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Sergi Roberto no longer warrants a starting spot in the team

Aaryan Parasnis

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Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

With Barcelona in a period of massive transition, Sergi Roberto may soon be another player who loses his starting spot for a younger player, with Sergiño Dest waiting on the wings for his chance.


Mr. 94:38, Mr. Versatility, Mr. Remontada. When it comes to nicknames as well as positions in football, Sergi Roberto fits many of them, but the 28-year-old has become a rather polarizing figure amid the Barcelona fanbase.

After the miracle comeback of 2017 against Paris Saint Germain, the Camp Nou faithful hailed Roberto as a hero. And while he has provided special moments every now and then, he has left something to be desired.

His versatility, often considered an immensely valuable quality in a footballer, has in some ways negatively impacted his trajectory. Roberto being at Barcelona for so long, coming through the La Masia ranks, has developed an extensive skill set.

He has played in multiple positions, and at this point, it is tough to keep track of them all. And he has largely been solid in almost all of them. But perhaps that is the concern — being used as a utility player or a backup in every position throughout his career has meant he never truly established himself in one position.

Roberto as a right-back

Over the years he has become a full-fledged right back. But that was never his true position anyway. Yet, he never got to hone his midfield talents. A naturally intelligent player, great at carrying the ball and identifying spaces, he may have thrived further up, but there has not been a way to accommodate him.

He is not an ideal right back. There is nothing too surprising about that. The Spaniard is clever and can be very useful going forward on his day. However, when exposed to an attack, Sergi can be a very easy target for the opposition. Often, he fails to track runners behind him, leaves too many gaps and does not get tight enough in 1v1 scenarios.

Sergi Roberto PSG

Roberto has had his fair share of iconic moments in the Garnet and Blue of Barcelona. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

In Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Real Betis on the weekend, Roberto put in a great showing in the second half with his two assists. A wonderful backheel to Lionel Messi and a sharp cross to Pedri for goals number four and five. But once again, his lack of defensive stability made things a lot more complicated than they should have been. Both of Betis’ goals came from his flank, and for the second one, he was nowhere to be seen.

A lack of planning during Dani Alves’ final years at the club and even more so after his departure meant that the problems got worse. Nelson Semedo’s signing came with a lot of promise but ultimately did not go according to plan. All this cycled back to Sergi Roberto, and he kept playing at right-back week in, week out until the starting spot became his regardless. But that might not be the case anymore.

Sergiño Dest’s time to take over

With 19-year-old American Sergiño Dest finally arriving at the club over the summer, there is an air of optimism. Dest was linked to Barcelona for a long time prior to his transfer. And with the club in massive transition, his arrival was necessary. The right-back position needed immediate overhaul with Nelson Semedo also departing for the Premier League.

In the 6 games Dest has played since arriving at Barça, he has shown tremendous signs of things to come. Not only is the teenager a fantastic dribbler and passer of the ball, but he is also an astute defender.

For most players starting their first-ever league game for Barcelona in an El Clasico would be far too overwhelming. But Dest stood out as the best player on the pitch for the Catalans that day, pocketing the likes of Ferland Mendy and Vinicius Jr with a remarkable all-round display.

Sergino Dest Real Madrid

Sergiño Dest is here, and Barcelona is better for it. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

He has had irregular game time since then, but hopefully, that is to ease him into playing frequently. As for Roberto, he may well have to adjust to a different role in the squad yet again.

Sergi Roberto will not and in all fairness, should not get a starting spot in Barça anymore. His talents will be more useful in other domains, while Sergiño Dest can become the flag bearer in the right-back position. The American is evidently a superstar in the making, and that is exactly what the club needs in the long run.

It was the great César Luis Menotti who once said that "to be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of many, many people". This quote has stuck with me since my childhood when football first caught my attention. My interest in football developed from a hobby to an emotion embedded into every fibre of my being. Football and Barça became my life. I spend every waking moment thinking about football and my sentimentality towards FC Barcelona is a catalyst. The world's most popular sport is a universal language that unites everyone who loves it and, to me, writing about football is being able to transmit that language in my own way.

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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“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.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

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.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

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.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

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.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

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.

Fan’s opinions

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.

Navid

“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.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“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.”

Single Pivot

“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.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

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.”

Sam

“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.”

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