Once at relegation-bound Leganés, Danish attacker Martin Braithwaite now finds himself at Barça fighting for a spot in the starting XI.
Everyone loves an underdog. Underdogs, defined as competitors considered to have little chance of winning, transmit a sense of hope to mortals. With our everyday struggles, seeing an unexpected hero rise from the bottom to end up on top of more prestigious celebrities teaches the audience that no mountain is high enough. David, the weak figure said not to be good enough, fights against the initial disadvantages to beat the largely favourite giant Goliath.
Rooting for the underdog is easy, almost unconscious. They have little at stake, but many challenges to overcome. It thus is almost automatic for us to feel attracted by them, to put ourselves in their shoes. They set examples and lead the way for others with high aspirations too. If they can do it, why can’t we?
Arriving from a strong relegation candidate, for €18 million, as an emergency signing, when the transfer window was already closed, at 28 years of age, after an unsuccessful spell in the English second division…Martin Braithwaite arrived to Barcelona as an underdog. No one gambled on him at first, yet his unmatched capacity to break down prejudices has earned him many admirers.
Martin Braithwaite, facing Barcelona with Leganés earlier this season | Photo by Imago
The Danish forward had much to win in the opportunity of his life. This contrasts, for instant, with someone like Philippe Coutinho. Signing from Liverpool for almost €160 million, the Brazilian had much more to lose, being on top of the world already. Both arrived to the Camp Nou in a dream chance for them that they could not afford to miss. But the prestige, expectations and obviously transfer fee were completely opposed.
❛ Was signing for Barça moving out of my comfort zone? In some ways, yes. But that’s not what I fear. I came here for a challenge. Be smart. It’s the key to success ❜
In football, though, there’s no written law that says that money and fame are guarantees of success. Most of the times, suitability and the right attitude is the recipe for prosperity instead. Martin Braithwaite, the unlikely hero since day one and mocked for his unglamorous past, has managed to convert all jokes into praise thanks to his hard work and determination. Without the technical finesse of the world’s greatest, which often belong to clubs like Barcelona, the former Middlesbrough attacker has become a more than useful weapon for coach Quique Setién.
Seen as a lose-lose deal at first, with Barça spending unnecessary money and Braithwaite leaving a team where he was the star to be a bench player, time has transformed such February transfer into a win-win for both Martin and the blaugranas. So much so that his restless activity, energy and ability to thrive into space is well making him a strong and deserved candidate for a starting spot at Barcelona.
Effective, selfless and persevering, his productivity contrasts with the apathy on the pitch of a multi-million euro acquisition like Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman, suppressed by a context in which his best role is occupied by none other than Lionel Messi, is seeing how the right complement to Leo is a footballer with a contrasting talent to him. Thriving without the ball, Braithwaite gives a lot and asks for little in return.
❛ The match against Leganés will be special for me, but when I’m on the pitch, I don’t have friends. When you’re my opponent I will do everything to beat you ❜
on facing his former club Leganés
Braithwaite’s goal isn’t to increase his goalscoring record or to shine on his own, but to be useful and, through this, earn himself a spot in the team. He certainly is earning it. Today, as Barcelona host Leganés at the Camp Nou, Martin is preparing to face his old club after having scored his first goal as an azulgrana on Saturday against Mallorca. Lega were condemned to the Second Division as soon as Barça took them their main man Braithwaite without giving them the possibility to sign a replacement. But, as Leganés do not lose hope of avoiding relegation and look to shock the league leaders, the inexhaustible faith of Martin Braithwaite has no limits. No one believed in him at first, except for him.
Trincão, Griezmann or Dembélé: Who should start for Barcelona?
From having to field center-mids such as Arturo Vidal on the flanks to now owning the likes of Dembélé, Trincão and Griezmann, it’s probably safe to assume that Barcelona’s wing play finally seems to have adequate profiles, individuals worthy of starting out wide. But, while healthy competition is always welcomed at the club, it’s apparent that Koeman must quickly find his “go-to player” and analyse whom he must bet on to consistently start games. With Barça successfully concluding their pre-season and looking ever so dominant in the opening game of La Liga, let’s take a look at what each player brings to the table.
Currently, it looks as if Antoine Griezmann has been reserved as a starter, which doesn’t come as a surprise given his immense status and the weightage his name carries in the squad list. However, Ronald Koeman’s intricate 4-2-3-1 system hasn’t truly allowed the Frenchman to fully express himself yet. Against Villarreal and even in the matches Antoine previously featured in, Griezmann was deprived of a fixated role and alternating occasionally with Messi as a direct number 9 or as a somewhat number 10 often left the right-hand side vulnerable, where Sergi Roberto would be tasked to produce most of the output upfield. Although Griezmann was seen making some well-timed runs, his link-up play was far from satisfactory, and as Messi would occupy the number 9 role, the former Atletico man would fail to operate effectively behind Leo or out wide.
In Barcelona’s La Liga opener, the left flank ticked every box the club seemed to have left unanswered and neglected last season. Jordi Alba’s runs from deep, Coutinho’s additional support as a mediapunta, and Ansu Fati’s exhilarating flare on the touchline proved too much to handle for Emery’s side since diverging attention from even a single player would lead to the visitors getting battered in the final third. Even so, while the Catalans eliminated their narrow and horizontal football to a somewhat acceptable extent, Ronald has only managed to refurbish one side of the pitch, with Griezmann and Messi’s natural tendency to operate centrally leaving the right flank vacant.
Therefore, to truly make the most of Barça’s offensive yield, it is vital to rely on natural wingers such as Trincão or Dembélé, players that can be considered ruthless on the counter and unforgiving in transitions. Whilst both players may eventually qualify as classic wingers, these two individuals propound different options, proving to be ideal in their respective departments. For example, in contrast to Dembouz, Trincão is likely to excel far more against a team with a low-block, given he is an exceedingly refined dribbler and considerably polished in his movement on/off the ball. Dembélé, on the other hand, could bring maximum results against a team with a higher line or a side that prefers to apply a suffocating press, mainly due to the fact that the winger is a space dominant player, and his unparalleled pace and chaotic style of play tends to add a sense of unpredictability on the flanks. Nonetheless, despite the slight differences in gameplay, they are ideal contenders to start for Barça, and must be prioritized in line-ups.
Spectators saw Lionel Messi function as a pure false 9 in the closing minutes of the game against Elche a few days ago as the Argentine partnered up with the likes of Dembélé and Trincão on each side of the pitch. Although Ansu Fati is probable to own the left flank for the upcoming games, it was refreshing to witness the Blaugranas look so imposing with two explosive wingers by Lionel’s side. As it turns out, Koeman’s experiment worked out even against the Yellow Submarine with him applying the same method in the second half. Barça saw their most promising football after proceedings just as Griezmann came off the bench for Trincão, who went on to form a trio with Lionel and Ousmane. Such flare and aggression was not seen previously considering most of Barça’s harvest came solely from the left-hand side of the field.
At this very moment, Barcelona has ample options to choose from, but for the newly adopted 4-2-3-1 formation to continue working at the highest level, it’s important to make the most of such diverse profiles in the squad. Ronald Koeman still has a backlog of work to do and must completely eliminate Barcelona’s horizontal structure if the club truly intends to compete in Europe. With Ousmane and Fransico looking immensely promising in their recent outings, the Dutch coach should take the bold decision of starting either one of them and pursue enhancing the front four’s capabilities.