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Has Riqui Puig earned a spot in Barça’s starting XI?

A question with only one possible answer. Riqui Puig has earned a spot in Barça’s starting XI

Hariharan Balaji

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Header Image by Marc González / Zuma via Imago

The mood around the Barça camp or in the minds of the culés is not bright. With everything going around the club, there seems to be only one silver lining to all that’s happening: Riqui Puig earning himself a starting spot in the XI with his impressive performances. Here’s how he did it and how he deserves it.


Barcelona are still unbeaten after the restart, but they have dropped six points with three frustrating draws. Apart from the win at Mallorca in the opening game, the other victories have not been satisfactory per Barça’s standards. In addition to the on-field miseries, there have been off-field ones as well. Arthur Melo announced his departure to Juventus at the end of the season, and Frenkie de Jong injured his calf muscle and got misdiagnosed.

With Arthur out of form and not in the right mind to play, and Frenkie out with injury, the Barça midfield looked pale. Arturo Vidal seemed like he has run out of gas, playing every other game. The midfield lacked creativity or mobility of any kind, which in turn prompted Lionel Messi to drop deep and create. The only problem was there was no capable finisher or runner upfront with both Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann out of form. Enter Riqui Puig.

The cameo versus Athletic Club

Quique Setién started last week’s game against Athletic Club de Bilbao with a midfield of Arthur Melo, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, with the so-called MSG – Messi, Suárez and Griezmann – upfront. Athletic, though, closed down the centre and choked the Barça attack. The blaugranas were static, and the game seemed to go towards yet another frustrating draw. But the home team subbed Riqui Puig in for Arthur a few minutes after half-time, and the prospect of getting the three points increased considerably.

Riqui came on, slotted right into the game and showed his class. He took on players, got in between the lines and drove forward. The Spaniard showed his desire to have an impact on the game by throwing himself to press and tackle every time Barça lost the ball. The midfield got newfound energy and increased fluidity for the rest of the game. Coach Quique Setién was on point with all his subs in this game, and all had an impact once coming on. The strong performance from Riqui, however, put him in the spotlight, and in contention for the starting spot in the following match. 

First league start of the season against Celta

Away against Celta de Vigo, Quique Setién started the three substitutes of the previous game, impressed by the contributing cameos of Iván Rakitić, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig himself. Riqui got his first start of the season in the league, and he was keen on retaining the spot. The 20-year-old was once again majestic in the midfield. He took upon responsibilities, was brave and always interested in cutting open the spaces.

Riqui Puig Barcelona Atlético de Madrid starting XI

Riqui Puig has never looked out of place in Barcelona’s first team | Photo by Paco Largo / Panoramic via Imago

Riqui’s contributions did not stop just with the attacking phase as he tracked back meticulously whenever the team lost the ball high up the pitch. Many fans questioned his physique when it comes to defending, but his small stature allows him to press better, and the low centre of gravity helps in retrieving the ball. Puig got subbed out in the 86th minute, with yet another excellent game under his belt.

The ultimate test against Atlético de Madrid

The preface to the encounter against Atlético de Madrid was alarming for Quique Setién. There were audacious reports that his job was on the line for the game, and he was under intense scrutiny. He had two choices: to choose the most deserving eleven to play his way, or choose the heavyweights and change his methods to adapt. The Cantabrian picked a mixture of the two, but gave Riqui Puig the start in a crucial title-deciding clash. The trust was in place. 

Riqui did not disappoint the faith the manager had in him and continued with his brilliant display. Messi did not take the creativity upon himself and trusted the young midfielder to more than make up for the lack of it. Both little geniuses combined brilliantly, a few times, understanding each other’s runs and movements. The ability to play in tight spaces taught in La Masía was showing. 

Once again, Riqui dominated the midfield and was arguably the most productive of the four midfielders Setién chose. While the previous matches were against considerably lower-tier opposition, this time he went head to head against some of the best. He was unfazed by the physical presence of Thomas Partey or the talented Saúl Ñíguez. Puig drew fouls, broke lines continuously, and was a menace to the Atleti defence.

Riqui Puig stats over the three games.

Riqui Puig impressed in all three games, with each performance better than the other making a strong case for the starting spot | Stats from Sofascore

So, what does Riqui Puig brings that the current first teamers don’t have or have less?

What does Puig do differently?

The current crop of the Catalan midfield consists of many box-to-box players and a few who can carry the ball up the field. Arturo Vidal and Iván Rakitić are the usual midfielders who do not have high penetrative passing, but they arrive at both penalty areas and cover spaces efficiently. Both Frenkie de Jong and Arthur Melo like to get the ball from deep and progress the play. They are comfortable on the ball and are press resistant. Riqui ticks most of these boxes, in addition to adding a layer of creativity.

Unlike most midfielders at Barça, Riqui often stays on his toes, ready to jump into action. He looks up the field on receiving the ball, scans his surrounding and plays the pass. Always looking to break the lines, he attempts the most improbable passes and executes those to perfection. The way he opens up his body towards the wings but swiftly passes the ball to the interior looks much similar to Sergio Busquets.

“He was extraordinarily good. He understood what we asked of him and Barça and the fans can be satisfied, they have a great player. He showed great desire and was at a great level. He has quality”

Quique Setién
on Riqui Puig after the Atlético de Madrid game

Having gone through the ranks of the La Masía, the 20-year-old knows and executes the positional play principles to perfection. He often places himself between the lines by feinting runs and while receiving the ball, often aligns his body to turn and move towards the goal. Yet another facet of his impressive set of skills is his ability to accelerate. Much similar to Messi, Puig uses his low centre of gravity to his advantage. His sudden bursts help him while taking on defenders or drawing fouls in dangerous areas. 

Being young and from the B team, the desire to impress and give his 100 per cent never fades. He never shows complacency or drops the level of his performance.

Conclusion

Barça may not be in the appropriate position they wanted to be. A lot of things going around the club are unpleasant, and fans are far from pleased by a lot of choices. The decision to sell Arthur has brought so much criticism from everyone around the globe.

But one glimmer of hope during these testing times is the arrival of Riqui Puig to the first team. Not only has he impressed, but he has also created a strong case for himself to be a regular starter. It is safe to say that Riqui Puig has earned his starting spot now.

Sometimes, things have to fall apart to make way for better things.


See more

Goals analysis: Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

• Late substitutions: Is Quique Setién crumbling under the pressure?

• 5 takeaways from the Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid

• Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid: Players ratings

• Barcelona 2–2 Atlético de Madrid: Match Summary

I got into watching football for the emotions of it. A goal followed by a crazy celebration from the player gave me goosebumps. But, watching the beautiful game over the years, I realised it was much more than just goals. The passing, the movements, the positioning and the effort involved behind the scenes opened my eyes to what football was. I keep trying to learn more about this incredible game and pass on what I learnt with a tinge of passion attached to it.

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Analysis

Koeman’s system in the Barcelona 4-0 Villareal

Anurag Agate

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Photo by David Ramirez via Imago

With a 4-0 victory at the Camp Nou, Koeman’s side has started the season on a positive note. Find out more about the tactical aspect of the match in this tactical analysis of Barcelona’s match against Villareal.


La Liga is finally back, and it’s back in full swing. We saw many high-scoring matches, with even Atleti scoring 6 goals against Granada. A very entertaining start to La Liga was capped off by Barcelona’s 4-0 Victory over Villareal. Koeman’s first La Liga game in-charge of Barcelona was a resounding success. The mindset of the players involved was clearly different from the mindset under Setien. With many players looking rejuvenated, Barcelona put in a performance which was desperately needed considering the fact that the wounds from Lisbon haven’t yet healed. Find out just how Barcelona managed to dominate a strong Villareal side in this tactical analysis.

Initial systems

Barcelona started out in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. The only surprise was that Messi’s starting position was more central than usual and Griezmann occupied the right-wing. Messi does eventually drift towards the centre anyway but the starting position is usually wider.

Villareal were in a 4-4-2 which later transitioned into a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half after the substitutions. Right from the start, Villareal looked to press from the front, with Chukwueze and Moi Gomez cutting out passing lanes to the full-backs and the two Villareal strikers pressing Barcelona’s center-backs. Here, an advantage of the 4-2-3-1 Koeman deployed was immediately visible. De Jong would drop back to receive the ball and then play it forward to Busquets, who was the other pivot. Had Barcelona played a 4-3-3, the pivot would have dropped back to receive the ball and build-up from the back in this case. But the midfield would be stretched vertically which we saw many times last season.

In midfield, Barcelona were prevented from playing through the centre by Parejo and Coquelin. The distance between Villareal’s midfield and defense lines was not much which forced Barcelona towards the wings. This strategy came back to bite Villareal in the form of Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old left-winger was unplayable against Villareal. Gaspar was unable to contain him. Jordi Alba was much better than in a long time. The work-rate Koeman demands and the many extra training sessions were really showing. After a 2019/20 season which wasn’t the best for Barcelona, yesterday’s performance was very impressive.

Koeman’s foresight

Both wingers would regularly tuck-in between the full-backs and center-halves. This allowed Barcelona’s full-backs to advance up the field much more. With the full-backs attacking and the wingers tucking in, the Villareal defensive line would be occupied. This allowed Coutinho more space than usual. Along with this, Busquets and De Jong would be available to either stop the counter, or to act as passing options. This assortment of many attacking roles allowed Barcelona to have sustained attacking possession.

Villareal had a clear game plan as well. Considering the fact that their two strikers are performing well and are well-synchronized, the wingers were instructed to cross the ball often. The full-backs would advance, but not overlap frequently. This could either not be a part of the game plan or because of the attacking threat, Barcelona posed from the start. With Dani Parejo in midfield, Emery would ideally be able to continue playing the possession-based football his teams play. Coquelin would offer a bit of dynamism in midfield along with the Spanish midfielder.

However, Koeman took an interesting decision and gave Busquets the role to man-mark Parejo. Though both were surprisingly not the best on the ball on the day, Busquets did well to restrict Parejo to lateral and back passes. In the second-half, Vilalreal’s game plan was executed better in the 4-4-2 diamond. This allowed Parejo to get on the ball more, wit him playing a major role in the build-up. Emery knows his players’ strengths very well. Parejo in the defensive mid role, with pacey wingers on either sides means fast transitions. For Barcelona s well, the transitions were key. Coutinho’s mediapunta role and the freedom Messi has both contributed to this.

Double-pivot

We already saw the many benefits this formation has offered, taking the strengths of the players Koeman has into full consideration. The ease during build-up with one pivot dropping back, being able to sustain the attack with the mediapunta getting more space, the freedom Busquets had to man-mark Parejo, which would have been difficult in a single pivot, etc. Another one of the advantages is in defense.

Barcelona were vulnerable in defense throughout last season. Jordi Alba looks like refreshed and fitter than usual, and with Dest potentially joining the Blaugrana, the full-backs are looking promising. In case that Barcelona does get caught on the counter, Koeman does have a solution to one of the problems. When Barcelona are on the backfoot, De Jong and Busquets would need to make sure their positioning is immaculate. They were instructed to plug the gaps between the center-halves and full-backs, which would have a two-fold purpose. Firstly, through-balls against more creative players would be much more difficult, with the gaps being reduced and Coutinho and Griezmann helping in defense. Secondly, the opposition would be less likely to crowd the box, since Barcelona can now afford to get at least 4 players into the box if the pivots were to position themselves as such. However, this would be very dependent on the split-second judgment and whether the players decide to press or track-back.

Conclusion

For Koeman’s first La Liga match, the performance was quite promising. Barcelona looked better tactically and in terms of hard work than Villareal as we saw in this tactical analysis. The latter being something that Barcelona desperately need, what remains to be seen is how Barcelona will fare against teams that rely on individual ability more than Villareal and the unpredictability that follows. Apart from this, will the players be able to sustain the intense work ethic Koeman demands? If Barcelona do decently in these conditions and some others, we might see a much better season from them than expected.

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