This season, FC Barcelona players have been far from their best and the squad looks very inconsistent and unreliable. In this mess, however, which footballers have been carrying the teams’s load?
FC Barcelona have endured one of the worst seasons in their recent history. Controversies have been circling around the club and the blaugranas risk ending the season without any trophies to their name. But a few players have continued to earn praise from fans. Their performances have kept culés hopeful and deserve to be applauded. So here are our picks for the top five Barça players for the 2019/20 campaign.
Note: they have not been ranked in any particular order.
Stats by Opta via Onefootball
Marc-André ter Stegen
We start off at the back with Barcelona’s brick wall. Marc-André ter Stegen has time and again proved why he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Be it his distribution, awareness, reflexes, calmness of mind or his technique, the German international fits perfectly into the team. Always ready to receive passes, he deals with any amount of pressing from the opposition with ease. His decision making has been absolutely perfect and often covers for any defensive mistakes that have been made.
While this may not have been Ter Stegen’s best season, he has still saved Barça many points | Photo by Alejandro Garca via Imago
He might be conceding more goals than other keepers like Atlético de Madrid’s Jan Oblak, Liverpool’s Alisson Becker or Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, but this hides the fact that Ter Stegen has had an equally good or even better season than all of the other keepers. He has better distribution and passing accuracy than any of the others with no goalkeeper coming close to matching Barça’s number 1. Only Oblak has made more saves than Ter Stgen having played two games more in the league.
Ter Stegen has come to Barcelona’s rescue enumerable times and it is frightening to think where the club would be without him.
Gerard Piqué has constantly been one of the most underrated centre-backs in the world. Despite starting the season in a rather poor manner, Piqué has more than made up for the slip ups. Since the lockdown ended, he has been spectacular. Despite being 33 years old, the Spaniard continues to improve his game. He has led the back line and has set an example for young defenders. The fact that Barcelona have conceded more goals than most top teams is a result of the sloppiness of the team in general rather than the backline.
Gerard has lost some of the pace he used to have, but is able to match pacey forwards using his experience and positioning. Even when his partners have been caught out of position, Piqué is there attempting to cover for their absence. Statistically, he has better distribution and accuracy than almost any other centre-back. He makes more clearances and blocks more shots than both Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane. His prowess in the air is also better than other defenders like Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt and he makes more successful tackles than most defenders with a 71.88% accuracy.
Piqué’s defensive quality is undeniable and is, perhaps, only bettered by a select group of players such as Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk.
Gerard Piqué’s partner at the back, Clément Lenglet, is also a player who deserves a lot of credit. He has proved to be a crucial part of the blaugranas‘ defence since arriving from Sevilla in 2018. His absence is felt dearly, and without a sufficiently good partner to Piqué, Barcelona tend to falter. His game too has grown a lot since his arrival and he has consistently come to the team’s aid. Especially recently, he has been a rock at the back. Always making the right tackles and passes, Lenglet has hardly stepped a foot out of line.
Clément Lenglet has greatly stepped up as the difference between him and Samuel Umtiti has become more and more noticeable with the passing of time | Photo by AFP7 via Imago
Any fan watching games can see just how crucial he has been. Lenglet attempted more tackles than Piqué and still managed to keep a similar successful tackles percentage. He is good in the air and can make important blocks and tackles. But perhaps it is his positioning and passing that make him a key part of the Barcelona system. With a passing accuracy of 92%, he is right up there alongside Piqué as one of the most efficient and confident defenders on the ball. This season has been stellar for Lenglet and he has been one of the best performers in the side.
Sergio Busquets has always been a player to watch throughout his career, But under Ernesto Valverde, he endured a bit of dip in form. However, he has slowly regained his form this season. After Quique Setién took charge, Busquets has been playing better and better. Busi has never been a player defined by stats, but nevertheless his statistics have seen an increase this season. He has excelled in his position again and he often leaves an observer awe-struck.
Sergio does the simple things beautifully and controls the game as a pivot. Not only does he help in defense by cutting passing lanes and making tackles, but he also helps in ball progression. His passing is immaculate and he almost never misplaces a pass with a passing accuracy of 90%. He takes 106.02 touches per 90 and attempts 92.92 passes per 90.
These further highlight how central he is to the team. He has been taking on more players as well. His awareness is astounding and the way he turns away from the challenge of a player just leaves you smiling. The midfield for Barça is slowly deteriorating, but Busquets continues to excel the way he used to. He continues to be one of the best in the team.
Of course he was going to feature in this list. The best player in the world continues to dance his way through defences and carry Barcelona on his shoulders. Lionel Messi missed the the start of the season through injury, but he still managed to win the race for the Pichichi. Not only has he been scoring goals, but he has also been assisting goals as well.
With 21 assists in the league, Leo has broken Xavi Hernández‘s record for the most number of assists in one season in La Liga. He has also become the first player in La Liga history to score and assist 20+ goals in a campaign. He even broke the record for most number of Pichichis won, in seven, and most number of consecutive seasons with 25+ goals, in 11.
Messi has shifted to a deeper role under Quique Setién and is now the primary creator for the team. He had been relentlessly working to help Barcelona stay in the title race. He has scored fewer goals since the restart, but that can be attributed to his deeper role and lack of rest. Messi’s contribution this season as well is ridiculous and the brilliance of his mind is dumbfounding. He might be growing old, but Leo is continually operating at the highest level and is, unquestionably, the best player in the team right now.
Ansu Fati and the return of natural wingers
In Ronald Koeman’s La Liga debut as manager of Barcelona, he handed Ansu Fati a starting place in the team. It proved to be the correct decision as the youngster stole the show. It was great seeing Barça play with proper wingers again which helped unlock the Villarreal defence.
On Sunday night, Barcelona played a strong Villarreal side. As the Blaugrana kicked off their campaign, the Yellow Submarine had already played two La Liga games. The Barça defence looked shaky at times but in the end, kept a clean sheet. They passed the ball out from the back well with Clément Lenglet breaking the press with a beautiful left-footed pass on several occasions.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets struggled to adapt to the double pivot role and was off the pace with his passing. On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong looked more comfortable in this position. His build-up play was excellent, and he covered a lot of ground. Miralem Pjanić also impressed in his cameo and will be pushing for a starting role.
In attack, the Catalan side went with a front four. Antoine Griezmann was the quietest of the forwards and sometimes found himself too wide again. Philippe Coutinho looks to be regaining some form in his preferred position. He was involved in the build-up plays and gave a great assist to Fati. Lionel Messi put in another impressive performance and seemed to be enjoying himself. The attackers linked well and there was a lot more movement than recent seasons. Their understanding should continue to improve as the season progresses.
Ansu Fati celebrating the opening goal of the match against Villarreal | Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images
However, the real stand out of the game was Ansu Fati. The 17-year-old started on the left-wing and was a constant threat down this channel. Most of Barcelona’s attacks came down the left side with Jordi Alba having one of his best games in a long time. The two players combined well and seemed to effortlessly know where space was. When Alba and Neymar used to play on the wings they would sometimes compete over the same areas. But with Fati and Alba, they looked like a great partnership
On the night, Ansu Fati scored two goals and won a penalty for the team. His first goal came after a beautiful pass from Lenglet over the top of the defence found Alba. The left-back produced one of his classic cutbacks, but this time found Fati instead of Messi. The Spanish international unleashed a confident first-time finish leaving Sergio Asenjo almost static on his line.
Minutes later, Coutinho played the young winger through and again Ansu finished at the near post. Again, Lenglet found the pass through Villarreal’s press that started the move. Fati is proving to be a clinical finisher with 9 goals from just 14 shots in La Liga. Such composure in front of goal is rare for any player let alone a 17-year-old.
“When I am handed a chance to play, I become eager to take it and make the best out of it.”Ansu Fati
The young winger was involved again when he was brought down in the penalty box by Mario Gaspar. Once again, Fati demonstrated his ability to take defenders on and beat them. His pace caused a lot of problems for the opposition’s defence. Ansu showed just how good he is tactically, as he is technically. His positioning and decision making were almost flawless, especially for someone who has had so little minutes in the first team. When he was substituted in the second half, he received a warm embrace from Koeman for his fantastic display.
The performance of Ansu last night also highlighted how important is it for Barcelona to play with wingers. Almost all the attacks came from the left-hand side where Alba and Fati played. However, there was only a handful of attacking plays coming from the right side where Roberto and Griezmann were. Having that width and pace really stretched the Villarreal defence and created space for others to exploit.
Ansu Fati scoring his second goal in the 20th minute against Villarreal | Photo by David Ramirez via Imago
“I criticized Ansu for his performance in pre-season. That’s what gave him a boost. He made a huge impact, especially on the wings.”Ronald Koeman
The second goal of the evening shows how important having that width is. With Coutinho running through the centre, Griezmann was directly ahead of him. Two defenders were then dragged into the area around Antoine which allowed Fati more space to run into. If there was no left-winger, that space could not have been exploited and the goal would not have happened.
With the success down the left-wing, the manager may consider playing with a more natural winger on the right too. The right-wing was almost invisible for Barça over the 90 minutes and this is unsustainable for the full season. The substitutions of Francisco Trincão and Ousmane Dembélé showed how having two natural wingers could work. Dembélé was positioned on the left and Trincão on the right. Both offer width in the team and are can dribble past defenders. It is something to consider when playing against teams that play in the low block.
Overall, Barcelona’s first game of the season looked promising. There was a lot more intensity in the team and plenty of movement. The competition for places should keep players’ levels high and allow for rotations. So far, the 4-2-3-1 formation seems to be working and allows for some to play in their favoured position. Ansu Fati impressed during the game and showed why having pace and width is so important to any Barça team. The performance levels should continue to improve as players get used to the system and get more minutes on the field.