Five players that can be the building blocks in Barcelona’s revolution
Ronald Koeman’s first dance with the big stars of Catalonia has come to a turbulent fortissimo coda; rather than exquisite, elegant, and dominative performances, the Dutchman failed to choreograph his team’s last act. And on the 22nd of May, the year-long dance finally came to a close. A dance constructed (or destroyed) by many stumbles and imperfections. Too little attention to detail has overshadowed the rare paucities of elegance which the Dutchman’s dancers have performed at times.
And in the final act, Koeman oversaw his dancers lose total sight or semblance of organisation; stumbles turned into falls, imperfections turned into deficiencies, and an elegant start turned into a crumbling conclusion. With this, we — the audience — remain begging for more; the Dutch orchestrator could hardly handle choreographing a dance that was worthy of being called the best.
Such has been the case for Koeman’s Barça, a team that has displayed elegance beyond measure at times, held back only by their own deficiencies, mindset, and the coach’s tactical ineptitude.
The picture of Ronald Koeman’s future is certainly clear; he neither possesses nor exhibits the tactical proficiencies required by a Barcelona head coach. Joan Laporta’s board must analyse alternative options, as it is difficult to imagine the former Valencia coach being given a long-term project.
Even so, it seems that he will stay on as head coach for another season, based on recent reports. Koeman is certainly below the standard of excellence that Barcelona should be aiming for. Yet, weighing the costs and benefits, it seems that keeping him for another season is the wiser move. A lack of proper options and the risk of ruining some form of consistency and stability that Koeman has achieved with his players make keeping him around feel like the better option.
Therefore, if the Dutchman’s dance at the Camp Nou continues, he must be given the right conditions to succeed here. He must be given the players he wishes for, regardless of whether the board believes it aligns with the club’s future. Alignment between Laporta and Koeman is crucial, even if it is only for another season. Considering the preceding relations between Josep Maria Bartomeu and the coaches during his tenure, it would be refreshing.
It isn’t easy to envision the former Netherlands manager achieving tactical proficiency like Thomas Tuchel or even success as high as Pep Guardiola. However, it is possible to imagine Koeman building a solid, effective team that can achieve success and compete in Europe if the squad is refurbished a little. Tastes of his potential have been given to Culés this season.
In this article, Barça Universal discusses five players who (if brought in or promoted) can help the onset of a revolution at Camp Nou and their potential alternatives. Keep in mind; this list is exclusive to players who do not have any set agreements (or reported agreements) with the club, meaning we will exclude the likes of Sergio Aguero, Georginio Wijnaldum and Eric Garcia.
While not nearly the greatest choreographer in history, Ronald Koeman is certainly capable of creating a performance worthy of being called Magnifique. Yet, aside from working on his own shortcomings, he must be given the right conditions, cast, and support from the upper echelons if this standard is ever achieved.
The Villarreal centre-back has been a phenom throughout the entire season. At only 24-years-old, he has now enjoyed two stellar campaigns, having racked up 67 appearances with El Submarino Amarillo in the last two league seasons.
Standing at 1.91m tall, Torres is a physically imposing presence at the back, something Barça could use dearly. With Clement Lenglet failing to impose himself through several moments throughout the season, Torres would be a refreshing change of scenery at left centre-back. The starlet has great physical conditions, meaning he will add more solidity both aerially and defensively in place of Lenglet.
Torres possesses all the concepts important for a centre-back to succeed at Barça. Not only is he physically suited to add great defensive cover to Barça’s backline, but he is also a highly proactive defender. The 24-year-old is a great ball progressor, both through passing and carrying the ball upfield. With 5.06 progressive carries per 90, Torres ranks in at the 91st percentile among all La Liga centre-backs this season. With 4.18 progressive passes per 90, he is also a fantastic passer of the ball.
The former Málaga player has a great understanding of both proactive and defensive concepts that can allow him to become an important figure at the Nou Camp. His solid defensive anticipation paired with his ability to pass and progress the ball make him an ideal fit for Ronald Koeman’s plans. Torres’ intellect allows him to cleanly conducts his business – with only 0.36 fouls committed per 90, it is more through anticipation and intelligent tackles that Torres manages to sweep up at the back.
A young prospect with a very large ceiling of achievement, the Villarreal central defender has already proven himself to be a top defender over the course of two years in La Liga. He has been attracting strong interest from several big clubs, recently becoming linked to Barcelona too.
A huge advantage in signing Pau Torres is that he is left-footed; Barça’s only competent left-footed centre-back, Clement Lenglet, has seriously struggled throughout the season. In addition, with Lenglet often being caught either flat-footed or too slow to catch up with faster attackers, Pau Torres would instantly feel like a breath of fresh air.
According to La Razon, Pau Torres has recorded a maximum speed of 34.9kmph, making him faster than even attackers like Vinicius Jr. or Lionel Messi. Essentially, he will add tremendous cover (much like the rapid Ronald Araujo has managed to) for last-ditch challenges or high-line situations.
If Torres were to become a Blaugrana for next season, it would be nearly certain that he would become a starter in the left centre-back role. His physical advantages over Lenglet — paired with his sufficient understanding of defensive concepts and proactive abilities — mean that he will add a lot to the Blaugranas’ backline, who are in dire need of a world-class centre-back.
Emerson Royal has now enjoyed a very prominent role in Real Betis for two seasons running. The Brazilian fullback has been excellently productive while offering a well-rounded profile. Having been jointly signed by Real Betis and Barcelona, the Catalan club can unilaterally exercise the option to bring Emerson back to the Camp Nou for a signing fee of €6m.
With Sergiño Dest and Sergi Roberto as Barça’s only options at right-back, the club has suffered defensively. While Dest is still adapting and improving, Roberto has been far less than adequate in defence, often caught out in the poorest fashions.
Dest has undoubtedly been the better option all season long. However, the American wingback himself has struggled to adapt fully to life in Barcelona. With inconsistent performances, littered with moments of class and glimpses of potential, it would be wise to offer Dest a healthy competition with a fellow right-back. Such competition can help enable his growth and make him push himself.
Emerson Royal can also offer a profile that is different to Barça’s current options at right-back. At 1.83m tall, the 22-year-old is far more physically imposing than Dest or Roberto, both of whom are 1.75m and 1.78m each. This physical advantage—paired with great defensive anticipation—has allowed Royal to be far more solid in defence than Barça’s two options throughout the league season.
With 2.96 tackles per 90 and 1.68 interceptions per 90, Emerson is a high-performing defensive fullback. His tall frame also allows him to win aerial duels comfortably; he is in the 82nd percentile for aerials won across all fullbacks in Europe.
This added defensive cover would be a huge renovation for Barcelona. No doubt, just defensive advantages would not guarantee Emerson a starting role in each game. In modern football, the congested fixture schedule and high physical demands mean rotation is key; in some games, Emerson’s defensive traits may be crucial. In others, perhaps Barça will need to employ Dest’s explosive runs on the edge of the box for more offensive outputs.
Barça’s fullbacks require a high level of dexterity and an elite ability to pass and play under pressure. Dani Alves was the archetypical Barça full-back. His understanding of spaces, link-up play, and an extraordinary palette of passes meant that he never had to rely on bursts of speed to create spaces on the flank for deliveries. Alves was simply magnificent at retaining the ball, circulating possession, and creating passes out of thin air.
Whatever the case is, creating that luxury of quality options to rotate and change based on the dynamics of different games is crucial. Emerson adds a whole defensive layer on the right-flank that Barça have lacked tremendously. Koeman’s men have been caught out on the right flank several times a season by pacy attackers like Kylian Mbappé or Iñaki Williams. Creating a defensive cushion (or obtaining the option for it) is a necessity for the Garnet and the Blue.
Emerson excels not just defensively; he has a quality attacking output that differentiates him from other full-backs. With four goals and 10 assists across the last two league seasons, Emerson is more than capable of marauding the right flank and sending in crosses. However, it is evident that there are certain concepts that the 22-year-old will struggle with at Camp Nou.
Emerson is not entirely adept at passing play; he only has a pass completion rate of 81.2% per 90. While it is more difficult to retain the ball and pass with accuracy at a club like Real Betis, Emerson seemingly does not even match up with Dest when it comes to passing and creativity. The American fullback has a completion rate of 89.3%, coming in at the 99th percentile across all fullbacks in Europe.
However, the 22-year-old Betis right-back has proven himself as a fairly reliable attacking player, while also being young enough to learn several concepts which will be crucial for his implementation as a Blaugrana. In fact, it is the added defensive cover that he can bring as a right-back which will be crucial for Barça.
Given Dest is young and inconsistent, having Emerson will help to push him and improve. The Brazilian fullback can also start games in which the Catalans anticipate pacy attacking threats down the right-flank; having the 22-year-old in such situations will be hugely advantageous for Ronald Koeman. Ranking as one of the best defensive full-backs in Europe, Emerson could potentially become key in several moments for Barça, as he can bring added solidity to the backline when others will fail.
Perhaps the most difficult acquisition for Barça from all the players listed in this article, Jose Gaya has enjoyed the best season of his life yet. The 26-year-old is in his physical prime, meaning that he has managed to become an ultra-productive outlet for Valencia.
He is a player who possesses high dexterity, with an ability to vary the several styles in which he can attack. While Jordi Alba is surely still a class above him (thanks to the obvious advantage of teammates), he is rather limited in his attacking movements, repeating the same rhythm and link-up with Messi several times a game.
Gaya, on the other hand, displays some neat movements and underlapping runs which make him an unpredictable attacking threat. His passing patterns, runs between the lines, and threatening bursts of pace make him a true menace for any opposition to deal with.
In his best season yet, the Spaniard has managed to rack up an impressive one goal and seven assists in the league. Perhaps with an even better team in Barcelona, this tally would be far higher. Averaging 1.20 key passes per 90, Gaya has managed to become a solid and consistent attacking threat from the left flank.
He also outperformed his Expected Assists tally by 2.3, meaning that he is a rather proficient attacker; while not surrounded by the most world-class players, Gaya can be expected to pull off amazing passes and create chances from unlikely scenarios. WIth 1.87 Shot-Creating Actions per 90, the Spanish fullback ranks at the 88th percentile among La Liga fullbacks. One can safely assume this number would be far higher if he were to wear the Catalan outfit.
Perhaps most importantly, Gaya offers more defensively than Barça’s current first-choice left-back, Jordi Alba. While Alba has enjoyed a stellar resurgence under Ronald Koeman, he lacks defensively. He is unable to perform in big moments, even being dubbed a culprit for two goals conceded in the Spanish Super Cup final. Additionally, his misjudgement of space between himself and opposition wingers (something Roberto struggles with as well) means that oftentimes, Barça’s left flank is left vulnerable to advanced attacks or crosses.
Gaya averages 2.97 tackles + interceptions per 90, compared to Alba’s 2.47, while also averaging one additional clearance per 90. The most glaring difference between the two is in their ability to deal with aerial threats. Seemingly a huge problem on both flanks for Barça, both Emerson and Gaya are far better than either of Roberto/Dest and Alba, respectively. Gaya matches up much more impressively than Alba in particular.
Not much taller than the 32-year-old, Gaya wins 0.89 aerial duels per game, compared to Alba’s minuscule 0.21. He also has a higher aerial win rate at 40.6%. Therefore, Gaya would serve a somewhat similar function to Alba as Emerson would to Dest; add depth in the squad but not entirely replace the current option.
The demands of modern football require a great variance of profiles in each position. Manchester City demonstrate this excellently; if they require numerical superiorities in the centre of the park, Joao Cancelo is Pep Guardiola’s first pick at right-back. If they need width on the right flank, he opts for Kyle Walker. Similarly, either Oleksandr Zinchenko or Benjamin Mendy are alternated at left-back based on the differing requirements of each match.
A luxury of choice like this does not exist at Barça; neither does a wealth of distinctive profiles. This, paired with Koeman’s own shortcomings, have stripped Barça of several opportunities this season. With Gaya, the Catalans would not only be getting a varying profile to Alba, but also an option to both alternate and rest the Spanish veteran. The club will need him to push himself and not take his position for granted.
While he has certainly not done that, even just the congestion of the fixture schedule calls for Gaya’s signing. After all, the Blaugranas cannot just rely on a single left-back for an entire season, no matter how high his standard of excellence may be.
Not every player needed by the Blaugranas has to come from outside of the club. In fact, some of the best options are homegrown talents from La Masia. Oftentimes, these players possess the dexterity, tactical and positional intelligence, and the personality to become the most successful players at Barça.
One such player is Nico Gonzalez. In the face of signings such as Georginio Wijnaldum, players like Gonzalez—and what they represent for Barça—stand out starkly. While the former is simply a safe passer, good for retaining the ball, and using his conditioned experience to be an unshakeably consistent player, Gonzalez sparks progression, versatility, and variety.
Standing tall at 1.88m, the Galician offers a great combination of physicality and dexterity; somewhat finding himself in a similar case as Ilaix Moriba. However, rather than simply being effective at circulation and nifty touches to create space like Moriba, Gonzalez excels when he has the ball at his feet.
The 19-year-old has a nearly unbelievable first touch, which he uses to his advantage in gaining a few seconds and space from opposition defenders. He is intelligent, physical, and versatile. He exudes the qualities of La Masia through and through. Combining the exemplary skills of a Barça academy player with an immense physical profile, a huge prospect is born. Cue, Nico Gonzalez.
Even given his gladiator-like physique, the young Spaniard functions with the technicalities and agility of a typical, talented La Masia midfielder. His ability to hold onto the ball using body orientation and quick changes of direction make him nearly unbeatable in the middle of the park. With an indescribably perfectionist first touch and the ability to think one second before the opposition, Gonzalez can create space out of thin air.
His two best qualities as a midfielder are carrying the ball upfield and passing. Much like de Jong, he prefers to have the ball at his own feet, usually acting as an interior midfielder. He loves to progress the ball forward using tunnel-vision passes or disorientating dribbles.
However, with several injuries in the Barça B squad, head coach Garci Pimienta has had to utilise Gonzalez as a single pivot throughout the season, a position that the youngster was almost entirely unfamiliar with heading into the campaign. Yet, he has broken through and adapted with such ease; one would have guessed he’d been a defensive midfielder all his life.
Although certainly not dictating the tempo or changing the pace of games with single touches, Gonzalez has learned several new qualities, combining those with the skill sets he was already excellent at. His press resistance, immense anticipation, and awareness in buildup play have seen him become a crucial cog in Barça B’s midfield.
While he does not operate with the unparalleled one-touch efficiency and circulation as Sergio Busquets (and perhaps not even as suited in profile for this position as fellow teammate Jandro Orellana), Nico Gonzalez has expressed several qualities in his locker and the ability to grow and adapt. These idiosyncrasies have allowed the young starlet to grow and excel in his newfound role.
With an ever-improving positional sense and rapid grounded passes, Gonzalez is improving the rhythms and traits required by a single pivot at Barcelona. Even though Jandro is, no doubt, a more exemplary single pivot, given his strong resemblance in profile to Busquets, Gonzalez has shown that he has more factors and conditions working in his favour to make a first team debut next campaign.
His 1.88m figure, physical prowess, technical and tactical qualities, paired with his versatility and defensive anticipation, have made him excel as a CDM throughout the season. The Galician does not only use his physical advantages in defensive work. He utilises, more than anything, the great tactical and technical conditions engrained into him through his La Masia training.
Oftentimes, Gonzalez can be seen changing his orientation in sudden motions when anticipating certain passes. His technical skills equip him with the advantage of time on his side; no matter where you wish to pass the ball, Nico Gonzalez will be there to intercept it.
Notwithstanding Sergio Busquets’ year-long brilliance, he most certainly requires an understudy in the squad. While Frenkie de Jong has succeeded in being a stop-gap Libero or single pivot in the Spanish veteran’s absence, his defensive anticipation is nowhere near Busquets’ level. In addition, de Jong himself has expressly said how he prefers to play in freer roles, not entirely comfortable as a single pivot.
Gonzalez, still only 19, is learning to thrive, adapt, and alternate the skills he is familiar with and the skills he is learning in his new position. In the first team, he can become a fantastic backup option to Sergio Busquets, perhaps even to regularly add freshness in the base of midfield during the endings of matches; when Barça have faltered one too many times this season.
The question that was previously ‘Memphis Depay or Sergio Aguero?’ has now thankfully morphed into the affirmation ‘Memphis Depay and Sergio Aguero’. With the Argentinian’s signing having been given Fabrizio Romano’s ‘here we go!’ already, only Depay’s announcement awaits.
The Dutchman offers a totally different profile in attack as compared to Aguero. Depay has been one of the most elite creative attackers in all of Europe, with the tendency to drop deep. Barça’s attack suffers mainly in three areas: big chances missed, creative dependency on Lionel Messi, and a lack of depth. Analysing a potential move for Depay to Camp Nou and his profile, we can find a solution to all three problems.
Firstly, Barcelona have missed a staggeringly high number of big chances throughout the season. Although they were the league top scorers with 85 goals, their efficiency in front of goal, especially stacked up against other La Liga teams, is truly embarrassing. With a league-highest tally of 72 big chances missed, they have missed 16 more than the second-placed Real Sociedad and 17 more than Real Madrid.
This has been largely due to the inefficiency of Lionel Messi’s supporting cast. While Antoine Griezmann has experienced a renaissance this year, his poor early form and inconsistent displays have seen him miss 13 big chances, while Messi’s early rough patch has also seen him miss 11. In addition, Martin Braithwaite has missed 8, and Ousmane Dembélé and Frenkie de Jong come in with 6.
Such inefficiency in attack has been one of the biggest failures for Barça throughout the season, who have almost exclusively had a sole consistent goalscorer throughout the season: expectedly, Messi. Thankfully, Depay can help tremendously in solving this problem for the Blaugranas. Coming in with 20 league goals (having also outperformed his xG by 2.3), the Dutch forward has proven that he is an efficient and effective goalscorer.
Secondly, there is a great deal of ‘Messidependencia ‘ in Barcelona’s creative department. Almost exclusively the only playmaker, it feels as if each of Barça’s players just take on the pitch with one single purpose: pass the ball to Messi.
While the six-time Ballon d’Or winner is evidently leaps and bounds ahead of all his teammates in terms of creativity, the club should have learned over the course of the last three years that simply relying on Messi by putting the entire weight of the team’s creative duties on his shoulders is a poor collective strategy.
While Messi attracts the ball, opposition defenders, and consequently creates spaces, he can not be the exclusive creative attacker for the Blaugranas. As was the case when Andres Iniesta and Neymar Jr. were still in Barça, Messi requires another creative partner(s) in crime. One who can split (or at the very least take a decent part of) the creative responsibilities with him. This can work in liberating Messi, who may find himself in forward positions more often as a result.
Thankfully, the 27-year-old has some of the best creative abilities across all forwards in Europe. Coming in with 0.40 xA per 90, Depay ranks in the 99th percentile across all attackers in Europe. He even racked up 12 league assists this season, showcasing his phenomenal creative ability. However, that statistic tells only half the picture.
Depay is a forward with the utmost dexterity. Averaging 2.57 dribbles completed per 90, he possesses the skill to attempt take-ons and dribble out of tricky situations, a trait crucial for Blaugrana forwards who find themselves crowded out by opposition defenders all too often. Another case to add him to the roster.
The Dutchman executes 4.90 Shot-Creating Actions per 90, meaning that his passes, moves, or positioning end up creating an additional five shots for his side nearly every game. He also comes in the 93rd percentile with 6.06 progressive carries per 90, meaning he is constantly progressing the ball forward with some of the greatest effectiveness in the continent.
Depay’s creative passing numbers are genuinely astounding. With 2.91 accurate crosses per 90, the Dutchman is always finding options in the box, something Barça have struggled to do from wider positions. He is also in the 95th percentile for through balls, 94th for progressive passes, and 96th for passes into the penalty area. A total, chaos-inducing creator.
He is essentially better than almost all forwards in Europe at creating play. His addition into Barça would be refreshing, a tonic to the bitter taste of Messidependencia. A liberating opportunity for the greatest player of all time.
Lastly, Depay will add some qualitative depth to the Camp Nou bench, which has been deprived of depth for a long time. Ever since Luis Suarez’ departure (and Ansu Fati’s most unfortunate injury), the only other options to Messi and Griezmann have been an inconsistent Dembélé, an invisible Fransisco Trincão, and a below-average Martin Braithwaite.
It is a disappointing roster of attackers; with almost all Blaugrana forwards suffering bad moments throughout the season, Barça’s high number of big chances missed suddenly begins to make a lot more sense. But, with the return of Ansu Fati and the additions of Depay and Aguero, one can expect this problem to be alleviated.
Manchester City have combatted a congested fixture schedule very well using squad depth. With six quality attacking options—Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres, Phil Foden, and Riyad Mahrez—the Citizens have never failed to bring surprises, rotations, and alternation of tactics based on each game’s differential demands.
Barça can perhaps emulate this strategy with their own ‘Big Six’: Depay, Aguero, Fati, Griezmann, Dembele, and Messi. Whatever be the case, and whoever are the individuals, Depay will be a much-needed piece in a season-long unsolved puzzle: attacking depth.
Ronald Koeman can probably never be expected to reach the apex mountain of footballing success. The conditions, Barça’s financial and sporting issues, and his own tactical inhibitions will never allow for perfectionist positional play or razor-sharp effectiveness to help guide his team to a treble. Even competing respectably in the Champions League feels like a distant dream for the Dutch manager.
However, backing Ronald Koeman necessarily requires giving him the best possible context to succeed. Having given Culés a taste of the success he has almost single-handedly ushered in with a new generation of youngsters, Koeman can grab out and achieve more triumphs. He must be given a wealth of options, whom the sporting directors and Koeman deem worthy of being included in the squad, with Georginio Wijnladum being the first of Koeman’s wishes to be granted and Depay on the way.
With essentially half a squad, the 58-year-old managed to win a Copa del Rey and also put up a seriously dignified run of 19 unbeaten games in La Liga. However, the combination of personal and squad limitations prevented further success.
If the latter limitation can be solved, given the fact that it is going to be very difficult to solve the former, one can expect that Koeman, Messi, and co. can achieve even more success in the upcoming campaign. There are visible cracks in this team; if these cracks can be effectively filled, Barça can expect to grow as a team even further.
It would be foolish to hope for the same standard of excellence with Ronald Koeman as one would with the greatest coaches in world football. However, with a wealth of experience, a great staff, and a board aligned with his interests, one can certainly expect effectiveness. So long as he can manage to bring a clarity of ideas into the Camp Nou (something he has severely lacked with improvised formation changes or volatile decision making), Koeman only needs an enhanced squad at his disposal.
In the long-term, he will certainly not be Laporta’s primary choice. However, if he continues for a season, he can achieve greater success and a higher level of football with the right squad. One could expect a level of improvement so solid that they would create the onset of a revolution if these conditions existed. Pau Torres, Memphis Depay, Nico Gonzalez, Emerson Royal, and Jose Gaya are only a few—but entirely crucial—components of a machine that will mark the advent of a new Barcelona.
A Barcelona that will come to define an era.