Barcelona received some good news this week with Lionel Messi returning to training less than two weeks after breaking his arm. He was originally expected to be out for three weeks, so Barcelona will probably have to continue without him for another game or two.
In his absence there has been much speculation over who is the most appropriate backup option. Whilst Ousmane Dembele came on as Messi’s replacement for the rest of the Sevilla game, the honour of starting in Messi’s place was gifted to Rafinha in the following matches against Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Also waiting in the wings are Munir, a young forward who has spent more time out on loan than at the Camp Nou, and Malcom, the new acquisition who certainly proved his worth at Bordeaux but has thus far lacked game time.
Looking at Rafinha’s performances in the starting XI since Messi’s injury, it is safe to say that his overall performance has been fair. His performance against Inter Milan was surprisingly good; he seemed to fit in well with Barca’s attacking style, completing a number of decent short passes and even getting a couple of shots in with both his stronger and weaker foot. His hearty first half performance culminated in a goal, and he did his best to continue impressing the Barca fanbase until his substitution. He failed to mirror this performance in El Clasico however. Whilst there was never a moment where he played particularly badly, he failed to make an impact on the game. He never played a hand in any of the Blaugranes’ five goals, and this includes the build-up plays leading up to the climactic moments. The rest of Barca’s players on the wings all had their hand in victory; Jordi Alba bagged an assist and provided two critical passes that almost led to two more Barca goals, Coutinho scored the opener, Sergi Roberto bagged two assists and Dembele, who came on late in the second half, assisted the final goal. It was just Rafinha who didn’t seem to show up. Whilst it is harsh to judge Rafinha on one lacklustre performance, it would also be insufficient to only consider his good performance against Inter. Whilst he has been “okay” overall, “okay” is not good enough for a team of this stature.
Ousmane Dembele is another attacking option. The 21-year-old has played a significant part in Barca’s season thus far, even when Messi has been available. He has appeared in each La Liga game as well as one of three Champions League matches, and his performances have certainly justified why he has been selected on so many occasions. With significant pace and a superb first-touch, he has had much involvement in Barca’s attacking movements, tallying three goals and one assist to date. He also bagged a goal in his sole Champions League appearance against PSV Eindhoven, proving that he is also able to show up on the European stage. It was unfortunate that he did not receive more game time against Real Madrid, as he looked dangerous during his brief cameo and even assisted Arturo Vidal’s goal. Why Dembele was not utilised against Inter Milan remains a mystery, and it would be a shame for him not to receive sufficient game time in the coming month. With matches against Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and PSV Eindhoven all on the cards, Dembele’s attacking prowess would surely be advantageous to the Blaugranes’ attacking line-up.
Munir El Haddadi is a home-grown talent. A product of Barcelona’s youth system, he received his call up to the first team after a two year stint in the Barcelona B team. In addition to his performances for Barcelona B, the young forward also impressed in the Spanish under 21 side, scoring seven goals in 10 appearances. Such performances were not enough to secure regular first team action however, as whilst he had 10 and 15 appearances in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons respectively, he only appeared once in 2016-17 and was sent out on loan to Valencia, where he scored six and assisted three in 33 league matches. His entire 2017-18 season was spent at Alaves, where he bagged a respectable 10 goals and six assists, and he is now back at Barca where he has appeared in four league matches and one Champions League game this season. Apart from his equaliser against Athletic Bilbao, he has had very little to do with Barca’s success this season, although this is most probably as a result of receiving very little game time. Valverde is yet to play him for a full match this season, and four of his five appearances in all competitions lasted less than 10 minutes. This is hardly enough game time for him to make a difference. Whether or not he is up to the challenge of playing in Barca’s starting 11 remains to be seen, and the only way to find out the answer would be to give him more playing time. With less-threatening opponents coming up such as Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis in La Liga, this would be an opportune time to test the skills of Munir and other youngsters.
Finally, we have Malcom. Arguably Barca’s least known attacking option, the Brazilian has made large strides in club football in the span of four years. Starting out at Brazilian outfit Corinthians in 2014, he played for two seasons in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, during which he caught the eye of Bordeaux, for whom he played three seasons in Ligue 1. He racked up a decent tally of 12 goals and seven assists in his third season in France, and this performance caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Whilst Roma looked set to sign Bordeaux’s key attacker, Barca snatched him from the Italian giants’ grasps for a whopping £36.90 million price tag. Whilst he has only played for 25 minutes this season, he certainly has the potential to take La Liga by storm so long as Valverde knows how best to develop him. Like Munir, some game time against some of Barca’s lesser opponents would be beneficial.
Considering each candidates’ performances so far this season, Dembele looks to be Barca’s most promising attacking option. Whilst Rafinha has been in Barca’s squad rotation for years, he has not yet excelled in the Blaugranes line-up apart from a few decent performances and whether or not he will have a breakthrough remains to be seen. As for Munir and Malcom, both remain stellar attacking options, however without sufficient game time, neither players’ true potentials can be untapped.