The objective of Barcelona’s summer transfer window was fairly clear from the beginning. There weren’t any particular gaps to fill (if you turned a blind eye towards that right side of defense) in the starting eleven, so the focal point was squad depth reinforcement to avoid mishaps such as the unfortunate sequences of games in April earlier this year.
With a combination of prudently executed transfers and argute talent identification, the squad assembled for the 2016/17 season enlivens excitement and anticipation for what is to come. Barcelona, for the first time in seemingly forever, can boast to be as deep as the Mariana Trench – a stark contrast to the fordable team that accomplished the domestic double a few months ago.
Like with every deep sea though, there is an indigenous risk of encountering unacquainted problems, and with squad depth the verisimilar issue of unevenly distributed playing time can be a smudge on this otherwise ideal situation.
Even with the stringent (and sometimes excessive) rotation policy deployed by Luis Enrique, it’s nigh impossible to satiate every players’ (except Douglas) thirst for minutes over the course of a season with this kind of depth and quality. By the end of the marathon, a few individuals will be left pouting - discontent with the amount of times they’ve had the opportunity to present the club’s colors on the pitch.
There are a few obvious players who will fall victim to the wrong side of squad depth, and there are others who may join the ranks rather unexpectedly. Below are the folks I believe would see a drastic comparative decrease in playing time and may fall victim to the sharper end of having a deep squad:
Rafinha has been a favorite of Luis Enrique’s since his loan spell at Celta Vigo, where he alongside Nolito formed the core of a team that thwarted Real Madrid’s attempt to win a league title in 2013/14. In our second treble season, Rafinha’s box-to-box presence and high work-rate gave him many opportunities to be a rotation piece for Ivan Rakitic, and his intemerate dribbling ability made him a real asset in and around the opposition penalty box in crucial ties such as the Copa semi-final matches against Villareal.
Unfortunately, the younger Alcantara suffered a dreadful injury following a diabolical challenge from Roma’s Nianggolan early last season, which has throttled his attempt to cement his position as a regular in the team. Now, with arrivals that can match his dribbling, pace, and physicality and also add attributes in which he is lacking (such as vision and range of passing), Rafinha may see his playing time greatly reduced this season compared to his first.
Despite three wonderful halves in the Spanish Supercup, it’s going to be difficult for the Turkish captain to establish a well-defined role in the squad. Neymar’s return and the possible acquisition of a fourth forward will see him slip out of the front-line, and with promising youngsters like Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes ready to make the central midfield spots theirs, Arda may find himself caught between a rock and a hard place.
A great couple of games certainly gives insight on what Arda Turan can offer to the team, but what he can offer seems only possible in positions commanded by untouchables in the starting eleven. Unless Luis Enrique plans to use vastly different formations on a regular basis, Arda Turan may find himself on the bench more often than he would like.
Few players evoke polarized opinions from a single fan-base the way the ginger giant does. On one side of the spectrum lie fans who see him as nothing but a liability – a player who deserves to be ostracized because of his concentration issues and errancy.
On the other side are those who sympathize with him, acknowledge his flaws but appreciate his honesty and dedication to the team, and his willingness to accept the miniscule role of fourth-choice center-back for a world-class squad.
Irrespective of where your alignments lie, there’s no denying that with the seniority and leadership of Pique & Mascherano, and the arrival of soon-to-be-fan-favorite Samuel Umtiti, Mathieu’s fate is sealed as the player who would only get minutes under critical circumstances or in meaningless matches.
This is a choice that could end up causing controversy by the end of the season. Since his arrival in 2012, Jordi Alba has remained the undisputed starter at left-back for Barcelona. However, his atrocious performances last season and fairly visible complacency make him the prime Gala XI candidate to be displaced.
Jordi Alba without a shadow of a doubt was the most underwhelming performer in the Gala XI last season – an exorbitantly contrasting display to his brilliant 2014/15 season where he bossed his flank with integrality.
Lucas Digne has further exacerbated Alba’s case with his eye-catching performances in preseason and the Spanish Supercup. Moreover, Digne has shown that he possesses important traits that Jordi innately lacks: the ability to cross the ball, aerial prowess, and sound positioning. He may not have the pace to intercept Messi’s defense-combusting diagonal balls on a regular basis, but Digne provides key final balls and remains equally effective on all zones across the left flank.
Unless Alba brings his 2012 Euro form and 2014/15 reliability back, he might be the first Gala XI member to be prematurely displaced and witness a considerable decrease in playing time.
The Fourth Forward
Irrespective of whether it is Paco Alcacer or Munir El Haddadi, the fourth forward in Barcelona’s squad will find it arduous to acquire sufficient playing time.
Ask the likes of Pedro or the Brazilian Gabriels and they’d tell you that MSN’s intimidation isn’t solely felt by the opposition. The most devastating attacking trio in the world (and arguably in history of football) is the face of the modern Barcelona - an epitome of telepathic understanding and chemistry, possessing unquenchable thirst to trample any defense that comes in its way.
Attempting to even momentarily displace one of the tridents is a tumultuous task that would demand unrealistically high levels of patience, hard-work, and selflessness from the attempting displacer.
Not a single player in the world could substitute one of MSN without a tangible drop in chemistry and quality of the trinity, and with this in mind, it’s very unlikely any fourth forward expects or even deserves to start in crucial matches in place of one of the deadly trio.