With a soleus injury, Frenkie de Jong is expected to miss at least four games, meaning that coach Quique Setién will have to find other names to cover his absence.
In his first season at Barcelona, and in spite of the adaptation process in his move from Ajax, 23-year-old midfielder Frenkie de Jong had had an immaculate injury record so far. Nevertheless, after no injuries through the entire campaign, such positive streak seemed to come to an end after he felt some discomfort last Saturday against Mallorca. While he was subbed out and also rested against Leganés on Tuesday, it looked like nothing more than some normal and temporary discomfort after three months of inactivity.
However, before travelling to Seville for Friday night’s match, Barcelona confirmed the absence of De Jong with a calf strain. This morning, after further tests, the club has confirmed an injury. The official statement read: “The clinical follow-up on Frenkie de Jong has uncovered an injury in the soleus of his right leg. The evolution of the injury will condition the player’s availability”.
Certainly very bad news for coach Quique Setién and Barça, who come from dropping two vital points in a goalless draw against Sevilla. As Real Madrid now have the advantage in the league, as long as they win tonight’s game against Real Sociedad, problems continue to accumulate for the blaugranas. De Jong had featured in 38 games this term in all competitions, and his absence will be a significant blow for Barça. How long he will be out for is still unknown, but it doesn’t look good.
According to Spanish newspaper AS, he could be out for at least two weeks, which includes crucial fixtures such as those against Athletic Club, Celta de Vigo, Atlético de Madrid and Villarreal. This means that Setién will need to find some alternatives to him. But what are the best options to replace him now, in a crucial stage of the season?
Arthur Melo’s season, or seasons since he arrived to Barcelona in 2018, have been marked by inconsistency. A certain lack of continuity on the pitch, being usually unable to complete all 90 minutes, as well as off-pitch fitness and non-sporting issues that have shaped his career at the Camp Nou so far. His possession and ball-retention skills, which made everyone fall in love with him since day one, are unquestionable. But the absence of some discipline on and off the field have prevented him from being a regular fixture on the side.
Arthur Melo possibly needs to start in three or four consecutive matches to get back to his best | Photo by Aitor Alcalde via Getty Images
On his day, Arthur should undoubtedly be a starter at Barcelona. With the perfect tools to handle possession, he is perfectly suited to Barça’s football. That said, he is missing some tactical concepts which have made Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién rely at times on other figures. His football does not always carry intentionality and accurate positioning, which is what his managers have been trying to fix. If he establishes himself as a starter and grows from there, though, Arthur is one of the most appropriate midfielders the Barcelona squad has at present.
Arturo Vidal is the opposite to Arthur Melo in many ways. Not only in terms of age and experience, but in style and context. If the Brazilian can add beauty but not always substance, the Chilean compensates his unconventional profile with pure productivity and impact in the final third. While by no means being the most orthodox Barça midfielder, his dynamism, plus his seven goals in La Liga, are greatly appreciated in a team that can sometimes be excessively passive and horizontal.
His forward runs and surprise appearances in the opposing box, added to his energy to press, are useful considering that the Catalans need more goalscorers other than Lionel Messi, and that there’s no natural winger in the right flank. But choosing him is not free of downsides either. For instance, when he has to help in building up from the back or is pressed in his own half, his weaknesses get exposed. Vidal, mostly, can be very productive for certain situations and scenarios.
To talk about Iván Rakitić, we first need to specify which version of Rakitić are we discussing. At the start of the season, the lack of minutes resulted in him performing far below his prime level. Nevertheless, after the coronavirus break, his form has significantly improved and he could be a valuable piece for Setién if he maintains it. Playing in the last three games, and starting in the last two, the Croatian also delivered a praiseworthy performance against his former club Sevilla.
After a tough start to the season, Iván Rakitić seems to have benefitted from the break to get a place in the team | Photo by Photo Agency via Imago
His positional flexibility to drop deep or to operate higher up the pitch, and his understanding of Messi’s nature to adjust his position according to the Argentinian’s, have made of the number 4 a vital player in Barcelona’s structure for many years. With the level both have exhibited in the past week, it is safe to say that he contributes to more to the team than Arthur Melo right now. Even so, his lack of awareness or even creativity are arguments that run against him. At his best, there’s no doubt that Rakitić can be very important. But can we see that version of himself more often?
The name all culés want to hear. La Masía starlet Riqui Puig has been knocking on the door of the first team for the past two years. His intelligence, his mental and physical agility, his technique in tight spaces, his inventiveness and intuition, his energy on and off the ball, his passing expertise, his ability to take well-measured risks…Riqui fits perfectly into the mould of the prototype Barça midfielder.
“Riqui Puig played a great game. He is a kid who is training very well and has a very good attitude”
after Riqui’s 20 minutes played against Leganés on Tuesday
The overbooking in the central of the pitch in the senior side, though, has prevented him from having regular minutes. In the past two campaigns, he has roughly had over 300 minutes for Barça in the league and Copa del Rey. His apparently weak physique is often used as an argument against him too, but the dynamism and vitality in his play, and the intensity and smartness with which he presses, convert a disadvantage into an advantage for Riqui. Now, hopefully, he earns regular minutes and makes the most out of them to gain Quique Setién’s full trust.
Álex Collado and Monchu Rodríguez
Riqui Puig is not the only bright Barça B midfielder that is ready for the first team. Even if away from the spotlight that Riqui receives, Álex Collado and Monchu Rodríguez are two more 1999-born names to take into high consideration too. Collado is a natural interior or central midfielder, though at the B he has usually been deployed as a winger, generally on the right. He performs extremely well in any of these positions, thanks to his delightful technique, stealthy moves and imagination. A very gifted left-footed wizard, he is undoubtedly prepared for the senior side.
Meanwhile, Monchu is a very different youngster characterised more by his dynamism and all-round skillset. While he can perfectly perform as a defensive midfielder, he has mostly been used as a central midfielder this season. He has an outrageous passing technique in his short and long distribution, competes at an incredibly high level of intensity and concentration, has a lot of talent to operate in tight spaces, provides goals and threat in the final third, and has much mobility yet a smart positional sense. With a maturity way beyond his years, he can certainly be very helpful at Barcelona.
While the list of midfielders is not endless, there mostly are two other alternatives to fill in the absence of Frenkie de Jong. The first one implies converting some footballers into midfielders, or using them in such positions. Sergi Roberto, a natural midfielder utilised as a right-back, is a strong candidate to occupy any spot in midfield too. Still, Sergi is also injured with a rib fracture, and he is expected to miss the next clash against Athletic Club.
Lionel Messi, for example, could be deployed deeper too, but considering that he needs to be closer to goal, it would be more sensible to change a formation if four attackers were used. A 4–2–3–1, for instance, or a back three or back five system. With that being said, there are enough reliable natural midfielders in the squad, so they should be prioritised first.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.