Written by Stanley Ifekauche
Awarded best club of the decade (2011-2021) by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), FC Barcelona have, in the last two years, looked like a side that will have nothing to do with next decade’s award. The past, the present, and the next wise decision Barcelona should make in the summer
At this time, two years ago, it was quite obvious that the Blaugrana were going to retain the league title. It wasn’t all rosy in terms of the team’s performances, though, but Ernesto Valverde, the world’s best player, and the rest of the team were able to bring home the league title. Then came one of the most humiliating exits from the UEFA Champions League the club has ever encountered since the competition was rebranded in 1992. They were also unable to retain the Copa del Rey, getting embarrassed against Valencia in the final.
Fast-forward to 2020, the management of the famous garnet and blue stripes could no longer house the team’s head coach. In all honesty, Barcelona were not where they ought to have been as a club. On the 13th day of January, the club officially announced an agreement between itself and Ernesto Valverde to terminate the head coach’s contract. A breath of fresh air for so many Cúles it would seem.
At this time the club was clear on one thing. It would welcome a manager whose tactics were similar to that which it had been known for in the last few decades. This development opened the door to the appointment of Quique Setien which seemed reasonable to the board at the time. After all, he wasn’t new to the league, he adored the Cruffian Ideology and he had done well at Real Betis.
A couple of news outlets even stated that the win at Camp Nou while managing Betis had left a huge impression on members of the board even before Valverde was given a final opportunity. What would accompany this appointment would be glimpses of hope for the club via displays of high pressing & quick movement of the ball.
Soon after, though, Barça crashed out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals to the second most successful side in the competition’s history — Athletic Bilbao, shipping eight goals in what would become the most humiliating single game tie in the history of the UEFA Champions League, and conceding the league title to bitter rivals Real Madrid.
In the midst of all this, one thing was certain. Clear as day was the fact that the quality in the Barcelona side was not what it used to be. The world could see a big difference between what the club used to have as far back as 2005 through 2015 and the crop of players in 2020. This was due to a dip in the form of certain players but majorly due to mediocre signings made by a mismanaging and, overall, dysfunctional board.
Presently, under the guidance of Ronald Koeman, the team has once again found purpose. Right from the get-go, you could see the work being put in. Besides moving the ball a lot quicker, attempts to win the back possession of the ball via the famous “Barcelona Six Second Rule” no longer depends on what ground the team plays on. It’s no longer a Camp Nou affair.
Now they play as good on the road as they do at home. Again, the Blaugrana aren’t seen as over-dependent on Messi as they were in previous seasons. These days, goals and assists come from various position in the team. Defenders aren’t left out as fullbacks are encouraged to not just create goal-scoring opportunities via crosses and square-play but also get on the score sheet more often. One would expect nothing less since the man in charge of the team scored over a century of goals playing in a similar position.
It has not been a completely joyous ride under the present boss, though, has it? Barça still encountered the same complications that haunted their previous campaign. The manner in which they let in goals and the amount they let in had cost them the Spanish Super Cup earlier on, before getting them tossed out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 against Paris Saint-Germain.
Fortunately, it seems the team has managed to get ahead of their defensive lapses. Koeman’s recent 3-4-3 formation provides extra protection at the back and has helped the side keep clean sheets. It’s left to see if it is a long-term setup or just for the moment till key players gain fitness.
Cúles can now see the possibility of dominating football once again. The team, without a natural centre-forward, has scored approximately a century of goals with the backdoor finally secure and seem to be in pole position to pick up a trophy or two, life is quite good for a Barca fan today; however, it’s not as good as it should be for a club like FC Barcelona. Work still needs to be done in the summer.
The Blaugrana clearly lack in some key positions. They struggled to get a replacement for Luis Suarez while he was at the club and even after his departure. Under Koeman, however, the team has had 19 different goal scorers already this term, registering over 90 goals in all competitions. It wouldn’t be insane to think that a natural centre-forward, although needed by the club, should not top the club’s scale of preference going into the transfer window.
The second key position to strengthen is defence. The club desperately needs a top-class centre half and seem to have reached an agreement with Manchester City for the transfer of Eric Garcia. With this settled, it leaves us with the third key position, and it is one to be prioritized come summer. Not just because it is an integral part of attack, midfield & defence for the club, but also because of the financial return and how it can bolster other positions.
The modern-day fullbacks are of great importance to not just Barcelona but every team whose tactic is possession-based. It is at this point that a good fullback/wingback means as much to the team as a good midfield setup does. When teams depend a lot on possession, they usually keep a high block. You see, what happens is that the team’s constant craving to regain and retain possession of the ball pushes the opposition backwards, thereby producing (willingly or unwillingly) a medium, or in most cases, low block.
This is where the fullback/wingback’s work is cut out. At this point, the player doesn’t just side back with the centre-halves but moves up the pitch to create numerical advantage. This can be in midfield (as an inverted fullback) or far up the pitch, stretching the opposition’s defensive setup. Eventually, when the ball is lost, and there is the threat of a possible counter-attack, the fullback/wingback must return to his/her half in the quickest way possible.
Long story cut short, a Barça fullback not only has to be quick but also has to possess the highest form of athleticism. The best of the bunch currently is Jordi Alba, with Sergino Dest coming in as a close second. The Holland born American has been a shining light for the club down the right-wing. Since the departure of Dani Alves, the right-wing position has not contributed half as much going forward as it did in the past.
Messi has since preferred to combine with Jordi down the left-wing while playing through the middle. Nelson Semedo tried to make use of the space vacated by the little magician on the right flank and often ran it well but for his poor final pass. He was able to make use of tight spaces, beating an opponent or two with his skill and explosive pace, but he often came up short in 1v1 situations in Barça’s defensive third.
Regardless, an impressive amount of Barcelona fans still believe he was a better fullback in the famous red & blue stripes than Sergi Roberto is. Dest, however, has proven to be better than both of them, and as a reason, has become a regular in the starting XI alongside Alba. The problem remains that the Blaugrana feature in more than 50 games a season, so they can’t have Alba and Dest partnering in all the games.
Although Roberto frequently showcases good vision and great crossing ability in the opposition’s final third, Sergi lacks a ton of qualities that makes a fine fullback/wingback. His lack of positional awareness in 1v1 situations is alarming, as is his lack of athleticism and speed. Further, the Spaniard does not have an eye for goal, and messes up when he does the occasional chance to shoot.
These attributes he lacks has cost Barça on numerous occasions in the past. Therefore it is high time he vacated the position, completely. Koeman’s newly found setup at the club does not require his versatility anymore.
He featured mostly as a fullback in the past, then as a midfielder (as extra protection in front of the defence line) and sometimes on the right-wing in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, under Valverde. All of which is not necessary today. Koeman’s new tactical innovation with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong sitting in front of the backline is enough protection as it is.
Considering where the club is financially and considering the loan of Emerson Royal coming to an end at Betis, it’s rather salient that the first order of business during the summer transfer window is the sale of Sergi Roberto. In other words, Emerson in, Roberto out is the next wise move Barca should make in the summer. Of the other players facing possible transfer, Roberto’s is the only spot with a confirmed replacement coming in the summer.
It will only be wise to let go of Roberto first in the summer and invest the proceeds from his transfer into the centre-forward position.
Emerson Royal, 22, broke into Atletico Minero, where he was later scouted by Barcelona & Real Betis. There soon was an agreement amongst all three parties, with FC Barcelona acquiring his services for €12 million but loaning him to Betis for two seasons. Fortunately, Emerson has had the opportunity of encountering a similar situation that he will face at Barça during his time in Seville.
With Nabil Fekir drifting into midfield from the wing — like Messi —, the 22-year-old had the chance to show off his offensive ability. Emerson also covers a lot of ground rather quickly. His pace and athleticism have helped him defensively, as well. Conclusively, he is much better than Roberto in 1v1 situations and showcases a great work rate. This is the natural switch in the guard for Barcelona, who will have to let go of a long-term servant for the club, whose term, unfortunately, has come to an end.