With Ousmane Dembele’s move to PSG set to materialize any time now, Barcelona have been dealt an unexpected blow.
The collective heartbeat of the team, once a harmonious rhythm, is now at the risk of faltering, fractured by the loss of a crucial instrument in their symphony of success.
Ousmane was the key gear in a steamrolling machine; he invited chaos, verticality, and pace.
Without him, Xavi will be compelled to experiment as he seeks the elusive elixir that shall bind the team’s essence once more. But a reassessment can also prove advantageous.
Although Dembele’s departure has felt like a sudden eclipse, casting a shadow over the team’s aspirations, there are opportunities to innovate now.
Here are three ways Barcelona can make up for the loss of the French winger:
1. Provide Raphinha with the ideal environment
Raphinha, in the past season, was utilized as a back-up right-winger for Ousmane Dembele.
Signed from Leeds with exponential expectations, he accumulated 10 goals and 12 assists and concluded the campaign with the second-highest G/A in the team, behind Robert Lewandowski.
Despite his impressive numbers, Raphinha’s profile drew many dissimilarities with Dembele, as his tendencies to invert, play associative football and struggles in take-ons meant he was not always best suited to be the isolated winger, with a large chunk of one-versus-one duties.
Barcelona’s box midfield specialized in creating left-side overloads and isolating the right winger.
But with Raphinha tasked to hold width and take men on, the system did not continuously operate at its full potential.
Consequently, Xavi will be obliged to head back to the drawing board and devise a strategy that favors his star man most.
Sign an overlapping right-back
Every aspect of Raphinha’s game indicates that he will flourish even further with the assistance of an overlapping right-back.
He struggles to dribble consistently on the touch-line, but the Brazilian is far more comfortable at beating his man in deeper, more open spaces, which was well documented at his time with Leeds.
While moving inside, he possesses the ball-striking and finishing skills to be a goal threat. As a creator of half-space, he is also a force to reckon with.
Recruiting either one of them would create a promising dynamic.
Even so, this strategy leaves Barcelona more vulnerable at the back, as it will come at the cost of losing defensive strength.
Kounde’s defensive expertise is relied upon in the current system, which will no longer be an option if an offensive full-back is acquired.
In that case, another systematic tweak may prove appealing to the coaching staff.
Sign a left-footed midfielder
Since the start of the summer transfer window, Barcelona have been linked heavily with left-footed right-central midfielders, who are comfortable drifting wide; Bernardo Silva, Arda Guler & Giovani Lo Celso are just some examples.
The interest in a profile of this elk implies Xavi’s pushing for such a player to support the right-winger and compensate for having a more defensive right-back.
As Raphinha drifts in central areas, a left-footed midfielder can seamlessly drift wider to free space for Raphinha inside, while providing a threat out wide without requiring the full-back to push up.
Interchanges between Raphinha and the midfielder will create opportunities from the right like clockwork.
Bernardo Silva, a player the Blaugrana proceed to trail anxiously, would fit the mold perfectly.
Whether Gavi or Pedri play the right central midfield role, they will, at best, provide underlapping runs but neither will truly drift wide right to receive, and that is not adequate enough to aid the right-winger.
2. Scour the market for a 1v1 specialist
In the event that Xavi is unwilling to make compromises to his system by favoring Raphinha’s profile, Barcelona could be obliged to scour the transfer market in search of electric wingers that resemble Dembele’s skill set.
Acquiring a player that is proficient on the touchline allows Barcelona to persist with their ongoing tactical framework.
As the players residing on the left-hand side of the field lure the opposition, playing switches of play to the isolated right-winger will be a lot more feasible when those balls are landing in the feet of a dynamic dribbler.
The fee for Dembele’s transfer is estimated to be just over €25M, which can be reinvested into a winger directly rather than a right-back or midfielder.
Even so, Barcelona’s frail financial situation indicates that the club will be unable to pursue expensive options.
As such, these are some realistic options that offer the desired profile and would not cost a fortune.
Since joining Rennes from Anderlecht, the talented Belgian winger has been stealing the headlines in Ligue 1.
In fact, the Catalan giants have even been rumored to have shown interest in the 21-year-old.
Doku, a versatile player who can play on either flank, would be a stylistically similar replacement for Ousmane Dembele.
Doku’s efficiency while dribbling is highly valued. His numbers are incredible, as he completes 6.59 dribbles per 90 minutes.
His market value of €28.00M is not a significant obstacle for Barcelona, following the funds they will receive for Dembele.
The Athletic Bilbao speedster has a reputation for tormenting defenses.
His explosive pace and ability to turn both ways render him a desirable option.
Nico prides himself on a skillful ball carrier as his experience in La Liga is the cherry on top.
With the 21-year-old’s contract set to expire next summer, his market value stands at €28.00M as of now, which has the potential of being a bargain.
Still, his inexperience and raw elements present an obstacle. Like Dembele, he will require months of development and improvements in regard to his decision-making.
Olise has attracted interest from a number of European powerhouses, owing to his unique profile.
His creative numbers were immaculate last season, having earned 11 assists for Crystal Palace in the Premier League.
Olise’s acceleration and comfort in tight areas allow him to dismantle opposing full-backs with ease.
Capable of stretching the pitch and holding width, the French international possesses a diverse skill set.
The 21-year-old also has a measly market value of €38.00M.
3. Look in-house to replace Dembele
Homegrown excellence breeds greatness.
Even though the club possesses players that require polishing and time, there is enough evidence to suggest that Dembele’s role can be replicated by players already residing at the club.
These are some wingers that can undertake Dembele’s specialist responsibilities on the right flank:
Possessing unwavering confidence in his abilities on the ball, the 21-year-old’s most commendable quality is to take on his opposing marker and beat them on a frequent basis, as exemplified by his dribbling success rate of 61% with Osasuna last season.
Abde’s offensive approach is plain and simple: receive the ball and use his nifty footwork to beat defenders and penetrate into the opposing box.
Even when paired against challenging opposition and having lesser touches, he still shows the intent to drive forward.
Nevertheless, the Moroccan has a fair amount of imperfections. His direct play style means he can be wasteful on the ball at times.
His lack of ability to pull off penetrative passes into the frontline or lack of understanding of when to add composure to Barça’s possession makes him highly reliant on his prowess to beat defenders.
Despite still being very raw, Barça can benefit greatly from Abde’s return with his expertise at being a chaos-inducing dribbler on the left flank.
Currently, the squad lacks wingers that can hold width and beat their man regularly.
Due to the fact that Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha formed a duopoly on the right-wing last season, Ferran struggled to play in his preferred position on a frequent basis.
Still, whenever given the opportunity to flex his muscles on the right, the Spaniard almost always impressed.
While capable of helping the team in other positions, fielding him in a setting he traditionally prefers is an ideal approach to regain his buried confidence.
Torres discovers simpler ways to extract his best version in such a context.
His first control, going inside, catches opponents off guard and enables him to create favorable driving scenarios, always ending up in the rival box where he is most effective.
His performance against Cadiz last season was arguably his best at the club, as he went both ways with a sense of maturity in his final ball. Subsequently, Barça opened the scoring against one of La Liga’s most stubborn low-blocks.
Even for Spain in the World Cup, Luis Enrique fielded Ferran as a pure right-winger, who was tasked to receive switches of play as the isolated player.
La Masia, Barcelona’s factory of prodigies, continues to be the team’s greatest gift. And one of the latest names to emerge from this bustling hive of talent goes by the name of Lamine Yamal.
Although he still has to build up his body, both technically and cognitively, he is exceedingly advanced in his development.
Fielded as the right winger against AC Milan in the USA pre-season tour, Yamal showed glimpses of associative play and smart decision-making.
His dribbling has invariably been one of his strengths too. In the recently concluded Euro under-17 campaign, he had 58 dribbles attempted, with 38 successful dribbles, which was the most in the tournament.
Yamal has a bright future ahead of him, yet Barcelona runs the risk of overburdening him as Dembele’s successor as he is only 16 years old.
Nonetheless, due to his electric profile paired with smart decision-making, he is seen as a realistic alternative.
The truth is, moving on from Dembele is not going to be an easy endeavor.
Losing the club’s biggest transition threat and dribbling specialist is a tough pill to swallow, even if he was normally available for half the season.
Nonetheless, this exit calls for a reevaluation of Xavi’s approach and engenders a lack of reliance on a player of paradoxes, with his flashes of brilliance merely fleeting glimpses of what could have been.
Either Barcelona can shake up their system and pay emphasis on extracting Raphinha’s best attributes, or they can search for alternatives internally or externally, that mimic Dembele’s style of play.