Now that the new season is upon us, time to revisit the progress of Barcelona. Perhaps that should read the lack of progress at Barcelona. Last season, coach Valverde’s first, was relatively successful. Winning the Spanish League and Cup double is always a welcome feat. However the calamitous loss to Roma in the quarter finals of the Champions League has left a feeling of failure hanging over last season.
This was the third time in a row that Barça have gone out at this stage, so there would appear to be something deep seated about this failure. For most onlookers this repeated failure is mainly due to the lack of genuine first team talent in the squad. The first eleven is possibly the best in the world. However the replacements are clearly not anywhere near this level.
So this summer the club has gone in for a pretty radical renovation of the squad. Many of the underperforming “B” team have left the club. This includes players such as André Gomes, Lucas Digne and Aleix Vidal. In addition, some who have never quite established themselves in the squad like Marlon, Yerry Mina and Deulofeu have also left the club. I expect one or two more will also leave before the end of the transfer window.
Unfortunately for Barça fans, and lovers of football everywhere, the team has also lost the great, irreplaceable Andrés Iniesta. To this must be added the departure of Paulinho, a key player, if not always first choice.
Will the new arrivals offer real competition to the current first eleven? Arturo Vidal looks like a straight replacement for Paulinho. Like Paulinho he will offer the coach something very different from the dominant Barça style – aggression, physicality and strength. Though he arrived in January, for Philippe Coutinho this will be his first full season at the Camp Nou. Most likely to be used in Iniesta’s position, he is about as good a replacement for Iniesta as possible.
Ousmane Dembélé is in a similar position to Coutinho. This will be his second season, but given the serious injuries during his first season, this will be, hopefully, his first full, injury free season.
So far nothing in the way of real competition for the current first choice players. Four other players have joined the squad during the summer. Will they provide the much longed for competition? Clément Lenglet is a young, 23 years old French central defender. He is used to playing in Spain with Sevilla, so should offer reliable cover as the third choice central defender behind Piqué and Umtiti. Can he displace either of the other two? We have to wait and see, but he does look like a very good addition to the squad.
In midfield, another young player, 21 year old Arthur Melo has arrived from Brazil. Another experienced player he has quickly adapted to Barcelona’s style of play, at least on his showing during the American tour. Initially he is likely to be used as cover for both Rakitić and Coutinho. If he continues with his early promise he may well push Ivan Rakitić for a starting place.
Up front yet another 21 year old Brazilian has come in the shape of Malcom. A wide attacking player, Malcom has come from Girondins in the French league, so has good experience of playing in Europe, if not in Spain. Looks like he will be in competition with Dembélé as the third striker to accompany Messi and Suárez in attack.
So far that gives us three very good additions to the squad from last season. (I am counting Coutinho and Vidal as replacements and not additions.) The fourth newcomer to the first team squad is Carles Aleñá who has been promoted from the B team. An attacking midfielder, Aleñá is very highly regarded by the club’s coaching staff. He will not be 21 until January 2019 and the club have high hopes for the player. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a serious hamstring injury in the early summer. He is currently recovering from surgery and of course has missed all the pre-season training and matches.
Just how much playing time he gets is a bit of a mystery at the moment. As Barça normally play with two attacking, creative midfielders, I reckon Aleñá will start as fifth choice for one of these places.
To further complicate matters it is as of writing unclear what will happen with Denis Suárez and Rafinha the two other attacking midfielders still with the squad. This will be Denis’s third season with the club and so far has shown no signs of seriously competing for a starting place. Does the club really need a sixth choice midfielder?
Rafinha is is in a slightly different situation. The younger of the Alcántara brothers, he is another very highly rated attacking midfielder who can also play on the wing. However he has suffered badly from injuries and spent the last half of last season at Inter Milan on loan, helping the club to qualify for the Champions League. Inter would like to buy the player, but apparently do not want to pay what Barça feel the player is worth. He is back at the Camp Nou and has impressed during the pre-season matches in America. A fully fit Rafinha would be a very good addition to the squad, but at whose expense? Keeping Rafinha can only be to the detriment of Aleñá. Bit of a puzzle for Valverde and his team to sort out before the end of August.
In attack it looks like Munir will be preferred to Paco Alcácer as the fifth striker. A bit of a luxury for the team to have five strikers. Presumably Alcácer will be transferred or loaned out.
In defence Vermaelen will probably remain as the fourth central defender. The real interest is in the full backs. With the departure of Digne, cover for Jordi Alba is likely to come from one of the young players at the club. At the moment 18 year old Juan Miranda looks the most likely to fill this position. Though he may also continue to play with the B team from time to time. Over at right back we await with interest to see if Semedo finally convinces Valverde that he should be first choice. Or will the coach continue to play Sergi Roberto in that role? Interesting to note that the club still do not have a top class reliable substitute for Sergio Busquets. Sergi Roberto has played there during the American tour and does well in this position. Though he is not quite in the same league as Busquets. But then who is?
Overall then it looks like Barça have reinforced their first team options in attack, midfield and central defence with three high quality players. If Aleñá or Rafinha stay fully fit, then there could be a fourth quality option for Valverde. We will get a glimpse of the future on Sunday when Barcelona play Sevilla in the Spanish Supercopa. Already getting excited.