While in the eyes of culés there are multiple negatives in swapping Arthur Melo, Juventus’ Miralem Pjanić could still be a very useful addition for Barcelona if the deal goes through.
Arthur Melo‘s spell at Barcelona seems to be coming to an unpopular conclusion. The Brazilian is slowly gaining interest in leaving the Catalans to join Juventus as the board doesn’t value him enough. With the 23-year-old heading to Turin, Juventus’ Miralem Pjanić is tipped to be heading to Barcelona. As much as the fans don’t want this swap deal to happen, it seems more likely as the days progress. So, instead of lamenting over the inevitable, let’s take a look at what Pjanić could offer to Barça if he arrives.
Miralem Pjanić started off as a young and promising midfielder in the French top flight. He played for French outfit FC Metz for a season where they got relegated, finishing rock bottom. Despite being only 17, he played 32 league games for Metz, starting 27 times, where he got 4 goals and an assist. He was extremely impressive and deservingly won himself a transfer to Olympique Lyonnais.
At Lyon, he established a foundation for his style of play. Taking set-pieces, willing to shoot from long-range, and the ability to feed pin-point passes were some of the qualities he harnessed. As he slowly began to earn a reputation across Europe, he would finally leave Ligue 1 in the 2011/12 season to join AS Roma for a fee of €11 million.
The Serie A seemed to be the perfect league for Pjanić. Despite being a smart player with the ball, he is relatively slow when compared to other central midfielders. The pace of Italian football seemed to be easy for him to acclimatise to, as he didn’t have to run too much. In Italy, the expectation on a midfielder is to pose the capabilities of unlocking defences through an extraordinary range of passes. Fortunately for the Bosnian, he was an excellent passer.
Admittedly, the current has been one of Miralem Pjanić’s worst seasons at Juventus | Photo by Jonathan Moscrop / Sportimage via Imago
Roma was the ideal club for him. He started off the bench, but slowly became a crucial player for them. As the games progressed, his involvement in the team’s build-up began to rise massively. Every attack was either started or set-up by Pjanić. Towards his final two seasons, he was making double figures on goal contribution with ease. He scored 15 goals and provided 22 assists across 2014 to 2016 and, when Juventus came calling, he couldn’t refuse.
His five-year stint at Roma would end with a move to Turin for a fee of €32 million. Miralem is into his fourth season as a Bianconeri, where he has earned himself an incredible reputation for his playmaking. At Juve, the philosophy reduces his chances of direct goal-contribution. In spite of that, he manages to get himself bags of goals and assists through set-pieces and long-balls. He is a talented midfielder who is bound to improve any team with his vision. Unfortunately, he is Juventus’ only playmaker, and that makes it very challenging for him without any creative players around.
The role of Miralem Pjanić if he joins Barcelona
There is a never-ending question amidst this transfer saga: why do Barcelona need Miralem Pjanić? A lot of uncertainty looms over whether he is the right profile and if he is the player Barça desperately need. After all, if the blaugranas are willing to offload Arthur, then it must at least be for a player who gives everything that is required, right?
Pjanić is neither pacy, nor agile. He isn’t press-resistant like Arthur and can be dispossessed easily at times. However, despite the several drawbacks, he has an extraordinary vision. Under former manager Massimiliano Allegri, he was deployed more as a central midfielder. His duties pertained to more advanced distribution and had a lesser defensive job. Allegri’s system focussed more on building an overall defensive structure where a player with a wide range of passing is needed for distribution.
Under current boss Maurizio Sarri, he is being used as a regista. And this requires him to carry the ball and move progressively across the pitch. Sadly, Sarri is unable to get the best out of him in that role, which is why they want Arthur.
In the azulgrana colours, Pjanić can revert back to how he was playing under Allegri. He can feed nifty passes between the lines and work in a midfield of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong where he doesn’t have to worry about ball progression. The former will take care of resisting the press, while that latter will deal with the dynamics. As a result of this, all Pjanić has to do is focus on his craft: splitting defences open.
At Juventus, Pjanić has been partnered up by more destructive rather than creative midfielders | Photo by Marco Alpozzi / LaPresse via Imago
As we already know, Lionel Messi tends to drop deep for the sake of providing a creative outlet for Barça. He has been doing this quite frequently since the departure of Andrés Iniesta. Even so, he is now 33, and there is a need for the Catalans to preserve his services. He can’t be left to do everything, as it would take a massive toll on his body. There is a need for the midfield to ease his workload by being able to feed passes that bypass the backline.
Messi’s trademark long balls that are received by Jordi Alba on the left flank also need to be provided by another player. Pjanić is capable of feeding such passes, and this would allow the Argentine in conserving the energy he spends by dashing into the opposition box. Messi can play more as a false nine or even as a wide-man cutting inside. At the moment, Barcelona doesn’t have a player who can share Leo’s playmaking responsibilities.
Coach Quique Setién will obviously have to devise a way to cover for Miralem Pjanić’s light frame that reduces his defensive actions. He can be bullied easily by sturdy players, and there is a possibility that Barcelona’s midfield becomes too timid due to the lack of physicality. Pjanić would be excellent alongside Arturo Vidal, for example, whose physical presence could give him more freedom. The future of the Chilean is uncertain, though, and Miralem could form an excellent possession-oriented triangle alongside Sergio Busquets and De Jong.
At the moment, it’s reported that the only thing that’s holding the Arthur–Pjanić swap is the decision of the Brazilian. He wanted to stay, but is now flirting with the idea of joining the Old Lady. Obviously, Arthur would be looking for guarantees under Sarri and a boost in his wages. On the flip side, the Catalans would have to deal with Pjanić’s wage demands as he earns more than Arthur.
Nonetheless, the current transfer market is one of the most unpredictable ones we have ever seen. A market hit by the ravages of the pandemic is bound to discourage reckless spending. Even though the swap deal seems to be inevitable, there’s always a chance that it may breakdown in the final stages. For now, the ball is in Juve’s court to convince Arthur.
But from Barcelona’s perspective, the fans should come to terms with the fact that Pjanić is the player who will be replacing Arthur. He may not be the ideal player who ticks all the boxes. Still, that doesn’t make him any less of a talent. Signing him would increase the midfield’s creative output, and reduce the burden on Messi. The Bosnian may have a few flaws to his playing style, and his age, 30, is also a factor that may discourage many. But he might actually be the player who could flourish under a system of more freedom.
Quique Setién won’t pose restrictions on him like Sarri and Allegri, and this would let him unleash his creative prowess to another level. His service on the ball is something that goes under the radar, and furthermore, he is a player who poses a tough mind frame. He is very vocal and could be someone who can provide an imposing control in the dressing room. He would be able to dictate the play by continually speaking with the players on the pitch.
If Setién can succeed in integrating Miralem Pjanić into the squad and making him understand the Barcelona way, then he might not be a bad signing at all.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.