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Analysis

Four ways Barcelona can lineup next season with possible signings

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Photo via Imago

Following the return of Joan Laporta, Barcelona is headed towards an exciting summer. In spite of the club being in debt, the dressing room is expected to be filled with some new faces in the summer. Recently, Barcelona’s signings have been inefficient: great individual players but unfit for the team. Boasting the likes of Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, Ansu Fati, Pedri Gonzalez, Ilaix Moriba, and more – the Catalan club already has a robust spine. However, if Barcelona is to seriously compete for major trophies next season, a few player profiles need to be signed.

This article will discuss the different possible lineups that can be assembled if a group of Barcelona transfer targets are successfully signed in the summer. The transfer targets include: Erling Haaland, David Alaba, Eric Garcia, Sergio Aguero, and Memphis Depay. It is also assumed that Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho will be sold in the summer. The article will not comment on bench players that are not newly signed.


The Ace

Busquets’ role will be vital in this formation.

The Ace Team refers to the perfect team that can be crafted from the signings.

Ronald Koeman’s three-at-the-back system is working wonders. Barcelona is playing excellent, fluid football – creating plenty of chances while maintaining a compact defence. In this formation, either three centre-backs are deployed in the first line of defence or two centre-backs along with one defensive midfielder.

Due to the presence of 3 players in the main defensive line, there is a lot of defensive stability which reduces the chances of conceding a goal. Additionally, it also allows Barcelona to easily build from the back as it is easier to pass due to there being more players to make short passes to.

With Sergio Busquets in the heart of the defensive line, he is perfectly set to dictate the tempo of the game. While Busquets does lack athleticism and pace, Araujo is one of the fastest and strongest defenders in La Liga. Additionally, Alaba is excellent at defending and is a natural left-back, and so he can also negate any threat from the left flank (if Alba is up on the pitch). Alaba’s ball-playing ability is also commendable, and so a duo of Alaba and Busquets can help build from the back.

Busquets will act as a sort of a half-back, like he did under Pep Guardiola, which allows him to drop much deeper than his usual central defensive-midfield role. With two CBs behind him, he can also choose to move up ahead during transitions, making the formation look like a 4-3-1-2 more often than not.

Full-backs have never been more important in football. Almost every successful system utilizes full-backs to widen the pitch. One downside to this is that the defence is vulnerable as there are pockets of space created when full-backs operate higher up on the pitch. However, in this hybrid three-man defence, one of the trio from the central defensive line can occupy the space left by the full-backs.

This defensive assurance allows the full-backs to attack relentlessly. At the age of 20, Sergino Dest is one of the most promising right-backs in the world, and letting him freely cruise through the right flank can greatly help the team.

Jordi Alba has been one of, if not the best left-back in the world this season. The Spaniard has accumulated 5 goals and 11 assists thus far. Alba’s ability to cross the ball into the box is second-to-none, and his connection with Lionel Messi is telepathic. This lineup allows the team to get the best out of the full-backs.

Ever since the inception of football, the midfield has always been the heart of the team, and this is true even today. A duo of Frenkie de Jong and Pedri Gonzalez is deadly. Pedri is a rising star, and his impact on Barcelona this season has been phenomenal. At the age of 18, the Spaniard is one of Barcelona’s best players and possesses everything an ideal midfielder should have – press resistance, excellent vision, immense work-rate and a great ball carrier.

He provides the link between the defence and midfield that Barcelona have been missing since the departure of Andres Iniesta. Partnered with Pedri would be de Jong, one of the best midfielders in the world.

While the Dutchman’s start at Barcelona was quite shaky, in the last few months, de Jong has really elevated his game. Koeman has deployed de Jong in a more advanced role, due to which the 23-year-old is more efficient than ever. De Jong is intelligent, is an excellent dribbler and has brilliant vision. He also poses a direct goal threat, having accumulated 12 goals plus assists from midfield. This dynamic duo can help the team maintain possession, link the defence and the attack and create a plethora of chances.

Finally, a striking duo of Ansu Fati and Erling Haaland, with Lionel Messi playing right behind them, would be illegal. Before Fati’s injury, the Spanish starboy was having the breakout season of a lifetime. Fati is intelligent and efficient, he’s a splendid dribbler and an excellent shooter of the ball. While he’s a left-winger by nature, the 18-year-old’s goal instincts allow him to be a great striker. As seen in the game versus PSG, Barcelona’s fatal flaw is the myriad of chances to score that go begging. Fati’s efficiency and clinical ability can help resolve the issue.

Speaking of clinical, there is no one right now doing it like Norwegian wonderkid Erling Haaland. Haaland has scored a breathtaking 33 goals in 31 games this season and he does not seem to be slowing down soon. The 20-year-old is the star of the future.

With almost every team willing to go to war to obtain his signature, Haaland to Barcelona would be a statement signing. Haaland is rapid, strong, and tall; his off-the-ball movement resembles the most seasoned of striekrs, and he possesses various types of shots in his arsenal.

In Pedri, de Jong, Busquets, Alba, Dest and Messi, the Blaugranas already possess the finest playmakers, but there is no sense in passing the ball into the opponent’s box if there is nobody to finish it, and Erling Haaland helps resolve exactly this.

Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and is unparalleled in almost every aspect of the game, and regardless of where he is deployed, he will undoubtedly be the best player on the pitch. Letting Messi play right behind the two strikers allows him to create a plethora of chances for Fati and Haaland. Moreover, Messi has been scoring more long-shot goals than ever before, and this position sets him up perfectly to take shots at the goal while the defence is occupied with the two strikers.

Squad depth is imperative for a successful season. A bench of Aguero, Depay and Garcia helps with this. Aguero is legendary and can be trusted with making an instant impact. Koeman could trust him to fill in for Haaland/Fati and contribute towards winning the game.

Depay is quite the versatile player. He can play as a left-winger, a striker or a shadow-striker. Depay can perfectly slot in for Fati and operate between the centre and the left side. Similarly, Eric Garcia is a trust-worthy backup for the starting defenders. Garcia is an exciting prospect, and he will definitely pressure both Alaba and Araujo. The 20-year-old Spaniard is intelligent and is great with the ball on his feet.

This ever-transitioning three-at-the-back system with the mentioned players would be Barcelona’s most effective team next season.

The Cannon

So much firepower!

This formation is a rendition of the previous formation but with Oscar Mingueza – who has had a fantastic debut season – instead of Busquets. With Minguenza replacing Busquets on the team sheet, Busquets occupies the vacancy in midfield next to de Jong, and Minguenza joins Alaba and Araujo to make a defensive line of three centrebacks (as opposed to having one CDM and two CBs).

This formation gives Barcelona a lot of defensive stability. Busquets, a defensive midfielder, replacing Pedri, a more attack-oriented midfielder, adds fortification to the overall defence. But it also allows the Spaniard to venture into the attacking third, and allows him to play his lethal through balls even closer to goal.

While this formation is excellent defensively, there are a few cracks in the hole. First and foremost, the responsibility of carrying the ball from the defence to the offence will lie solely wit de Jong. While Busquets is an excellent passer of the ball, he is far from a solid ball carrier.

The former-Ajax man will have to make runs from each end of the pitch, and if he fails to do so, there is the possibility of Barcelona’s offence being starved off the ball. Additionally, by playing Busquets in Araujo’s current position, the Spaniard is perfectly set up to dictate the game. Busquets playing in that position helps facilitate Barcelona’s play-from-the-back style. If Barcelona wants to continue executing this style efficiently, a lot of the responsibility would fall on Araujo, who is a good ball-playing centre-half, but he still is not as good or as seasoned at it, as compared to Busquets.

The Roots

The 4-3-3 is symbolic of Barcelona. (Photo via Imago)

Over the years, Barcelona and the 4-3-3 formation have become synonymous. After Johan Cruyff popularized it, Pep Guardiola perfected it during his 4-year-tenure as Barcelona manager and shortly after, Luis Enrique repeated Guardiola’s success using the same 4-3-3 formation.

The players in this formation will remain the same (from The Ace formation), and their roles will be quite similar. However, the key differences will be the following: Fati playing as a left-winger, Alba and Dest being more restricted, Messi playing primarily on the right-side, and a more vulnerable defense.

While Fati playing strictly as a left-winger would still work, Alba and Dest being limited would not be good for the team. In the three-at-the-back formation, the fullbacks have assurance from one of the three centre-backs to cover up for the space they left behind, but with Busquets playing slightly higher up the pitch, the centre-backs cannot afford to give up free space in the centre and drift wide (while out of possession). On the note of Busquets playing slightly higher up, the defense is less compact, and due to Busquets’ lack of pace, rapid attackers can weave their way into the half spaces close to Barcelona’s goal.

Like mentioned previously, Messi will perform regardless of where he is playing. However, by placing him on the right side, there is a lot of wasted potential as a Messi who is allowed to free roam in the centre is the most lethal.

As for the substitute signings, Aguero would thrive as a striker in between of the left-winger and Messi. Depay could perform in Fati’s position or in Haaland’s position and Garcia could slot in for either Alaba or Araujo.

All this being said, 4-3-3 is still an ineffective formation. It allows the team to maintain possession and play zonal football. Barcelona’s best years came while playing 4-3-3 and who is to say that the same formation with capable players will not help restore Barcelona to its old glory.

The Classic

Koeman would have loved to try this when he got to Barça. (Photo via Imago)

The 4-2-3-1 is arguably the most iconic formation in football. Granted, in the last few years, it is decreasing in prominence as managers prefer to set up of two interior central-midfielders along with a defensive midfielder as opposed to using an attacking midfielder/number 10.

4-2-3-1 is the embodiment of fluid football. The number 10 is given creative freedom and is delegated with the responsibility of playmaking and distributing the ball. Messi’s vision is top-notch and deploying Messi in a formation with wingers on either side of him and a striker in front would be fatal for the opponents.

Unlike the previous two formations, this one also includes Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman is rapid and an excellent dribbler; he can occupy the defenders and create space for Messi and Haaland. Pedri and Depay can both play either Fati or Messi’s position effectively, and once again, Aguero would slot in perfectly as the central striker. Garcia can replace either Alaba or Araujo.

In spite of all of its benefits, the formation has a hamartia: defensive instability. It is ardous to defend counter-attacks in a 4-2-3-1. Since there is not a single pivot, the midfield line is relatively higher, and so a fast footballer can exploit the half-space between the double pivot and the defensive line. If the midfield line moves down to accommodate for the pockets of open space, space is created between the number 10 and the midfield line. This makes it tough to maintain possession, and with efficient marking, the opposing midfielders can cut off the ball supply to the number 10. Possession increases the probability of winning the game. So even though the 4-2-3-1 at its ideal best works like a charm, it has its issues and is extremely inconsistent, as we saw during the initial stages of Koeman’s tenure.


While individual ability is paramount, it can never be a complete substitute for formations and tactics. It is also imperative for a manager to be flexible with their tactics. Having a footballing philosophy is not equivalent to being stubborn and refusing to change things up when it clearly is not working. So it is extremely likely that the Barcelona formation will vary throughout the season.

What is clear is that if Barcelona’s transfer targets are successfully brought in, the players will not be the limiting factors of the team, and it will be up to Koeman to get the best out of them.

My name is Malhar. I've been watching Barcelona ever since I saw Barca's Spanish players dismantle opponents for fun in the 2010 World Cup. Over the years, my love for Barcelona has evolved into a passion to write about Barcelona. I love writing about the club. I usually have very unpopular opinions, but I'm proud of them and I stand by them. Feel free to discuss about anything related to football, with me!

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  1. Avatar

    Old dog

    26/03/2021 at 17:45

    When Busquets retires he will be known as the GOAT defensive mid-fielder. However, he is 32 going on 33. I agree with your all your formations if Sergio was in his prime. Sadly, he is no longer. Just replace him in all the formations you listed with Ilaix, Pedri or deJong, and they would work better. Barca plays in many competitions and it’s a long season, so there will be lots of chances for Busquets to play an influential role especially later in the season but he can no longer be first choice all season long.

    • Malhar

      Malhar

      28/03/2021 at 08:57

      Thanks for your input! I completely agree about Busquets being in the twilight of his career. However, Koeman seems to have revived him this season. Busquets looked like his prime self versus Paris. I think next season should be a transitory season for Barca, in the sense that Busquets’ responsibilities should slowly be passed on to the new blood.

Analysis

Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season

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Photo via Imago

Johan Cruyff famously said, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” It is indisputable that money is not the only deciding factor behind a football club’s success. Time and time again, we have seen that football is chaotic and absurd. Anything can happen.

That being said, it is evident that statistically, the clubs with more money are usually the more successful ones. While one cannot predict the unpredictability that is engraved within football, an outcome that is statistically probable can be predicted. This article will explore the relationship between the points a club accumulates in a league season and the total value of the club’s squad. Then, Python will be used to build a linear regression model in order to predict the number of points Barcelona will obtain in the 21/22 season based on the club’s hypothetical squad.

Let us begin with visualizing the relationship between the total league points obtained by a club and the club’s total squad value. Since the amount of money spent on transfers has increased tremendously over the course of the last decade, in this article, only seasons 2014/15 – 2019/20 will be considered. Upon plotting the total points against the total squad value, it is evident that there is a positive correlation between the two. Granted, the correlation is not extremely strong, but it exists nonetheless.

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A line of regression has been generated. The line’s gradient is approximately 0.05138986, and its y-intercept is approximately 44.5470726. There is only one dependant variable in question, club value/total value of squad, and so our line of regression can be modelled by the equation:

P = (0.05138986 )V + 44.5470726 where P is the points and V is the total squad value.


club_values = np.array(df['Values']).reshape(89,1)
club_points = np.array(df['Point']).reshape(89,1)

from sklearn.linear_model import LinearRegression
linear_model = LinearRegression()
linear_model.fit(club_values,club_points)

In order to predict the points accumulated based on Barcelona’s squad value next season, the squad value won’t directly be inputted into our equation above. The coefficient and the y-intercept have been rounded up after a certain number of decimal places, and so, to preserve the precision of the prediction, Python’s LinearRegression predict method will be utilized.

Now comes another challenging part of coming up with Barcelona’s hypothetical squad next season. Based on reports, it can be assumed that Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Martin Braithwaite and Phillipe Coutinho will be some of the notable players to leave. To compensate for the outgoing players, it can be assumed that Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia, David Alaba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. Here is a table that contains all the players in Barcelona’s hypothetical 21/22 squad and their corresponding market values:

PLAYER NAME MARKET VALUE (MILLION POUNDS)
MARC ANDRE TER STEGEN79.34
ARNAU TENAS1.59
RONALD ARAUJO26.45
CLEMENT LENGLET26.45
GERARD PIQUE12.70
DAVID ALABA58.19
ERIC GARCIA21.16
OSCAR MINGUENZA10.58
JORDI ALBA26.45
JUNIOR FIRPO10.58
SERGINO DEST26.45
SERGI ROBERTO26.45
SERGIO BUSQUETS10.58
FRENKIE DE JONG84.63
RIQUI PUIG19.04
ILAIX MORIBA10.58
PEDRI GONZALEZ74.06
GEORGINIO WIJNALDUM37.03
ANSU FATI84.63
KONRAD DE LA FUENTE2.64
OUSMANE DEMBELE52.90
TRINCAO26.45
MEMPHIS DEPAY47.61
ANTOINE GRIEZMANN54.00
LIONEL MESSI84.63
Figures via Transfermarkt

The club’s total value comes up to be £786.60 million. It is important to note that a player’s value is volatile. Transfermarkt updates player values every few months, and so it is extremely probable that this squad’s market value will be drastically different next season.

It is also important to understand that Transfermarkt’s market values are not official and so they are not always an accurate representation of a player’s true market value. Moreover, a player’s value is not always an accurate representation of their quality. Age is a key factor in determining market value, and so while a young player might have a high market value indicating that they are a bright prospect for the future, they might not necessarily be an excellent player at the time when the value is assigned.

Now that all of this has been established, the only thing left is making the prediction.

The machine learning model predicts that Barcelona will obtain 85 points in the 21/22 La Liga season. In the 19/20 season, Real Madrid won the league with 87 points, and in the 18/19 season, Barcelona won the league with 87 points as well. The difference between the points accumulated by the last two winning La Liga squads and the predicted points that Barcelona’s 21/22 squad will obtain is a mere 2 points. This shows that it is possible for Barcelona to win the league next season.

Since the correlation between the two variables, as observed from the data from the last 6 seasons, is not even close to being extremely strong, Barcelona’s 21/22 league points tally may be drastically different from what was predicted by the machine learning model. However, at the end of the day, the model can only work with the data it is exposed to.

Erling Haaland can change the course of Barcelona’s season. It would take forever to make predictions based on Barcelona’s hypothetical squads that include all of the club’s potential transfer targets, however, due to Haaland’s influence, an exception can be made for him. Laporta’s interest in signing Haaland has been widely reported.

However, he will cost a fortune this summer, and with Barcelona’s debt situation, it is unlikely that the Catalan club will pursue him in the upcoming transfer window. That being said like mentioned previously in the article, football is chaotic, and anything can happen.

Oh, Haaland. Oh, you. (Photo via Imago)

Assuming that Barcelona does end up signing Haaland in the summer, Antoine Griezmann will most definitely have to leave (due to wages and the money that can be generated from his sale). Haaland’s current value is £99 million, and so Barcelona’s total squad value for next season, after being corrected for Griezmann’s exit and Haaland’s arrival is £831.60 million.

Haaland’s addition can put 21/22 Barcelona on level with the previous two Spanish champions in terms of total points won. The difference in points between a squad containing Haaland and one not containing him is only two. However, an argument about whether signing Haaland is worth it, is not in the scope of this article.

“Transition seasons do not exist at Barcelona.”

Joan Laporta | Presidential campaign

A club of Barcelona’s stature will always compete for titles. The machine learning model shows that Barcelona is in contention for the 2021/22 La Liga title. Ronald Koeman has done a splendid job at the Blaugrana club this season, and there is no logical reason for him to not do an even better job next season after getting fresh players in the summer.

While football at its core is unpredictable, statistically, it would not hurt to trust Barcelona to win the 2021/22 La Liga title.

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