On Friday night, Barcelona will be facing Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of the Champions League. Thiago Alcântara, one of La Masía’s former graduates, will be facing his former team Barça. The Spaniard has been sensational for Die Roten. This raises the question of should Barcelona have let such a talent leave?
In 2013, Thiago Alcântara left Catalonia and moved to Bayern Munich. At the time, the blaugranas were blessed with incredible talent in midfield with Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets almost irreplaceable. However, the young Thiago was still getting game time in a strong Barcelona side. He had great mentors to learn from and understood the principles of the club.
Everything seemed to be going well and many saw him as the ideal replacement for the ageing Xavi. In the end, the board sold one of the brightest talents at the club for £22.50 million. Many culés will see this as a mistake as Thiago has developed into one of the best midfielders in the world.
The current one has been one of, if not the, best seasons in Thiago’s career | Photo by Sebastian Widmann / Bongarts via Getty Image
Around the time that Thiago left Barcelona, a new era was beginning at the club. Pep Guardiola had brought about one of the greatest dynasties in footballing history, playing Johan Cruyff football to near perfection. Under Pep, many youth team players were promoted such as Busquets, Pedro Rodríguez and Thiago. Guardiola was perfect for developing youth and put a big emphasis on this. He trusted the Barça B youngsters and gave them game time to help them grow. Joan Laporta, the president of Barcelona until 2010, was a big supported of this and supported youth development and Cruyff football. It was the perfect time for a young Thiago Alcântara to come through the ranks at the club.
However, when the new president was appointed in 2010, it saw this decade change drastically for Barcelona. Sandro Rosell marked the end of successful Cruyff football and La Masía became less important. The world-famous academy has been sadly neglected and youth players have suffered because of this. When Pep left in 2012, it was rumoured to be due to bad relations with the board. Rosell was the beginning of a decade for Barcelona that has been driven by money and not by football. Josep Maria Bartomeu, his successor, has carried on this pattern with questionable transfers, overpaying players and neglecting youth.
In 2013, when Guardiola was announced as the new Bayern Munich manger, it was no surprise that one of the first signings he made was one of his Barça protégées Thiago Alcântara. Rosell being too blind to see what a talent he was and Thiago having the option to link up with his former manager, it was a good move for the Spaniard. Since then, he has gone on to win many trophies with the German side and establish himself as a world class player. The now 29-year-old is a complete midfielder, both in defending and creating. He has an intelligent footballing brain and an incredible dribbling ability. His range of passing is sensational, and he is a joy to watch. Thiago Alcântara is a perfect fit for Barça.
“Thiago is the only player I want, that’s what I told them. It’ll be him or no one”
When you consider how much money Barcelona has spent trying to build a midfield since Alcantara left, it is staggering. Players such as Iván Rakitić, André Gomes, Denis Suárez, Arthur Melo, Frenkie de Jong, Paulinho and Arturo Vidal have all joined to varying degrees of success. Alex Song and Cesc Fàbregas were also bought in 2012 and 2011 respectively, a year or two before Thiago left. It is difficult to argue that any of them have reached the heights of the Bayern player, so far. If Barcelona had trusted their La Masía player then half of these signings would not have been made.
This transfer window it looks like the midfield maestro is set to leave the Bavarian club for a reduced price as his contract has one year remaining. Though 29 and being injury prone in the past, it would have been a smart signing for the azulgranas to make. Instead, due to the financial problems through years of reckless spending, Barça were forced into transfers to balance the books. They could have signed a midfielder that understands the Barcelona style and way of playing.
So many players that have signed over the last decade have failed to adapt to the club. Thiago is a prime example of why La Masía players should be trusted more. In the end, the Catalana lost one of the best academy graduates and have failed to replace his talents since. It is one of many poor transfers this decade which the board still has not learned from. When considering talents like Riqui Puig, the club cannot make the same mistake again. Buying midfielders that take away vital game time from the young prospect is damaging. He needs to play regularly and develop his game knowing he has the support of the club.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.