With the hectic January transfer window now at an end, all eyes at the Camp Nou turn to the summer, where they plan to bolster their squad’s strengths for the upcoming season.
FC Barcelona got their year off to a scorching start with former talents Dani Alves and Adama Traore returning to the Blaugrana, as well as Premier League stars Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looking to make their mark in La Liga.
Now, with the club’s international director of football, Jordi Cruyff, focusing on how to reinforce the club further, Barcelona appear to be close to signing Chelsea defenders Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen.
Reports from Spain state that the deal for the duo is ‘practically done’, despite various English reports suggesting otherwise.
Should the Champions League winning duo depart Stamford Bridge, the move could spell trouble for Barcelona’s current defence, who are in desperate need of a reshape at the moment.
The Catalan giants currently rely on a mix of older players, who struggle to keep up with today’s pace, and younger prodigies who lack the big-game experience required to represent the five-time Champions League winners.
As a deal reportedly nears with Azpilicueta and Christensen, we take a look at how the pair may shape up in Barcelona’s defensive line.
Fitting Azpilicueta and Christensen at Barça
As the reigning champions of Europe’s toughest football competition, Azpilicueta and Christensen will bring the mix of experience and youth that Barcelona currently lack.
Yes, the former of the two may be 32-years-old, but his durability and reliability as a player are up there with the best in the game at the moment.
Having captained Chelsea since 2019, his ability to command a team and read the game is second-to-none. Also, despite turning 33 this year, he still made 11 appearances for his national side last year, including featuring in the majority of their Euro 2020 campaign.
Christensen, on the other hand, is only 25-years-old, but he has been playing regular first-team football for Thomas Tuchel’s west London side since 2017.
His partnership alongside the slightly more experienced Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger has taught him how to grow as a player, and he is currently one of the most highly valued central defenders in the world right now.
The pair traditionally play in a back-three under Thomas Tuchel, with two wing-backs providing the side with an added attacking bonus. However, since Ben Chilwell and Reece James have been sat on the sidelines, hampered by injuries, Tuchel’s boys have been forced to adapt to a back four, as favoured by Xavi at Barcelona.
The bonus of this back three is that when the two wing-backs drop back to defend, the centre-backs then form the middle of a back five.
This means one of the central defenders, usually one of Christensen or Rudiger, can freely drive forward and press the opposing attacking midfielder without worrying about leaving a gap.
With Xavi’s favoured Sergio Busquets rapidly losing his ability to track back, this feature may work well for Barcelona’s defensive capabilities. However, it seems unlikely that Xavi will opt for any formation other than a 4-3-3.
Considering how offensive Jordi Alba and Dani Alves like to play, a back three may always be a good option for Xavi to assess.
Although, the more players you use in defence, the less you can use up top, and with Barcelona’s current attacking options overflowing, it seems unlikely that there will be any more than four players making up their backline.
Azpilicueta, who is probably keen to make a return to his native Spain, has the versatility in his game to adapt to both a back three or a back four, making him a valuable asset for Xavi to have. His involvement under Tuchel has seen him feature as an attacking wing-back and part of both a back three and a back four.
Although not much of a goal scorer, his composure in possession his ability to create chances allow the players around him to rotate positions and make overlapping runs meaning his role as a full-back is invaluable in a team’s attack.
He is also able to help out both on the right and left sides of a defensive line, with his performance unlikely to suffer no matter where he is placed.
Back in 2014, Sky Sports pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher described Azpilicueta, aged 25 at the time, as the Premier League’s best defender.
“When I watch him, he’s as near to perfect as possible when it comes to defending; he’s immaculate,” Neville said of the Spaniard, to which Carragher added: “You very rarely see anybody get the better of him. He’d be my number one.”
Eight years on and Azpilicueta is still one of Tuchel’s most invaluable players in his Champions League winning squad.
The current state of Barcelona’s backline
As mentioned earlier, Barça currently rely on a mix of inexperienced younger players and older players who simply can no longer compete at today’s intense level of football.
Ronaldo Araujo seems the most promising of the Catalan’s defensive line. At just 22 years old, the Uruguayan international starts most of Barcelona’s games, with 26 appearances to his name so far this season, as well as three goals.
Despite being linked with other clubs, Araujo seems assured this his future, for now, remains in Barcelona, and he is likely to stay.
Future club president, Gerard Pique, has hinted he may retire at the end of this season,
having come to terms with the fact that his best footballing days are behind him.
The 35-year-old has a number of successful projects alongside football, including his sports production company Kosmos and his ownership of FC Andorra.
If the Barcelona and Spain legend does decide to retire, then he will leave behind a big gap to be filled.
La Masia-product, Eric Garcia, who has recently returned to training after recovering
from a hamstring injury, will almost certainly stay at Barcelona, despite struggling to
solidify a starting place in the squad.
The 21-year-old maybe is too inexperienced to push Araujo and Pique out of the squad, which is likely to mean he will struggle even more trying to push Christensen or Azpilicueta out of the squad, but a strong substitute option he shall remain for now.
Should Barça ever opt for a back three, Garcia may be able to push for more game time
and fill in alongside the experience of the two current Chelsea stars.
How could Barcelona shape up in 2022/23?
Barcelona are looking to focus all their economic efforts on a top centre-forward, with whispers of Erling Haaland spreading throughout Europe like wildfire.
Should the current Dortmund striker sign for Barcelona, Haaland vs Kylian Mbappe in El Clasico will be an incredible watch, although the Norwegian’s destination is likely to be unknown until the summer.
With the youth of Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong in midfield, Xavi will likely feel comfortable with his midfield and a possible replacement for Sergio Busquets could be looming, considering he will be 34 years old by the time the next season rolls around.
Defensively, while Barcelona hope to wrap up deals with Azpilicueta and Christensen as soon as possible, the Catalan giants have also been linked with the likes of Jules Kounde and Matthijs de Ligt.
Reports claim that the exit of Oscar Mingueza, Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet is seeming inevitable, meaning reinforcements in that area will be necessary.
Either way, Christensen is more than capable of challenging Pique for a starting role in central defence, while Azpilicueta’s tactical acumen is strong enough to adapt to a multitude of roles and positions.
Xavi appears to trust Dani Alves at right-back, even though he will be 40-years-old and still playing for Barcelona by the end of next season, should he trigger the extra year on his contract at the end of the current season.
As such, ‘Azpi’ can fill in that role temporarily while providing cover in central defence and left-back as well. His composure on the ball, coupled with superb positioning, means he’ll be able to play both as an orthodox full-back or an inverted one.
One thing for certain is that Barcelona, under Xavi, plan on forcing their way back into Europe’s elite, having slipped from the top in recent years. The Blaugrana will be back!
Written by Jago Hemming