Both Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati have had excellent seasons when they have been given the chance. Against Napoli, the game was crying out for the youngsters, but they were left on the bench. The match versus Bayern will be a much tougher test for the Spanish giants, and Riqui and Ansu Fati have a lot to offer the side.
Young gems Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati have been revelations this season and have cemented their place in the Barcelona first team. Still, though culés have been desperate to see them play more, they have been overlooked at times. The managers this season, Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién, have preferred to go with more experienced players on many occasions.
However, when Riqui and Ansu have played, they have always added a spark of energy and imagination to improve the team. They are still young and maybe the coaches feel like they must protect them, but going by their performances this term, they deserve more game time.
Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati this season
Riqui Puig made his first team debut last season under Valverde. Though he only played twice in La Liga, the talent was obvious. This campaign, the Spaniard has played 11 times in the league and each time impressed. It has been a successful breakout year for the La Masía graduate and there should be a lot more opportunities for him next course.
It is easy to see that he fits the mould for a Barça midfielder perfectly. His passing ability stands out and he can easily break the press with his quick turn of pace and dribbling. Nonetheless, it is not just his on the ball skills that make him such a gifted player. It is his work ethic and pressing off the ball that make him so complete. Riqui presses relentlessly and has a lot of success in either winning the ball himself or forcing the opposition into a mistake.
The contribution of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati could have been very valuable against Napoli, and they should not be overlooked against Bayern this time | Photo by Rhona Wise / AFP via Getty Images
Another La Masía player that has had a fantastic break through season is Ansu Fati. Having skipped Barça B altogether, the 17-year-old has still shone during his games with the main team. This La Liga season, Fati has played 24 matches and scored 7 goals. He also scored the winner against Inter Milan in the Champions League group stage.
There is no question over his talent, and he has the potential to be a very special player. For most of the season, Ansu has been Barcelona’s only true winger in a team that has often lacked width. Furthermore, besides Lionel Messi, Fati is the only attacker that has possessed any pace for the campaign – Martin Braithwaite only played a couple of games. The teenager has shown he has an eye for goal, can beat defenders one-on-one and offers that much needed width.
The game against Bayern
In Saturday’s clash against Napoli in the Champions League last 16, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati were desperately needed to liven the team up. Arguably, they both could have started, but the blaugranas performed well in the first half. It was in the second half that the La Masía products should have been introduced.
After about 60 minutes it was evident the Catalans needed fresh legs in the midfield and upfront. Riqui would have given Barcelona that much-need energy and control in the game. He lifts the team’s tempo and helps Barça retain the ball well. Just the kind of player needed when leading in a Champions League match. Ansu too would have been a smart introduction as Napoli continued to push players forward in search of goals. The width and pace Ansu provides would have caused a lot of problems for the Italians’ defence.
Against Bayern, it seems likely that Quique Setién will choose experience over youth. It is hard to see any of the heavyweights in the dressing room being dropped. A midfield of Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets and Riqui Puig could be the best line-up in the eyes of fans, but Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto will reportedly start in a four-man midfield instead of Riqui.
Ansu should also start as width and pace is key against Bayern. It is difficult to see anything but Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suárez and Messi, or the latter two in a front two, starting again. If this is the case, then Quique must be ready to make the substitutions much earlier into the second half to keep Barcelona’s tempo high. Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati should be trusted for this all-important duel with Bayern as they have been some of the most impactful players for Barça this season. If they do not start, then they should be brought on earlier into the second half as they can turn the game upside down.
David Alaba is the ideal short-term replacement for Busquets at Barcelona
Barcelona’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain served as a further reminder for a lesson they should have learned years ago. In yet another important game, the team failed to match their opponent’s quality and energy. The defence was unstable, the midfield overrun, and the attack non-threatening.
With so many key players nearing the end of their careers – at least at the highest level of world football – Barça must make the proper moves to replenish and reignite their squad. Left-back Jordi Alba, centre backs Clement Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets all featured in the humiliations against Bayern Munich and Liverpool, with three of them playing against Roma the year before (2018). If anything, this shows the club’s refusal and stubbornness to make the moves necessary for competing at the highest level.
These players – some of them club legends – still have a lot of quality and can help the team in various ways, however, there need to be clear replacements in line for the day they eventually leave. In particular, Barça need a new centre-back, a new left-back, a new striker, and crucially, a new central defensive mid. However, instead of going all out for three different players, there is one man who can serve as the perfect deputy in each role.
Presenting: David Alaba
After being with Bayern Münich for over a decade, David Alaba recently announced his intention to leave the club once his contract expires in the summer. He is set to be one of the most highly sought-after free agents, with clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Barcelona fighting to sign him. Presidential candidate Joan Laporta is reportedly a huge fan of the Austrian international and would want to sign him should he win the presidency.
Alaba has made a name for himself as one of the most versatile players in the world. He started his career as a left-back for Bayern, solidifying himself as one of the world’s best. When Pep Guardiola arrived in 2014, he took advantage of Alaba’s technical abilities and utilized him as an inverted full-back. Instead of darting down the flanks, he took up more central positions in the midfield.
Over the last two seasons, he has played the majority of his minutes at centre-back, helping lead Bayern to the treble and sextuple. With the Austrian national team, he has played all over the pitch but mainly in midfield.
His versatility would undoubtedly serve Barcelona well, being plugged into various positions that the team need, but more than that, he has all the attributes to make the number 6 position his own, at least temporarily.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the number 6 is the centre defensive midfielder. This player is the anchor of the team, the one responsible for breaking up offensive attacks, recycling possession, and dictating tempo. It is one of the most demanding positions on the pitch.
Sergio Busquets has filled that role for Barcelona for over the past decade and earned his name as one of the position’s best of all time, if not the best. The 32-year old has made 610 appearances for the Blaugrana, gracing the pitch with his composure, passing, and vision. Many clubs choose to have their defensive midfielder(s) fit the “destroyer” archetype, players who are extremely physical and aggressive with their tackles, but that was never Busquets’ forte. Instead, he dominated the defensive side of the game with smart interceptions and astute tackles.
Unfortunately, over the last two seasons, age has caught up to him and severely limited his physical attributes. His metronomic passing and vision are still elite, but his inability to close down opponents, track-back with pace and successfully press like he used to have all diminished. This was all too apparent against PSG, where he was consistently caught out of position and could not provide the backline with the proper cover.
Given the importance of his position, the fact that Barcelona have not yet lined up a replacement for him is beyond comprehension. There are no standouts in the youth academy or current squad that fit his profile (most fill other midfield roles), so naturally, Barça have to look elsewhere. Then again, replacing Sergio Busquets was never going to be an easy task.
A Temporary Fix?
One of Barça’s looming problems over the past few seasons has been the lack of a sporting project, one that acts as a blueprint for everything the club does. Countless players have been brought in to fill in squad deficiencies temporarily, and many more have failed to live up to expectations. While Alaba would admittedly be a temporary fix, there is no better alternative on the market or club to fill in Busquets’ role. He is the perfect fit for Barça in that role and others and will lube the transition into the new era with ease.
As aforementioned, Alaba has all the attributes necessary to be Barcelona’s next number 6. He would be 29 at the start of next season but could still offer a few seasons at a high level, at least until a long-term replacement is found.
Defensively, Alaba makes up for lack of brute tackling with a cerebral reading of the game and expert positioning. In this season’s Bundesliga, he is averaging 2.04 tackles plus interceptions per game. He would also bring much-needed energy and the physical attributes necessary to pressing and closing down opponents. This would do wonders for a Barça team who need to amp up their intensity.
When building up from the back, Alaba can naturally slot in between the two centre-backs, much like Busquets has throughout his career, providing cover for marauding full-backs and an outlet into midfield, whether through passes or ball carries.
Offensively, his passing, whether short or long, balls, composure, and vision would serve the team immensely well. His tactical intelligence would also see him fit right into the squad. Among the top five centre-backs in the Bundesliga, Alaba is in at least the 96th percentile (per 90 minutes) of various stats: passes into the final third (8.68), passes into the penalty area (1.10), progressive passes (6.59), progressive carries (7.21), and progressive carrying distance (225.21 yards).
These stats are extremely telling. He’s leagues ahead of most centre-backs in terms of ball-playing and is an elite distributor of the ball. That, paired with his on-the-ball ability and defensive acumen, make it perfect for him to move higher up the pitch and slot in at centre defensive mid.
At Barça, Alaba can form the base of a midfield trio with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, with Sergio Busquets, Riqui Puig, and Illaix Moriba coming off the bench, to name a few. That trio’s potential combination of composure, vision, and quality on both sides of the ball would surely do wonders.
A Sinking Ship
The Catalans need a lot in order to get back to competing at the highest level. Holes on and off the pitch are growing larger by the day, and plugging them in with ill-informed transfers won’t help. On the other hand, if David Alaba is brought in with the clear intention of making him the starting defensive midfielder, even for only a few seasons, while slowly phasing Busquets out, the team would greatly benefit from it. Furthermore, his versatility could see him slot into a myriad of other positions if needed.
His salary demands are reportedly high, but the quality he would bring is unparalleled, especially given the scarcity of players Barça can target for the number 6 position. He is a player tailor-made for the Camp Nou. Additionally, if the Catalan giants lose heavy-earners like Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, and maybe Antoine Griezmann/Ousmane Dembele, fitting the Austrian in will be far from complicated. Not to mention how much space Messi’s departure could open up.
With the right moves, this sinking ship can slowly but surely stay afloat and get back to ruling the high seas.