Football Features

Xavi violating his philosophy? Four ways Barcelona could line-up after their January transfer window

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 12:03, 3 February 2022

Despite their financial struggles, Barcelona added four new players to their squad during the January transfer window.

Dani Alves was first, with a deal struck to re-sign the former Barcelona right-back as far back as mid-November 2021. However as the Brazilian’s free agent status began after the close of the summer transfer window, he had to wait until January to debut. Alves brings leadership, laughter and joy, but also a ceaseless professionalism and wondrous winning mentality.

Then came the big money addition of Ferran Torres. With president Joan Laporta and director Mateu Alemany’s creative accounting giving Barcelona some money to spend, they used it to recruit the young Spanish scoring sensation. A highly-regarded prospect at City, Ferran chose to return to his homeland for a bigger role in his team’s fortunes. He scored a stunner in his second game and got a last minute game-winning assist in his third. So far, so good!

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On the last weekend of the window, Barcelona brought Adama Traoré home. The wing wonder had fallen foul of contract issues at Wolves and was set to join Spurs when his hometown club offered him salvation. Initially joining on loan, Barcelona have a purchase clause to make the deal permanent should Adama excel on the wing. Xavi once said: “I’m not in favour of re-signing players who have left. Why do they leave at 16 or 17? It seems ridiculous to me.” But he seems comfortable violating that philosophy to bring Adama back.

Finally, late on deadline day (well, technically just after), the Blaugrana added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to their ranks. The Gabon striker had fallen out with Mikel Arteta to the extent that The Express is reporting that the Gunners paid Aubameyang £7m to terminate his contract. This allowed Barcelona to pick him up on a free transfer, and they will hope that surrounding the striker with better players and more proven winners than he had in North London will see the Gabonese return to something like his established form.

Looking ahead at what these signings mean for Barcelona’s future in the rest of 2021/22, we’ve come up with four possible line-ups for Xavi to use as the Blaugrana hunt down fourth place as well as the Europa Leaugue, taking into account the likeleyhood that Ansu Fati won’t play again this season.

The Ideal

Given Ansu’s injury, Barcelona’s ideal XI will see them make use of all four of their signings. Dani Alves will slot into right-back nicely, albeit not in the Europa League as regulations only permit the Blaugrana to add three players to their squad, and Xavi has chosen to cut the 38-year-old for the fairly obvious reason that his age means he can’t handle games every three days. He can only really play once a week, but his movement and positional intelligence mean he is still a force to reckon with when fielded sparingly, to say nothing of his crossing!

Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araujo anchor defence, a superb partnership combining age and experience with defensive power. Jordi Alba retains his spot at left-back by virtue of the club having not signed any competition.

The midfield trio is obvious and amazing. The 19-year-old Pedri and the 17-year-old Gavi have taken to the Barcelona first-team with an almost superhuman ease, looking every inch veterans of the game despite their young age. With these two in place, and Barcelona playing proper Barcelona football, Sergio Busquets can anchor midfield and not look like a corpse.

In attack Adama Traoré is a natural fit to come into the team to replace Ousmane Dembélé. The Catalan is a miraculous dribbler, having completed more take-ons (484) than anyone besides Leo Messi (500) in Europe’s top five leagues since the start of 2018/19.

Ferran Torres plays wide on the left but with the primary idea to cut inside and threaten goal. Meanwhile Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang comes in and will lead the line, offering greater movement, technical skill and sheer goalscoring than Luuk de Jong or Memphis Depay.

The Spear

Back in May 2020, Xavi was asked about the possibility of Barcelona signing the likes of Sadio Mané and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His response was interesting: “Mane and Aubameyang can kill you in open space. But Barcelona need players who know how to move in small spaces. I am thinking about players who would adapt to Barcelona and it’s not easy to find one.”

But here we are in January 2022 and Xavi has agreed to the signing of Aubameyang. So what is the plan here? Well, what if Xavi were to play a more direct line-up? To truly violate his philosophy?

Marc-André Ter Stegen stays in goal, and his long passing will be essential to this system. Araujo is still in defence but Piqué is replaced by the more athletic Oscar Mingueza, and Sergino Dest takes Dani Alves’ place to make the back four more athletic.

Pedri is still in midfield to add control and because despite being supremely technical he’s also a ridiculous athlete, but now he’s joined by Frenkie de Jong and Nico Gonzalez, two big body athletes with a deft technical touch as well. Frenkie de Jong is one of the world’s best midfielders but hasn’t been quite at his best under Xavi. However a more direct system would really get the best out of him.

Adama is still in the side, of course, and while Aubameyang is as well, in this XI his versatility would be tested as he starts wide on the left with the explicit instruction to drive into the box like Thierry Henry did so famously in 2008/09. With that in mind the powerhouse Memphis Depay comes in to lead the line, a player adept at both making runs himself but also dropping deep to create space that wing-forwards like Aubameyang and Adama could exploit in this new un-Xavi XI.

The 3-3-1-3

Xavi is a dedicated Cruyffist at heart, and what could be more Cruyffist than the 3-3-1-3? Barcelona have used it a couple times under Xavi already, but with his players coming back to fitness and the four new signings it would take on a whole new level of potency here.

In defence Piqué anchors and is flanked by Araujo and Clement Lenglet, with the Frenchman’s left-footedness making him essential to this system working as the defence will spread across the width of the pitch.

The diamond midfield shape would allow Xavi to play all four of his stud midfielders, with Busquets anchoring behind Pedri and Frenkie De Jong, with the Dutchman given license to drive forward with and without the ball. Gavi begins between the lines, drifting and finding space.

Adama Traoré again owns the right-flank but such is the emphasis on wingers in this shape that we may finally see the return of Ousmane Dembélé. The wing wizard spent all of January on the sidelines as his refusal to sign a new contract save for an exorbitant fee saw Barcelona try in vain to sell him. No one made a move, so one expects Xavi to reincorporate the winger.

Leading the line would be Ferran Torres, the €50m man has it all to play as a central striker, with elite movement and anticipation. He’s scored all manner of goals both for Spain and Manchester City that show his predatory nature. Moreover he is so accomplished at the kind of fast-passing link-play that Barcelona utilise that he could drop deep and really help Barcelona put a strangehold on possession should they need to slow the game down with a bout of possession, always knowing he has the skill to push forward and score too.

La Masia Dream

La Masia is unquestionably one of the finest youth acadamies in the world, arguably the finest given the consistency and frequency by which they produce great talent. The generation coming through now is so obscenely good that Barcelona could, for the first time since 2013, play an XI made entirely of graduates from the youth system. Xavi played in the 2013 La Masia XI, and it would only be fitting if he were to be the coach of the 2022 edition.

Arnau Tenas replaces Ter Stegen in goal; a young stopper well-versed in how to be a Barcelona goalkeeper. Piqué is back but joined by young Eric Garcia who is rebounding from a really rough start to life back in Catalunya with some promising displays. Alba is still at left-back but Oscar Mingueza plays right-back, where he would offer a more defensive take on the role.

Sergio Busquets is back in defensive midfield, the club captain is one of La Masia’s finest graduates. Joining him are Nico Gonzalez, the powerhouse with a deft touch, and the internet’s favourite footballer Riqui Puig. The young Catalan, once the crown jewel of La Masia, has been surpassed by several of the incredible youngsters coming through. But in a La Masia side? He plays and his ability to constantly push the tempo of matches would provide some real oomph to the side.

Adama again is on the right, offering that terrifying dribbling skill. On the left Gavi would show his versatility by playing on the wing, where he can show his dribbling skill and confidence while also drifting into central areas to help the Blaugrana create overloads.

Meanwhile leading the line, and this is why this XI is labelled “dream” is young Ansu Fati. The teenage titan is the youngest goalscorer in Champions League history and has, since debut, shown an awesome aptitude for scoring goals.

Ansu has been plagued by injury, however, but still managed to score 5 times in 10 games last season and 5 times in 10 games this season. If Barcelona could get him fit and place him at the head of this team (or any of the teams) then he would absolutely soar and lift Barcelona up with him.