Despite serious financial problems, Barcelona have done some incredible work in the summer transfer window.
The Blaugrana have activated “economic levers” by selling off a percentage of their La Liga TV rights for the next 25 years, and this allowed them to end last season in profit and then have the capital to make transfer moves and handle contracts while avoiding La Liga’s strict FFP.
Xavi’s side have signed Franck Kessié and Andreas Christensen on free transfers, they hijacked Chelsea’s hijacking of Arsenal’s Raphinha bid, and the Brazilian is now in Barcelona. And then they pulled off an incredible coup by signing Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich.
Next in their sights are Jules Koundé and Cesar Azpilicueta, with both signings likely to happen once they activate the second “lever” (another 15% of their La Liga TV rights) as well as a back-up left-back.
Couple these signings with a series of likely departures and Barcelona’s squad is going to look very different in 2022/23, so we’ve looked it over and come with some different ways that the Blaugrana could line-up:
If Barcelona pull off all their transfers, their team will be almost unrecognisable from the XIs that Xavi had to put out in his first couple months as the manager. Marc-André Ter Stegen remains in goal but with young Inaki Pena as his back-up, the German will have to re-find his best form to keep his spot as the undisputed starter.
Cesar Azpilicueta is the club’s target for right-back and you can see why: a serial winner and experienced veteran, Azpilicueta will bring true leadership to the Blaugrana locker room and will be a huge mentor for Sergino Dest. Sure, he’s not the quickest, but there will be other solutions to deal with the quicksilver wingers like Vinicius Jr.
Those solutions will come from centre-back, where Barcelona hope to add the rapid Jules Koundé to the rapid and massive Ronald Araujo – though they appear to be neck and neck with Chelsea for the Frenchman’s signing, he is close to signing for either team, depending on who you listen to. Both men are physical phenomenons as well as being tactically intelligent. Both are also capable of playing right-back, so when the Blaugrana are scheduled to face a potent winger don’t be surprised if Andreas Christensen or even the veteran Gerard Piqué gets a start with one of Araujo or Koundé playing right-back. Eric Garcia is the back-up until he bulks up.
Left-back is still Jordi Aba. The veteran has re-found his best form under Xavi as he no longer has to cover a whole flank. Still, Barcelona need a back-up for him as Alex Baldé probably isn’t ready yet. Javi Galan is the rumoured choice for the role.
Midfield is the one area that will seem familiar with Sergio Busquets playing with teenage titans Pedri and Gavi. This is one of the best midfields in the world, but with Busquets and Gavi both being at the age where they need to be rotated out for their own good, expect to see a lot of Kessié and Frenkie de Jong (he’s 8/11 to stay with Sky Bet) in central midfield, offering less control than the Spanish boys but more vertical thrust and drive. Meanwhile, expect Nico Gonzalez to spend the season as Busquets’ understudy so that he is ready to take over in a year.
Up-front, Xavi’s mix of wingers will continue as the right wing is likely to star two absolutely electric and unpredictable dribblers who excel at creating chances for others. New signing Raphinha and the renewed Ousmane Dembélé should be a delightful bag of tricks out on the right and a nightmare for any defender 1-v-1. Dembélé’s ambipedal nature make him a two way threat while Raphinha is like a Brazilian version of Arjen Robben, albeit with slightly less predictability.
On the left we have the more intelligent, goalscoring wingers. Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati will peel in off the left and make dangerous runs into space. Ferran will probably start as Ansu needs a long time to recover from his brutal two year injury nightmare.
Up-top Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang no longer has to carry the entire attack on his own back but is instead now back-up to the majestic Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker may be 34 year old but after scoring 50 goals last season seems to be the kind of player who will keep being excellent for at least the next two years as Barcelona seek to re-establish themselves atop the mountain.
Xavi also has the option of lining up all three “BVB Boys” together with Aubameyang playing wide left to augment Lewandowski as a No.9 and Dembélé on the right. This alignment would perhaps bring a smile to the faces of former Borussia Dortmund coaches Jurgen Klopp (who managed Auba and Lewy) and Thomas Tuchel (who managed Auba and Dembélé) but it would also be a dangerous front three.
The Siege Weapon
Sometimes Barcelona need a Plan B, and while Xavi’s debut season saw him use essentially a 4-4-2 and just launch crosses into the box for the big man Luuk de Jong, now he can afford to be more nuanced (not least because Lewandowski is good enough in the air that crossing can become a more substantial part of Plan A).
Enter: the 3-3-1-3. The Cruyffist Siege Weapon that all European Cup-winning Barcelona managers have used at some point. This system allows for maximum width while also maintaining midfield control.
The trade-off? You have three centre-backs covering the width of the pitch, so the outside guys had better be quick. Barcelona won’t be able to make this formation work if they don’t sign Koundé, because they will need both he and Ronald Araujo to cover the wide centre-back roles, sweeping across huge spaces and then recycling the ball quickly.
The midfield remains the same albeit with the increased need for verticality we will see more of De Jong than Gavi, at least if everyone is fit. Then at the head of the diamond (or just playing up-front as well, depending on opponent) would be Lewandowski. The Pole has the skill-set of both a No.9 and a No.10, so in desperate times he can be used here so that Aubameyang can be the No.9 and raid with pace.
Out wide, Xavi will unleash both Raphinha and Dembélé. These two lightning-quick wingers will stay wide, stretching the field, and driving at their opponents to open up space and create for others. Either man can play on either flank, so it will be easy for Xavi to keep things fresh as he reserves this XI for the most dire of circumstances.
Xavi’s School For Gifted Youngsters
Barcelona have one of the best, if not the very best, youth academies in the world. They can’t make traditional No.9s but La Masia has produced a world-class player at pretty much every other position in the game. And what’s more, Barcelona have recently become very good at identifying and signing young talent.
All this to say the Blaugrana now have the greatest collection of young talent at any elite club in the world. Every single player in the above XI is 23 and under, and with former La Masia graduate Xavi as the coach, how could they do anything but excel?
The tactical structure is the same as the main team, but young Inaki Pena returns on loan from Galatasaray to keep goal. Koundé is also 23 but being a big money signing felt against the spirit of this team, so Garcia and Araujo resume their defensive partnership while Dest and Baldé start at wing-back, a touch raw but with plenty of promise.
Midfield looks much the same as teenagers Gavi and Pedri retain their places. In for Busquets steps Nico, the son of Deportivo La Coruna’s legendary winger Fran. Nico is a big body midfielder who excels in duels as well as maintaining momentum with quick, first-time passes. In addition to this trio there’s also new boy Pablo Torré, an attacking midfielder who looks like he’s a perfect stylistic fit with Xavi’s Barcelona.
In attack Ferran remains on the left, taking on more responsibility in a team this young. On the opposite flank to him we will find Abde, the Moroccan-born winger is a speed demon with a powerful dribbling style that is less refined than Dembélé and Raphinha but still quite useful and impactful.
Up-front is the chosen one himself: Ansu. Handed Leo Messi’s No.10 shirt, there is tremendous pressure on Ansu to perform. He’s still the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history but his last two years have been dominated by a horrible knee injury that has robbed him of his explosive energy.
Ansu will need time to build himself back-up, so the youngster XI may be best saved for the second-half of the season after he’s had a few months to quietly work behind Barcelona’s array of fabulous new attackers. Those who question the wisdom of signing Lewandowski given his age often forget that Barcelona’s succession plan for the striking role is to let Ansu find his way back to full fitness at which point he would likely just take the spot from a by-then declining Lewandowski.