Having arrived at Barcelona as nothing more than an emergency signing, Martin Braithwaite has evolved into one of Barça’s most vital players this season, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds that were pitted against him, long before his first kick off the ball.
The ex-Leganes player has seen an unprecedented shift in his playing style under Ronald Koeman, and with every passing week, even in a star-studded squad, he now looks like twice the player he was when he arrived.
A Controversial Arrival
Admittedly, the Dane arrived at Barcelona by default, rather than by design. Following the long term injuries sustained by both Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé early in the year, Barça were essentially forced into making an emergency signing, as long as the player acquired was within La Liga — or a free agent.
The Catalans had options in Loren Morón, Willian José, and were strongly linked with Angél Rodriguez from Getafe — who even scored against them in the Nou Camp in the midst of these rumours. Then, out of the blue, the Blaugrana set their sights on their Madrid counterparts, Leganes, who were then in a tussle for survival in the Spanish top flight.
In and of itself, the transfer was made within La Liga’s laws and was perfectly legal. The problem, however, was more of a moral one, as Los Pepineros were powerless to stop Barca from snatching their most productive and valuable player via his buyout clause. This was the lowest of blows they could possibly take, as given they had already lost Youssef El Nesyri to Sevilla in January, they would now have to conjure up a way of finding the back of the net in a relegation fight with next to no offensive threat at their disposal.
On the 20th of February, Braithwaite arrived at the Camp Nou happy as a lark, as his childhood dreams of playing at a club at the magnitude of Barça had finally come to pass. It was a transfer that by no means sat well with the Lega faithful, as come season’s end, they packed their bags and set sail for the trip down to the Segunda División.
A messy start to life
The expectations placed upon him were staggeringly low, and it initially seemed like a lose-lose situation, both for the club and the player himself. Braithwaite had essentially tarnished his reputation within a fanbase that had grown to cherish him and that were utterly dependent on him to keep their survival hopes afloat, by leaving Leganes.
Barça on the other hand, oblivious of the delicate financial situation they would find themselves in several months down the line, had dished out €18 million just to have Braithwaite start from the bench in most games.
In his first few starts, in spite of the odds, the Dane impressed. He had two cameo performances, the first against Eibar in a game that saw him set up one of Lionel Messi’s four goals in a 5-0 win, and on his second in the iconic Garnet and Blue of Barça, he came on as a substitute against Real Madrid and almost immediately got onto the scoresheet. In his final game before the lockdown, he played a whopping 89 minutes on his full debut for the Blaugrana and had a memorable performance to boot.
On football’s return following the four-month hiatus and reports that he had worked thrice as hard as was demanded of him, his diligence paid off as he scored against Mallorca in a 0-4 rout away from home. This could have been the start of something special, however, everything derailed from there.
In Barça’s away tie against Sevilla, he put up possibly the worst performance on the pitch, and this too from an almost globally dull Barça outfit. He managed not a single shot on goal or otherwise, nor a key pass in that match. Beyond this, he seemed completely and utterly lost on the pitch, knowing neither where to go nor what to do with the ball more than half the time.
From that moment on, up until the end of the campaign, he played just 118 minutes from the 720 available to him — with 65 of these coming in one match. Following the annihilation at the hands of Bayern Munich, the Catalans were more than willing to offload him, given his sheer expendability. He was not nearly valuable enough for them to keep, and several English clubs were more than willing to get him off Barça’s payroll and into the Premier League.
Newfound life at Barca
In identical fashion to his arrival, Martin Braithwaite’s stay at Barça was unintended. None of the aforementioned deals with the Premier League sides materialised, and, even though it didn’t seem so at the time, it was for the greater good of both the player and the club.
Throughout his journey, Braithwaite has been a paragon of hard work, determination, and persistence in his daily life and now, almost a year since he first set foot in Barcelona, the same, if not more, can be said about him. His unruffled spirit and infectious confidence were a heaven-sent for Ronald Koeman, especially in times as dark as this for the club on all conceivable fronts.
What he finds himself bereft of in quality, he makes up for in mentality and decision making. Such is the growth in his game reading abilities over the past few months that a player once considered dispensable by a large part of the fanbase now finds himself a core player in the team — and this too over the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho.
How so? It is an open secret that the key to success at Barcelona is dependent on how well one can get themselves to fit into Messi’s world. While players like Griezmann and Coutinho, more so the former, do this by being as involved with him as they possibly can, Braithwaite makes himself useful by needing as little of the ball as possible but offering much more elsewhere in return.
A criticism all too common with Koeman’s Barça has been one of congestion in the final third, with as many as three players, all occupying the same roles, interfering with each others’ movement, both on and off the ball, thus unequivocally rendering each other redundant. With Braithwaite, Messi and Pedri, this ceases to be the case.
The Dane offers both width and depth through his intelligent runs into space, freeing up the two creative players behind him in the process. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is in having as little involvement as possible that he betters the team to the most of his — limited — ability, and being selfless whenever possible.
Braithwaite: "Dembélé approached me and asked me to let him shoot the penalty, and I replied: 'Sure, take it.'" pic.twitter.com/XJI41FL9dY— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) December 2, 2020
Bar the moments at which he is indirectly aiding Messi’s cause, Braithwaite also offers himself upfront as the striker he was brought to be, and thus far has put up some impressive numbers; five goals and two assists, with five of these goal contributions coming in the UEFA Champions League, and four of his goals coming away from home.
His instinctive movements both on and off the ball get him — or others — into space, and while certainly not the best striker in the world, he still manages wreak havoc in opposition defences. For his unprecedented rise to prominence, he has turned out to be one of Barça’s most crucial players, and now looks twice the footballer he was on arrival.
Had Braithwaite’s trajectory been in a movie, he has gone through all necessary character development steps in his arc. He showed his motivations from early on to previous managers, these coming in the hope that he might one day play at one of the so-called “big clubs” in one of Europe’s top five leagues. He faced strong adversity, this exemplified by the fierce competition he faced against Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann, one he seemingly lost come the end of the 2019/20 La Liga season.
In spite of his visible weaknesses, he has found ways to mitigate them, and to such an extent, they are barely noticeable to the naked eye. This is only for Braithwaite to take full advantage of the few strengths available to him en route to his rise as a full-fledged starter at Barcelona. Thus far, this has been the perfect underdog story, and for everyone involved, we hope this remarkable tale goes on longer.
The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers
“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”
At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.
He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.
Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.
It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.
There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.
Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.
The prototype of a Barcelona number nine
Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.
To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.
Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.
Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.
La Masia strikers and their progression
Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.
Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.
But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?
Possible problems and solutions
Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.
In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.
This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.
Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.
As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.
Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.
Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.
Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.
One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.
This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.
We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.
They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.
“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”
Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.
“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”
“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”
“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”
“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.
I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”
“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”
“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”
“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”