Konrad is an exciting winger playing in a crowded Barcelona side. Could playing as a full-back solve both his and Barcelona’s problems?
Konrad De La Fuente recently debuted for Barcelona, after which he was singled out by coach Ronald Koeman as one youngster that especially excites him. His path is not one we see in the usual La Masia graduates. Born in Miami, Florida, Konrad moved to Barcelona with his family when he was just 10. Playing for CF Damm, Konrad caught the attention of Barcelona’s scouts just two years later. Since then, he has progressed well through the ranks of La Masia and he becomes the newest debutant at 19 years of age for the Blaugrana.
At a team like Barcelona, there is competition for every position. With additional players joining every year and the mismanagement of the youth academy, the pathway to the first team is especially tough now. Some players who are prodigies like Fati, combined with luck, make their mark early. However, the players who were heralded to be the next generation of superstars such as Alena, Puig, Oriol Busquets, Juan Miranda have found it very difficult to establish themselves as Barcelona first-team players. In such times, one way that these players can benefit is by improving their versatility the way Sergi Roberto did and try breaking into a different position. With Barcelona’s full-back problems very apparent as of now, an interesting question can be raised. Can Konrad transition into the modern full-back role and get better opportunities there?
The apparent problems
Let’s get the aspects that appear to be problems out of the way first. Konrad has not played at full-back before, neither has he played in a defensive position. He hasn’t proven himself to be a good tackler of the ball. These issues might make it seem like he clearly can’t transition into a full-back. However, there are strong counter-arguments to this.
Firstly, he hasn’t played in those positions before. Regardless of this, the number of wingers who successfully make the transition to left-back is quite large. Some world-class full-backs like Patrice Evra, David Alaba were once wingers who transitioned into the defensive role. Even Konard’s teammate at Barcelona, Jordi Alba was once a winger. Alba was unable to make a mark at Barcelona as a youngster but at Valencia, he showed his talent which made the Catalans bring him back to Camp Nou. This time, as a full-back. The transition from winger to full-back is much easier than other transitions. The pace, agility, and attacking instinct needed for a modern full-back is something that a winger like Konrad has in abundance.
Photo by MANU FERNANDEZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
One of the other aspects of defending is positioning.
“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”Paolo Maldini
Building upon this quote, something that often is ignored is the fact that positional play is the important part and tackles come secondary to it. As a La Masia graduate, Konrad has been trained in the art of juego de posicion for almost a decade now. He is a very smart winger who knows how to position himself ideally. As a winger, knowing when to receive the ball and knowing where to drive forward from is very important. To complement his blistering pace, this aspect of his play makes him a very efficient dribbler. It would also help his transition into left-back significantly.
Secondly, the other problem is the fact that he isn’t the tallest player at 1.7m. The misconceptions surrounding the importance of physique are surprisingly still quite common. Though being taller can be an advantage, the low centre of gravity afforded by a height such as Konrad’s is very useful for a Barcelona full-back. We saw it with Dani Alves especially. Another player who has played both as a full-back and winger, the Brazilian is considered to be one of the best Barcelona players of all time. His height wasn’t that impressive, nor did he look the strongest. But his positional play, tactical intelligence, and pace helped him develop into one of the best full-backs in the world.
“He already stood out when he arrived in Barcelona,” “He was different because he had a very high technical level. He has great peripheral vision, amazing drive on the ball when shooting and dribbling, and is able to play at a high intensity.”Pedro marcet
Barcelona has an impressive winger who would make a case for starting for most La Liga sides. However, Konrad plays for a club with incredible standards in player quality. With Dembele, Trincao, Fati, Pedri, and sometimes even Griezmann having the ability to play as left-wingers and the right-wing spot belonging to Messi, though he has a free role mostly, Konrad might get the best chances by playing as a left wing-back.
Barcelona’s starting left-back, Jordi Alba, unfortunately, doesn’t have the quality he once did. The second left-back, Junior Firpo, is better suited to a 5-man defense and has struggled to play well for Barcelona. For a pacey, smart, aware winger like Konrad who came up through the ranks of La Masia, the left-back role might just be the way to establishing himself in the first team.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.