Barcelona have made a mixed start to life under new manager Quique Setién.
Ernesto Valverde was sacked following one cup defeat too many and the new coach came in very quickly. Setién’s vision for football is a bold one but so far, he’s not managed to fully set it in motion at the Camp Nou. Barcelona beat Granada nicely enough, but then only just squeaked by Ibiza in the Copa del Rey before losing to Valencia at Mestalla.
Part of the problem is obviously the short amount of time Setién has been in charge; it’s simply not enough time to get his new players in tune with his demands. But a bigger problem is the players themselves, well, at least a few of them. As strong as the majority of Barcelona’s squad is, it has a couple of big holes that need filling if Barcelona are to make good on their 11/10 odds to win La Liga. What are these holes, and who could they fill them with? We’ve had a look.
Barcelona need a striker. This much is obvious. In truth, they’ve needed a striker for a couple of years but have been unable to find anyone, leading to Luis Suárez playing all the time to the point where he broke down with injuries.
Still, now that Suárez is out for the rest of the season, the Blaugrana may finally make a move and sign a striker. They are likely to move for long-term target Lautaro Martinez in the summer, when rumours allege that the Argentine’s release clause of €111m would become active for a short period. But they need help now, so who do they turn to?
For the longest time, Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno looked to be the ideal option for this role. While not a traditional number nine, a forward who can play wide made a lot of sense, especially in Setién’s asymmetric 4-3-3/3-5-2 system. So far, we’ve seen Ansu Fati deployed as a right-winger who starts wide but can cut inside.
This is a testing role for a 17-year-old, and Ansu has predictably struggled. Ousmane Dembélé is back in training but at this point, you can’t rely on the Frenchman to stay fit. So Rodrigo was a natural solution, and he could even come in on loan! But Valencia played hardball, demanding a purchase clause, so the Blaugrana have walked away.
Fresh rumours suggested Dusan Tadic may be an option, but the Serb plays like a lesser Messi and doesn’t have the pace to be a true compliment to either the Argentine or Antoine Griezmann (himself a lesser Messi). So what, then?
Suggested signing: Mikel Oyarzabal
Instead of looking for an inferior striker just to sign a striker, Barcelona should instead look for a winger. The key role that needs filling is Ansu’s wing-forward one, and that is a role Oyarzabal is perfectly suited to. The Spaniard is blisteringly quick off the mark, has plenty of skill to burn and most importantly he can score goals.
Sure, he’s left-footed like Griezmann and Messi, but his pace and drive make him a superb complement to those two playmakers. He would function as a devastating end-point for Barcelona attacks. His skill off the ball would make him useful even if Dembélé were to return and play supremely, and would enable Barcelona to properly rest Messi if need be. Moreover, he is such an excellent talent with so much room to grow that, should he be a success, Barcelona could even forego pursuing Lautaro in the summer (or go all-out attack and use Oyarzabal and/or Dembélé on the wings).
Setién plays a hybrid system where Barcelona primarily line-up with a three-man back-line. Gerard Piqué mans the centre while Samuel Umtiti plays on the left. Clement Lenglet is able to back both men up superbly. However. on the right side of the back three is Sergi Roberto, the midfielder converted to defensively suspect right-back.
Playing Roberto in a back three is risky to the point of lunacy. Of course, Barcelona had the perfect player for this spot in Jean-Clair Todibo, the athletically excellent French teenager. But in a moment of staggering short-sightedness, they loaned him out at the exact same time they were appointing the perfect manager to develop him in Catalunya.
Suggested signing: Dayot Upamecano
Given Schalke are sure to execute the buy clause in Todibo’s loan deal, Barcelona need a defender to play on the right side of defence. Who better than another young Frenchman, Dayot Upamecano? A product of the phenomenal Red Bull scouting network, he first shone for Salzburg before joining Leipzig in 2017. Now, under Julian Nagelsmann, he is really blossoming.
The young defender has it all: skill, pace, a rugged determination to win the ball, excellent defensive timing and familiarity with a passing system. He has played in a back three and would function superbly for the Blaugrana in a defensive unit with Piqué and Umtiti (or Lenglet), and would add to the growing French contingent in Catalunya. He’d be a solid investment in both the present and future of the Barcelona back-line.
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Barcelona have an amazing collection of midfielders. Sergio Busquets is one of the world’s finest, as is Frenkie de Jong. Arthur is a special player and Riqui Puig looks like a world-beater in the making. And in terms of depth beyond that, they’ve even got Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, albeit the Croatian hasn’t played well all season.
The problem is that beyond Vidal, they all kind of do the same thing. Barcelona’s midfielders excel at keeping possession and some can even carry the ball forward, but only Vidal really runs forward off the ball, gets into the box and shoots. That lack of a pulsating presence in the final third means the Blaugrana can struggle to turn masses of possession into shots on goal.
Suggested signing: Donny van de Beek
Puig has phenomenal talent but at this stage, he should still be a rotational player. Once De Jong replaces Busquets at the base of midfield, then Puig will come into the side. You need a starting attacking midfielder, and Ajax’s Donny van de Beek is the perfect attacking midfield compliment to the possession skills of Busquets and De Jong.
Van de Beek is well-versed in the Cruyffist principles that govern Setién’s style of play thanks to Ajax, and yet offers an intense verticality thanks to his forward runs and excellent timing. Donny routinely impacts the final-third with goals and assists. He’s 16/1 to join Barcelona before the winter window ends and those odds should shorten for the summer window.
Is this how Barcelona could look ahead of Setien’s first full season?
Of course, given that Vidal is still around, Barcelona should hold off until the summer before chasing Van de Beek. Once the Chilean leaves the Camp Nou, that’s the time to bring Donny to Catalunya where he can take pride of place in the midfield three, offering serious attacking thrust and perfectly complimenting De Jong and Busquets.
Also, this season would see Puig fully break into the first XI, replacing Busquets for certain games (as De Jong drops to the base of midfield). Upamecano establishes himself in defence and then Oyarzabal then plays wide, on either flank really, and adds the kind of consistent thrust the side needs. Finally, Martinez pairs with Messi in attack, with Griezmann offering genuine depth as Barcelona move into a post-Suárez era and manage Messi’s minutes as he ages.