Despite last summer’s overhaul, Barcelona’s squad remains largely unfinished. The culés need not only to search for a long-term number six and fully-devoted right-back, but also a left-winger.
With limited financial flexibility, it’ll require yet another masterclass in value-buys and under-the-radar scouting from Mateu Alemany.
In no uncertain terms, practically nothing has gone right for Barça’s left-wing position this campaign.
Xavi’s early season experiment of Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele on the flanks teetered out in a misfire of unbalanced profiles, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati failed to make significant (if any) leaps in their development, and despite strong performances, Gavi as a false-winger is not a long-term solution.
Thus sets the stage for the search for Barcelona’s next left-winger. Let’s take a deep-dive into five options, Ferran Torres, Ansu Fati, Yannick Carrasco, Ez Abde, and Marcus Thuram, and wrap things up with who Barcelona should commit to, or buy.
What to look for
Before getting started, let’s clarify what exactly Barcelona should be looking for in a left-winger. Fortunately, Xavi seems to have a rough blueprint of what he wants, and that’s been evident with how he lines his team up and his patterns of play.
To elaborate, Xavi’s 4-3-3 formation is only that in name, and understanding it grants insight into how he wants the left-wing position to look.
Out of possession, the 4-3-3 is often a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 block, while in possession, it’s a 3-2-2-3 shape. In defence, this means right-back Jules Kounde pushes in centrally to form a three-man backline with Ronald Araujo and Andreas Christensen.
When Gavi starts at left-wing, the three-man midfield morphs into a box-shaped one, with Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong serving as a double-pivot, and Pedri and Gavi on the right, and left, respectively.
Acting as a quasi-left-winger is Balde, with the right-winger Dembele holding width on the opposite flank, and of course, number nine Lewandowski is central.
If Gavi starts in the midfield, which we can assume he will once Barca lock-in the left-winger position, the left-winger won’t move into a midfield position, but more centrally and almost parallel to Lewandowski, allowing Balde to keep his role as the width-provider on the left.
In terms of patterns of play, Xavi loves to instruct his team to overload the left-hand side and quickly switch play to the right, giving Dembele a one-on-one against an opposing full-back. Further, Balde is often tasked with making incisive runs in the final third and into the penalty box.
So, what exactly might Xavi be looking for? Well, he wants someone to counteract Dembele’s profile as a natural width-provider, develop a push-and-pull partnership with left-back Alejandro Balde, support Robert Lewandowski in the box, and, most importantly, possess a killer instinct for goals.
It’s worth mentioning that not all of the options we’ll explore possess these traits, in fact, some have entirely different strengths, but that’s not entirely a limitation.
With Xavi’s basic shapes and patterns of play in mind, let’s explore some potential left-wing options.
When Ferran Torres first came to Barcelona in January 2022, he hit the ground running. His versatility, hyperactivity off the ball, and impressive finishing made him an exciting prospect.
Almost 18 months later, he has seemingly plateaued, struggling to score and make a direct imprint on matches. So, does Torres tick the boxes of the left-wing’s requirements? If not, does the 23-year-old offer other qualities to warrant the spot?
This season, Torres has tallied six goals and two assists, placing him fifth in the Barça squad with goal contributions.
While those numbers are not particularly poor given his game-time and rhythm, it’s concerning that he’s in the same ballpark as midfielders Gavi, Pedri, Sergi Roberto (all with seven), and Franck Kessie (six).
Nevertheless, the story with Torres is always about what he offers beyond the scoresheet – for better or for worse.
The Spaniard is lauded for his off-ball movement, possessing instincts about where to move in the box to get on the end of dangerous passes.
Positively, Torres is also versatile player. He can suffice as a number 9, and is arguably stronger at right wing than the left. Creatively, he possesses an above-average cross (again, noticeably better on the right-hand side), and is fifth in the squad for key passes per game (1.73).
Moreover, Torres’ movement opens up space for his teammates, particularly Balde or even Jordi Alba at left-back, or even to drag markers away from Lewandowski. This skill cannot be understated; in a setup as intricate as Xavi’s Barcelona, such positioning helps the entire team flourish.
Still, this movement can be rewarded with little-to-no end product. Torres’ matches are frequently marred by falterings in front of the goal.
Over the last two La Liga seasons, he is underperforming his expected goals by a combined 6.4, per Understat. Hopefully, a boost in confidence can help reverse this trajectory.
Thus, while much is lauded about Torres’ versatility and off-ball movement, his proficiency in front of goal is simply not enough to warrant him being Barcelona’s long-term left-winger – a role as a rotation piece is more appropriate.
How much longer the Catalans can afford to wait for him to develop into a deadly finisher – arguably his most significant shortcoming – is another question entirely.
Ansu Fati is the perfect segue from Ferran Torres. After all, his case is not unlike his fellow Spaniard’s. While Torres hit the ground running last season, Fati had a meteoric rise as a 16-year-old, earning him the number ten jersey and plaudits as the future face of Barcelona.
But, pulling his career in another direction, he suffered a devastating knee injury in late 2020 and a plethora of setbacks, now placing his name among exit rumours.
Having reached 100 games for the club, what does Fati’s future hold? Is there enough promise and skill left in the tank to give him the left-wing spot moving forward? Let’s see.
Starting with the positive, what makes the case for Fati as Barcelona’s long-term left-wing?
First and foremost is his proficiency in front of the goal. Despite a clear lack of confidence and some dwindling physical traits, Fati still has signs of that envied striker’s instinct.
The 20-year-old thrives in and around the box, and fits the profile of a left-forward, rather than an out-and-out left-winger. While not yet coming to fruition, this should – in theory – alleviate some of the goalscoring burden off of Lewandowski’s shoulders.
His peaks this season have come from such trademark goals from “nothing”, particularly his solo-run against Elche and his extra-time volley against Betis.
On the goalscoring front, he’s tallied eleven goals plus assists this season, good for fourth in the squad. He is also taking a squad-leading 4.44 shots per game, which indicates a sufficient level of involvement in play.
Fati is underperforming his expected goals in La Liga by a worrying 3.90, but given his history as a fairly reliable finisher, one can write this off as a lack of confidence or bad form. Conversely, if this is a sign of things to come, the Catalans have reason to worry.
Optimistically, Fati’s played the least amount of minutes of Barcelona’s frontline options – Lewandowski, Dembele, Raphinha, and even Torres – and has still tallied respectable numbers. On the other hand, there are reasons for that lack of playing time.
Fati has evidently lost the explosiveness that once made him a nightmare to defend. He was never as fast a sprinter as the likes of Dembele, rather a twitchy and agile forward.
Without that, he’s struggled to get separation from defenders, and is often out of place on the frontline. This lack of explosiveness also affects his creativity, as he can no longer get past defenders as easily and send balls into the box, for example.
A lack of confidence is palpable, albeit that’s by-the-book for a youngster with so much pressure on his shoulders.
Hence, Fati fits most of the profile that Barça is looking for in a left-winger, but leaves some things to be desired. On the plus side, he is a natural, inverting presence in the box and has a knack for goals. Where he is lacking is in overall impact beyond the statsheet.
A goal is arguably the most important thing for a striker to get, but being a constant threat is equally required when keeping the defenders on their heels. Much of this is due to his impeded physicality, which may or may not come back.
Overall, the concern with Fati is whether he can return to the promising levels he showed early in his career. If he cannot, the Catalans must move on; if he can, they have an ace up their sleeves. The safest bet is to give him another season. At 20, that is the least he deserves, more so when rarely work out for Barcelona.
Reports have ramped up over the last few weeks linking Yannick Carrasco to the Catalan capital. How would he fit as Barcelona’s left-winger?
Contrary to other options on this list, Carrasco is deployed not strictly as a left-winger or left-inside-forward, rather as an out-and-out winger, wide-midfielder, or wing-back in a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. He is right-footed and is thus comfortable inverting centrally, but he does most of his damage out wide.
With the fourth-most matches played for the Rojiblancos this season, Carrasco is a stalwart. Impressively, he has the team’s third-most goal contributions (nine), and is a key outlet for counterattacks, utilizing his pace to break down transitioning defences.
He also has a squad-leading 4.70 takes ons attempted per match, representing his aggressiveness. To add, he is top-ten in La Liga for progressive carries and carries into the penalty area.
Perhaps stifled by Simeone’s ultra-defensive set-up, Carrasco’s performances have dwindled this campaign. Under Xavi, he would hopefully see a change in fortunes, but he is already 29 years old.
A potential left-hand side of Balde and Carrasco would be unruly, with them both taking on defenders, albeit one would have to ask whether they are redundant since Carrasco lacks the traits of a left-inside-forward.
Hence, due to Balde’s similar runs down the flank, Carrasco’s attributes wouldn’t be maximized if he needed to hover in and around the box.
Issues related to profile are arguably the biggest downside of having Carrasco as a left-winger, and finances should not be a concern due to the reported fees of €10-15 million. He would more than suffice as a rotation piece, but is an underwhelming top choice.
Ez Abde offers the most unique profile on this list. The Moroccan international is enjoying a successful loan spell at Osasuna, and recent reports indicate that Barcelona want him integrated into the first team next season. With that in mind, could Abde be the future of Barcelona’s left wing?
Abde is an electric winger with an abundance of tricks up his sleeve. He’s creative and risk-taking, and that’s something Barcelona could use more of in their front line.
He’s a fierce dribbler – without a doubt, his standout quality. Most importantly, Abde doesn’t rely entirely on pace to beat his man, despite being faster than most. Instead, he utilizes body feints, silky smooth movement, and an uncanny ability to have the ball stuck to his feet like glue.
Abde has been somewhat of a creative hub for Osasuna this season. Across 27 appearances, he is far and away the leader in progressive carries, and both attempted and successful take-ons, as well as second in the squad with goal contributions, and fourth in shot-creating actions.
When in doubt, teammates look for Abde to create something out of nothing. This value cannot be understated.
Not unlike Carrasco, Abde is best at taking opponents one-on-one and setting up teammates, rather than being on the execution end of shot-creating actions.
In this way, he runs into a similar problem as Carrasco. Namely, how would his profile compliment Balde’s? With proper development in the finishing department, he could be a promising option – but that’s a lot to ask for.
Abde’s development at Osasuna this season has been crucial, and it’s rightfully earned him a tentative spot in Barcelona’s squad next campaign. Nevertheless, he is far from a complete product, still lacking finishing and composure in front of goal. As such, he is not yet the left-winger Barcelona are looking for.
Writer’s pick: Marcus Thuram
This brings to the fifth and final option: Marcus Thuram. For reasons about to be laid down, Thuram should be Barcelona’s next left-winger.
Son of legendary French defender Lilian Thuram, Marcus Thuram has already begun making a name for himself in world football. He made the French squad for Euro 2020 and the recent World Cup, and at 25 years old, he is slightly more mature than the budding-likes of Torres, Fati, and Abde, while also having more upside than Carrasco.
Thuram is Borussia Mönchengladbach’s top scorer this campaign, as well as their headliner. His thirteen Bundesliga goals places him tied for second, and his eighteen goals plus assists lands him fourth-best in the league.
A versatile forward, Thuram is deployed as a typical number nine or left-winger. He thrives moving into central positions and is deadly in the box.
The Frenchman will often look to capitalize on high defensive lines, and he is also adept at escaping markers in the penalty area. With the ball at his or on the receiving end of through passes, he is a true “inside and out” forward.
His physical traits also need to be addressed. He towers above defenders at 1.92 metres (6’3), and is consistently one of the quickest forwards in Germany, vertically and laterally. That combination of height and speed, mixed with his proficiency in front of the goal, make him a nuisance to defend.
Thuram is particularly adept at moving into the right spaces in the box, and that skill will take him a long way at Barcelona.
Positioned at left-wing, his natural tendencies to invert will allow for Balde’s overlapping runs, and Thuram can easily make a presence for himself in the box. Whether getting on the end of crosses or providing a lethal one-two punch with Lewandowski in the box, one can only imagine the possibilities here.
Thuram isn’t the most creative forward, but being tasked with playing closer to the box should offset this limitation. Further, there is nothing wrong with Barcelona prioritising a goal-scoring attacker rather than a strictly creative one. After all, the attack has shown signs of stifling this season.
This also works in tandem with Balde, who can continue staying wide while Thuram can move inside, working as another goal-scoring forward.
Another concern with Thuram is that he would have to adapt to a Spanish league that is nowhere near as up-and-down and open as the German first division.
He plays for a Monchengladbach side that love to exploit teams on the break – as evidenced by his ninth-best progressive carries per game in the Bundesliga. Hopefully, he will demonstrate enough inventiveness to help breakdown low blocks and thrive in compact, overcrowded spaces.
In all, taking his profile into account, Thuram is the best match for what Xavi is looking for in a left-winger. He won’t take the world by storm, but he should be reliable night in and night out, providing Xavi with a player that should fit seamlessly into this squad.
On the financial end of things, his contract expires this summer, and a reliable forward such as him is rarely available in the free agent market. Barça must capitalize on it.
Barcelona have a series of cost-effective and low-risk options for the left-wing position, the question is how high-reward are they? Torres, Abde, and Fati have high-upside – the latter in particular – yet are still unproven commodities, and Carrasco is only a solid rotation piece.
Thuram emerges as the front-runner as he incorporates the movement of Torres, the finishing of Fati, and the speed of Abde and Carrasco. His ceiling may not be as high as some others on this list, but he can steady the ship.
If everything goes according to plan, Thuram should be donning the garnet and blue by the summer. Beyond that, here’s hoping he thrives.