Tag Archives: La LIga

FC Barcelona – all change?

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.

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The All new Barça – A winning team?

The new La Liga seasons starts this weekend and Barcelona play their first match this evening. So time for a bit of reflection on the summer’s transfer activity.  It is not quite all change at the club, but this time around they have gone for more of a revolution than evolution. Luis Enrique, the new head coach, does have extensive Barcelona connections as a player and as B team coach. However he has been brought in to oversee some radical changes. Not so much in the way the team plays, which is expected to only show slight changes from previous years, but more in terms of discipline and fitness.

As regards the squad this had changed significantly, with a high turnover of comings and goings. Starting with the goalkeeper, both Valdés and his deputy José Manuel Pinto, have left the club. Two new keepers have been signed, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, while Jordi Masip has been promoted from the B team. Barça now have three very good goalkeepers, but we will have to wait to see if any of the three can reach the consistently high standard set by Valdés.

Finally we get to see some new faces in the centre of the defence. Two experienced and tall centre backs have been signed – Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. The team now has four recognised centre backs, the two newcomers plus Piqué and Bartra. This may turn out to be five as Javier Mascherano has played in defence in most of the pre-season matches. Mathieu and Vermaelen will add much needed experience and solidity to the defence. But it has to be doubted whether either can reach the levels of commitment and leadership of the sadly departed Carles Puyol.

In midfield at first sight it looks like a straight swap of Ivan Rakitic for Cesc Fàbregas. But as Cesc was more often used in attack it looks like Rakitic has come to replace Xavi in the first team. At one stage it looked like Xavi was going to leave the club during the summer, but he has decided to stay and fight for a place in the first team. Presumably Rakitic has been bought to add a bit of physical presence to the midfield as well as his undoubted skill. Still it will be a very different Barça without Xavi controlling the midfield. Sergi Roberto is the fourth midfielder, but he as yet has shown little sign that he can become a first choice player. Sergi Busquets remains the first choice for the defensive midfield organiser. Everyone assumed that Alexandre Song would leave the club and that Mascherano would offer competition to Busquets in this role, but as yet this has not happened.

Quite a few changes in attack for this season. Alexis has gone to Arsenal, while Luis Suarez has come in. If he keeps his cool, Suarez with his prolific scoring record should provide Barça with a potent attacking trio, alongside Messi and Neymar. However Suarez is not available for another two months, which should provide another opportunity for Pedro to shine. Luis Enrique welcomed back two loan players, Deulofeu and Rafinha. Somewhat surprisingly Deulofeu has already been loaned out again, this time to Sevilla. Rafinha, the younger brother of Thiago Alcántara looks likely to become the fifth option for the attack. The biggest surprise of the pre-season has probably been the youngster Munir, who ended up the leading goal scorer. He is also likely get an opportunity or two to demonstrate his talents.

All in all, the squad has gained in experience and solidity compared to last season. Once Suarez is available the attack looks very exciting. However both Neymar and Messi missed lots of matches last season due to injury. If either or both succumb again, the cover is not very deep. The midfield should be at least as good as recent years, with Rakitic to provide fresh legs and Xavi still around to provide that extra touch of class. The defence including the goalkeeper is where most uncertainty lies. We do not as yet know who will be first choice either as keeper or as the two centre backs. This is the area of the team that most needs continuity of selection to build up the mutual understanding that is crucial to any title winning team.

Once again we should see lots of goals from this team, but it may take more than one season to build a team that can win titles. Much will depend on whether the midfield and defence can settle into a pattern and how quickly this can be achieved. Whatever happens it will not be easy to win anything either in Spain or in Europe. Both Real and Atlético remain formidable teams, while the challenges from England and Germany are getting even stronger. Let the games begin!

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