Barcelona are heading back into the 2020/21 Champions League.
The Blaugrana could yet win the 2019/20 edition of the competition, due to take place in August, but even if they fail they will be back to try again next year. Despite losing out on their La Liga title to Real Madrid, the Blaugrana will be optimistic that they can bounce back next year, and that Quique Setién can, with a full pre-season to impart his ideas, live up to his billing and create an exciting Barcelona side.
But what might that side look like? Barcelona’s transfer business has been hit-and-miss for the last few years but they must get it right this summer if they are to rally and challenge in Europe again. To that end we’ve come up with four possible line-ups the Blaugrana could run in the Champions League next season as they bid to win it for the first time since 2015.
1. The Dream
When you dream, dream big. Barcelona’s squad has been left out too long in the sun and is starting to burn. They’re in need of a fairly impactful overhaul; they don’t need lots of players, but they need absolutely fantastic quality in the positions of need.
So in their dream XI, Eric Garcia comes in at the back. The young Catalan left Barcelona for Man City and although he is finally breaking into the City first-team, talk of a return back to Catalunya remains. For Barça’s part they would love to have him as Piqué’s heir, but feasibly he could play alongside him.
Then on the right Ajax’s Sergino Dest would come in. Nelson Semedo, while talented, just doesn’t seem to fit in at the Camp Nou. Dest would be a different matter as his time with Ajax is the ideal education for switching to the Blaugrana. He is a flying full-back with devastating pace as well as the supreme skill to participate in the Barça passing attack.
The midfield sees a return to passing and possession in a dynamic fashion. Riqui Puig adds purpose and thrust that has been missing recently and with the Catalan playing higher, Frenkie de Jong can play in a more natural deep position to keep things ticking over as well as burst forward into the box.
Up front, Messi is Messi but the rest of the forward line changes. Lautaro Martinez leads the line as the Argentine is quite clearly the Blaugrana’s No.1 transfer option and you can see why. He plays with the same ferocity, skill and tactical intelligence as Luis Suárez did in his prime. He would give the side the thrust and vertical threat it has been missing since 2017.
Messi and Lautaro would be potent enough but as we’re dreaming, the third forward is Ousmane Dembélé. No one has ever doubted the Frenchman’s talent but injuries have devastated his time in Catalunya so far. But in a dream scenario he stays fully fit and shows his true level atop the side, with Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann providing incredible depth in attack for a revamped Barça XI that could beat any team world football could put in front of them.
2. The Diamond
Being more realistic, however, Barcelona’s financial struggles could mean that even if they manage to offload the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo and Arturo Vidal they will only be able to parlay that incoming cash flow into one player. And if forced to prioritise, they will absolutely focus on Lautaro Martinez. The striker fits what the team needs but is also a big-name signing that will bring glory to the board.
But if Barcelona only replace Suarez, then they are still short of players who can actually function as wingers on a starting basis. Ansu Fati obviously has talent, but he is 17 years old and needs his minutes controlled to avoid burnout. So Setién could turn to a system he used to great effect in 2019/20: the 4-1-2-1-2 aka the 4-4-2 diamond.
This shape packs the Blaugrana’s best players into the middle of the pitch and allows them to press intensely without over-extending themselves. Everyone can fly forward in attack to press, with the full-backs providing width as Busquets and De Jong provide defensive support in midfield as Riqui Puig moves forward to link with Leo Messi and the forwards.
Even a worn-down Suárez could thrive in this shape, so a physical demon like Lautaro would be even better. And because it’s a central role, Antoine Griezmann will be able to start up top and have a chance to prove his doubters wrong.
3. The Setién
However if we’re being even more pessimistic, Barcelona may end up signing no one. At least, no one ready to start anyway. So how does Setién keep the side fresh? With the formation he tried to implement when he first arrived at Barcelona: 3-5-2. He abandoned it then because he didn’t have enough defenders nor enough time to properly teach it, but with a full pre-season?
With a three-man back-line of Clement Lenglet, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araujo spread across the pitch, Barcelona’s midfield can push a lot higher and really squeeze the opponent in a high pressing game. Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto (though you could even use Fati out wide if need be) provide the width while the midfield can really push on.
In attack Antoine Griezmann and Messi form a two-man axis where they swap positions, alternate running in behind and just go where the spaces are. This team would need Griezmann be capable of controlling games high up the pitch and playing quick-passing football in the final third. Griezmann would need to score more goals, but backed up by the rest of this side you’d expect him to.
4. The Kids
Of course, sometimes in the Champions League group stages a side can do so well so early that the last game (or two) becomes a dead-rubber. For most teams this is an excuse to play their subs, and Barcelona do that, too. But they also unleash their vibrant young kids and give them serious minutes in Europe’s top competition to help with their development.
Next season Barcelona could put such a side out. Iñaki Peña would be in goal. The 21-year-old has risen through the ranks and should really be the club’s back-up shot-stopper next season. Ahead of him in defence would be Araujo, but also a new signing. Eric Garcia is a dream target, but Villarreal’s Pau Torres is 23 and more realistic. Junior Firpo slots in at left-back and, of course, Sergino Dest on the right.
In midfield, Frenkie de Jong moves to the base, a position he’ll eventually end in permanently when Sergio Busquets steps down. There, he can anchor midfield and control the tempo of the game. Ahead of him are Riqui Puig, who showed at the end of 2019/20 that he is a supreme talent who should be playing every week, and Carles Aleña having returned from loan. Aleña fell foul of Ernesto Valverde and would relish the chance to prove himself at the Camp Nou under a more progressive coach, providing the kind of thrust into the box that Arturo Vidal does without any of the tactical anarchy the Chilean brings with him.
Assuming Lautaro doesn’t arrive, in attack the lack of a young striker could see the Blaugrana turn to a false nine system, putting new man (well, boy, he is only 17) Pedri into a false nine position. Pedri is a liquid dribbler who can drive and dance at opponents off either foot and cut them up with penetrative passes.
With Pedri in the middle, Ansu Fati plays wide-left as he is wont to do, with new signing Francisco Trincão on the right. The Portuguese is a left-footed dribbler who loves to take his man on with supreme balance and pace and then either shoot or pick a pass. He’d be an ideal compliment to Pedri as well as Ansu and would form a devastating front three in Catalunya. This is definitely a side for the future, but don’t discount their ability in the present!