Barça can configure their squad in various ways, by focusing on the type of profiles rather than on the quality of the players. They could follow the 11+11 model, or the 15+5. But which should the Catalans choose?
Specialists versus generalists. Two concepts that can be used in many fields of life. For instance, specialist species are described as those who need a specific context, a specific type of food and a specific environment to survive. By contrast, generalist species thrive in a wider variety of ecosystems and resources. In other areas, a specialist can be described as an expert. Someone with a deep expertise in one specific topic or study. Generalists are more flexible and understand the bigger picture. Without specialising in one particular topic, they do have knowledge of a broader range of issues.
The old saying of “jack of all trades, master of none” tends to be applied to generalists. However, why can’t they be jack of all trades, and master of all? Many times being multifaceted is seen as a weakness, when it should rather be a strength. The wider the range of interests, and the broader the experience, the more likely one person is to grab more information, insight and skills.
Sergi Roberto is the symbol of the concept of ‘jack of all trades’ at Barcelona | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
In football, these debate of specialists versus generalists is very present too. Some players perform in a single position, while others are more versatile and can adapt to a greater amount of formations and roles. Being versatile does not necessarily imply not having the talent to establish oneself in one definite position. Instead, it means having the positional intelligence to adapt to multiple contexts and help the manager by performing in any given role. Whether it’s in the centre, out wide, in defence, in attack, in tight spaces, with metres to run…
This dispute of specialists versus generalists can be used to define the two ways of assembling and managing a squad. Focusing more on specialists, or focusing more on generalists. Obviously there are variations to these, and both can be combined. But, broadly speaking, these are the two main squad models:
Such squads are easy to explain. There are 11 starters for the 11 positions on the pitch, and each of them has a specific back-up. These back-ups can be of higher or lower quality, and be more or less established. They can also add tough competition to the principal stater, but the main idea is to be able to form two different XIs with the 22 players. Every position is covered with two footballers, and there’s enough squad depth to rotate.
The two players that compete for a single position can either have a similar profile (for example, Busquets and Samper or Oriol), or a different and complementary profile (Busquets and Yaya Touré). The issue with such model is that, either the substitute has a weaker level to compensate his absence of minutes, or the starter is not world-class to tolerate the frequent rotation and sharing of minutes with the back-up.
Should Barcelona have a natural back-up in each position? | Photo by Imago
In the 16/17 season, Real Madrid’s squad was closer to the 11+11. Zidane was capable of fielding two different XIs, with most of the players being very valid and competitive. This allowed Los Blancos to rotate frequently as they ended up winning La Liga and the Champions League. On the bench, Zizou always had a quality option to be used when needed, such as Morata or James Rodríguez. Zidane managed to activate all profiles and always have valuable alternatives to rest the main stars or introduce tactical variations throughout a game.
This model consists of having 15 starters, who share the main minutes even if they do not necessarily occupy the same positions, plus 5 more players who have a more subsidiary role. If the 11+11 was about having specialists, the 15+5 is more about having generalists. If a centre-back is missing, his substitute does not need to be a natural centre-back. Instead, it can be a full-back or midfielder who fills the void. In Pep’s era, when a central defender got injured, someone like Abidal or Yaya Touré could come in and occupy such position. Yaya Touré could play as Busquets’ replacement, as Puyol’s replacement, or as Rafa Márquez’s replacement. Cesc Fàbregas could also be introduced whether Xavi or Iniesta were missing, Messi was missing, or Pedro was missing.
Players like the mentioned ones, or Sergi Roberto and Joshua Kimmich, are the generalists. They are jack of all trades, and masters of some or all. They could settle in a specific position, but are smart enough to make themselves available for multiple functions. Furthermore, with the 15+5 the squad is shorter than the 11+11, but there’s a higher number of quality starters who get enough minutes to be satisfied. Meanwhile, the remaining 5 players can be youngsters or La Masía products who do not demand playing every three days. Their objective is to end up being part of the group of 15, but initially they don’t have such responsibility. They are not expected to start in a Champions League semi-final at first, but to demonstrate that they are ready to be higher in the pecking order.
Which squad model does Barça need?
For the 15+5 model, usually the manager needs to have the bravery and knowledge to reposition his players, move the pieces and be open to teaching them new concepts. Cruyff and Guardiola were masters at that, but it’s obvious that not everyone is like them. Does Setién have the capacity to do that? He could for sure, despite he hasn’t been challenged much in this aspect. Even so, in his first few months in charge of the team, he has already experimented with various formations and players, including a back 3 or back 4.
Sergi Roberto, which was used as a right centre-back in Quique’s initial games, is the obvious example of such positional flexibility. But are there more footballers like him in the squad? Of the key stars, only a few players are used to acting in more than one position: Messi on the right wing or as a false 9, De Jong as a pivot or interior, Griezmann almost anywhere in the front 3, even if not too comfortably…Then there are youngsters like Collado or Monchu, and loanees like Cucurella or Oriol Busquets, who are multifaceted too. Nonetheless, overall it’s not high the amount of players who have been deployed in numerous roles in the first team recently.
The 15+5 seems to offer the most guarantees to integrate youth gradually | Photo by Imago
All the same, the 15+5 model seems the ideal one if Setién wants to have a shorter squad where he can interact with the academy regularly, without demanding the products to be extremely mature or experienced as it’s the core of 15 players who will take up most of the important minutes. By pushing to get increased minutes, the youngsters could progress steadily as Barcelona respects the rejuvenation process it needs. The 15+5 protects the boys more, but gives them enough preparation and integration to professional competitiveness.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.