dependent only on their quality but also on how this match could affect them. But in the end, their quality is too good to just stay on the bench and their contribution is too impressive for Quique Setién to just omit these youngsters.
What is the likely choice? What is the ideal choice?
Quique Setién has had a midfield that complements the attack. For example, Arturo Vidal often moves forward when Messi drops, so that there is never a player deficit in attack or midfield, Or when Griezmann drops back and Vidal and Frenkie de Jong move up a bit to pin the opposition’s defenders temporarily. Barcelona rely on attacking transitions and overloads a lot.
In such scenarios, Riqui Puig, playing as the left-interior midfielder would have to assist Alba and the left-winger in overloads. Notwithstanding, a system in which Puig flourished was a 4–4–2 diamond with him playing as a number 10 behind Messi and the other forward. In this case, Ansu Fati would almost definitely not make it into the starting XI.
That said, in a 4–3–3 with Fati as a left winger, Barcelona are able to stretch the opposition’s defence and sustain possession in the opposition’s half. In this formation, both Ansu and Riqui could get a chance.
Regardless, what is the most likely selection? Setién may play a 4–4–2 diamond with Messi as a number 10 and Griezmann and Suárez upfront. That prediction is from what we have seen from him against tough opposition recently and the reports that he will go for an attacking style. This could see Riqui Puig fitting in and getting a starting spot in the Champions League, but this system most probably wouldn’t be the best for Ansu Fati.
But what would be the ideal choice?
Considering the things both players bring to the table and the way Napoli play, it is clear that winning the midfield battle and having pacey attacking wingers are both important. That leads us to conclude that ideally, both players have a significant contribution to make and they should be selected in a 4–3–3. This would be an adventurous move but it would show Setién’s trust in them. And regardless of the performance, it would be a major confidence boost for them. It’s time for Barcelona to play the kind of football they want to, and factors such as experience, however important, have to be weighed against the immense talent which could be on display.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.