With fans returning to the stands at the Estadi Johan Cruyff, Barcelona took care of business this week, dispatching Gimnastic Tarragona 4-0, followed by a convincing 3-1 victory against Girona.
It’s a new season and we’re already seeing changes being made by Ronald Koeman, switching to a 4-3-3 formation that many expect him to keep when things kick off against Real Sociedad on August 15th.
Returning, new, and young players alike were given chances to impress. Many of them did.
The internal competition will continue to heat up from here with three preseason games to go, and precious few minutes remaining, for Koeman to see which players make their way into his plans.
Here’s a few storylines that have emerged.
Memphis came ready to play
When Rey Manaj left the game with a headache late in the first half against Girona, the crowd demanded that Memphis Depay replace him.
They got what they wanted, and the Dutchman seemed determined to make a good first impression by getting involved all over the pitch.
Strong on the ball, quick feet, and effective as a number nine and a left winger.
Memphis was dynamic, dropping into the midfield to help in the build-up, and then immediately making vertical runs forward that the midfielders seemed to have trouble keeping up with.
It was refreshing to see a physically imposing player in a Barca jersey, which was especially useful in holding up defenders, and making himself a target inside the box.
His highlights on the night were a rocket of a shot from outside the box that missed by inches, and an even more powerful strike from the penalty spot that almost tore a hole in the back of the net.
Well done Memphis, welcome to the club.
Yusuf Demir vs Alex Collado
The 4-3-3 formation suited both Yusuf Demir and Alex Collado perfectly, as left-footed forwards playing on the right side.
Honestly, they kind of look like twins, and if that’s the case, they’ve just jump started an intriguing rivalry for a scarce spot on the first-team roster.
Alex Collado has been in the pipeline for a while, and his Barca DNA was clear for everyone to see. Silky on the ball, and ultimately rewarded with a goal against Nastic for a decisive shot that took a deflection on the way in.
As things stand, however, it’s Yusuf Demir who seems to be pulling ahead, starting both preseason games, and announcing himself as a player Koeman can’t ignore.
Like Collado, Demir is a technician. Where he stands out more is with his aggressiveness in front of goal. Repeatedly, he showed his ability to cut in and release shots with accuracy and power that defenders couldn’t keep up with.
Bonus points for his chemistry with Sergino Dest. It would be nice to get back to the days of Messi and Dani Alves when there was a true threat down the right side.
Gavi steals the spotlight in the midfield
Gavi, aka Pablo Martín Páez Gavira, stole the show from Riqui Puig and Nico Gonzalez.
The 16-year-old academy product was on the radar prior to this week but has officially arrived as a player you need to know.
Like Riqui, he is energetic and gravitates to the ball, and keeps things moving fast with one touch passing.
He also showed his talent with creative balls forward, and passes that established a quick rhythm in the midfield.
Although he isn’t in direct competition with Nico, who is a true holding midfielder, it’s Riqui who needs to worry about the youngster nipping at his heals.
Riqui had strong performances, but with Koeman a tough audience to impress, he will need to do something truly special in the next few games to command more opportunities going forward.
Manaj is an asset the club didn’t know they had
Rey Manaj has four goals in two preseason games, and would’ve likely had five if Gerard Pique didn’t steal a penalty from him.
In the 4-3-3 formation, Manaj and Memphis proved once again the importance of having a true number nine to help with structure, and for the goalscoring opportunities that open up.
Manaj did just about everything inside the box.
Against Nastic, he produced an incredible goal at an impossible angle with virtually no space.
Against Girona, he made an assertive and well timed near post run that resulted in an easy finish off a cross from the left side.
This is what professionally trained center-forwards do instinctively.
Barca should take note.
Impressive play from the full-backs
Speaking of competition, Sergino Dest knows he needs to get off to a fast start.
For my money, in both games he set the example with the most aggressive attacking plays early on.
Last season, we saw a full-back who was afraid to take the ball to the goal line, fearing that it wasn’t the Barca way, and instead deferred to play it safe in possession.
Against Girona and Nastic, he reversed that psychology and took it to the end line almost every time.
The result? Dangerous crosses in the box.
And you know why it worked? Because there were targets, read a number nine, for him to pass it to.
Defensively, however, there are some kinks to iron out with his center-backs.
On the opposite side, Alejandro Balde followed his lead.
Unlike Jordi Alba who usually slithers behind defenders, Balde took them straight on.
The result? Against Girona, a well-earned penalty kick against a defender who was done and dusted.
Well done Dest and Balde, your aggressiveness added a new dimension to the attack.
With three preseason games to go, it will be interesting to see which players earn Koeman’s confidence, and a chance to play at the Camp Nou.