Barcelona were busy in the 2019 winter transfer market, and that could just be the start of their business this year.
The Blaugrana retained their La Liga title this season but a disastrous final two weeks of the campaign where they threw away another three goal lead in Europe before losing the Copa del Rey final too has left things in a bittersweet place. As a result, their summer transfer activity has become very important. Led by director of football Eric Abidal, they’re actively trying to improve their squad. In winter they covered both short and long-term needs, with this summer looking primarily forward.
In January they received clearance to play Moussa Wague (signed in summer 2018), released promising youngster Munir, signed defensive prodigy Jean-Clair Todibo, sent Denis Suárez out on loan, brought Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jeison Murillo in on short-term loans – and most impressively of all confirmed the summer 2019 signing of the miraculous midfield maestro Frenkie de Jong.
Quite the month, eh? And since summer began they have permanently sold André Gomes and Jasper Cillessen, and are currently linked with just about every player that’s available (and some that aren’t). The rumours paint a potentially phenomenal window in store for the side, so just how could Barcelona look come the start of 2019/20?
1. The Dream
When you dream, dream big. And when you have superstars who need replacing, do it early. Barça waited for Xavi and Andres Iniesta to fall off before they replaced them (and failed to deal with Carles Puyol and Abidal’s retirements at all for three years). So with Luis Suárez and Gerard Piqué having turned 32 and Sergio Busquets turning 31 before next season starts, there are three clear signings needed.
Luckily for Barcelona, they’ve already made one: Frenkie de Jong. The Dutch youngster is so good he could be Busquets’ heir but will also make a fine accomplice in midfield in a more advanced role next to Arthur as Barça return to their first principles of precise passing and peerless possession, controlling games in the centre of the park.
Meanwhile, the Blaugrana are said to be targeting De Jong’s Ajax teammate Matthijs de Ligt, who is still a teenager mind you, to be their defensive anchor for the long-term. He could play next to either Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti or Clement Lenglet with little issue and would provide a decade of defensive dominance. Of course to get him they’d have to deal with sides who can offer more money to his agent Mino Raiola, and convincing the Italian to give up extra money and control will be nigh-on impossible, but hey, we’re dreaming here!
Speaking of dreams: then there’s attack. Antoine Griezmann was heavily pursued last season but that deal didn’t end up happening as he chose to stay with Atlético Madrid. By all accounts he regrets that decision, and has already announced that he is leaving the club this summer. Atleti’s President has said he’ll join Barça, and with his release clause dropping to €120m on July 1st, you can expect a bid.
Griezmann would come in on the right side of attack, offering much of the kind of threat he gives to Atleti and France but also coming infield to advance beyond the last defender as Leo Messi runs the show as a false nine. Playing on the left would be Neymar. Yes, Neymar. The brilliant Brazilian who left the Camp Nou in 2017 has realised the depth of his mistake and is now desperate for a return.
How could Barcelona finance that move as well as signing De Ligt and Griezmann? Well they’d have to sell Ivan Rakitic, Philippe Coutinho, Malcom and Samuel Umtiti for top dollar, or convince PSG to take someone in exchange. But that’s why this is the dream option. It puts the second and third best players on the planet together with the first to form the most deadly and devastating front three to have ever existed. This XI would be a dream for Barça and a nightmare for everyone else.
2. M-S-N Reunited
Let’s be a touch more realistic, however. Mino Raiola is probably going to usher De Ligt to a club where he can have a greater degree of control over his future (Juventus) or get paid obscenely well (PSG) than take him to his natural end-point in Barcelona. And there’s also very little chance the club can afford to sign Neymar and Griezmann.
So if they had to choose: who would they pick? Probably Neymar. He’s younger, better, and moreover he already knows everyone at the club and fits in perfectly as a complimentary forward and eventual heir to Leo Messi. Plus bringing him back in allows Barcelona to reunite the devastating M-S-N strikeforce, although with Luis Suárez getting older and slower by the second it could end up as more of a M-D-N with Ousmane Dembélé sliding into the side as Leo Messi plays false nine.
Still, players would have to be offloaded to PSG to make the deal possible. Probably Coutinho, maybe Rakitic as well, but if you reunite M-S-N up-top then midfield gives you the chance to pair Frenkie de Jong with Arthur ahead of Sergio Busquets. Frenkie’s absurd skill-set and tactical intelligence would allow Busquets to simply play as himself, rather than try to cover for Xavi’s absence as well, which would in turn allow Arthur more freedom to grow and improve on the excellent displays he put in last season.
In defence you simply have to hope that Samuel Umtiti’s knees are fine, in which case you’ve got a world-class defender to stabilise your back-line and Barcelona will have a truly deadly side that could compete against anyone in the world.
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3. The Worst Case
Barcelona fans tend to be very pessimistic, they always manage to find the negative in a situation. You’d think supporting a club as good and successful as Barcelona would make that impossible, but it’s something that originates in Catalan culture and has spread across the now global fanbase of this soccer superpower.
So despite all the grand plans and hype, what if it all goes wrong for Barcelona in the market? What if they end their summer business with no significant incomings? What if their pursuit of De Ligt fails and all they can do is hope Jean-Clair Todibo (already secured on a free) can excel on very short notice? What if Coutinho stays despite his horrorshow season? What if they can’t get Griezmann or any strikers? What if Rakitic remains undroppable? What if Umtiti’s knee problems are chronic?
Well, then they’d likely keep on lining up in Ernesto Valverde’s favoured 4-4-1-1 formation with Clement Lenglet partnering Piqué at the back. Frenkie would sidle his way into the XI on the left of the midfield three, a role that would grant him a fair amount of offensive freedom to roam forward. The rest of the side would function as it does now, giving Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez and Coutinho way, way too many minutes at the expense of younger, quicker players and then relying heavily on Leo Messi for magic.
4. It’s 4-2-3-fun!
Philippe Coutinho is a sensational player but he has been an enormous flop for Barcelona. Part of the reason for that is the system: central midfield in a 4-3-3 is too deep and left-winger in a 4-3-3 is too wide; so why not change the system to get the most out of the world’s third most expensive player? Go to a 4-2-3-1.
Frenkie de Jong is capable of dominating in a midfield two with Sergio Busquets, and this shape would also put Leo Messi in a key central role free of defensive responsibilities. This way the defensively weak Sergi Roberto is able to play at right-back and add thrust to the side without throwing off the balance as you could get Ousmane Dembélé to track back in a way you couldn’t with Messi.
Coutinho would now be in a more familiar shape and thus would have more confidence to express himself. He wouldn’t have to defend as much as he would in midfield and with Ousmane Dembélé on the opposite flank providing a more dynamic wide option he could cut infield and leave Jordi Alba free on the overlap. Coutinho and Messi would be able to link frequently and destabilise opponents with short, sharp passes that get the ball into dangerous positions for their new striker: Antoine Griezmann. The Frenchman is sublime and capable of dropping off to link play so his team-mates can run beyond him, but also running off the last man and finishing clinically.
A change of system would be dramatic, but it could protect Messi’s legs, allowing Coutinho and Dembélé to shine at the same time and thus lead Barça to great success in the future. It would be a bold move but the signing of Frenkie de Jong makes it a legitimate option and it’s one that should be considered. Switching to 4-2-3-1 could very well be 4-2-3-fun!