With an obvious problem in defence, Xavi may be forced to look at new ways to get the best out of this Barcelona squad. Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet are out with injury, and Eric García had a nightmare against Espanyol, so it got me thinking about how a situation such as this could be a blessing in disguise for the team. These are three tweaks that Xavi could make that might pay off.
Xavi likes playing a certain way. After watching the team play under him this season, some principles that he’s embedded within the squad are evident. In defence, the forwards switch wide to cover the full-backs while the midfielders press on the center-backs. This leaves the opposition goalkeeper with no choice but to hoof the ball upfield where either Busquets, Pique or Araújo engage in an aerial duel, recover the ball, and then build the attack again. When played at the highest level, it’s very reminiscent of 2011 Barcelona or 2019 Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp and the 4-0 at Anfield where the Merseysiders played against us in this vein (a night that still gives me PTSD). The high-line Xavi employs does not work when Dest plays because, despite the USMNT player’s raw speed, his physicality competing for the ball leaves the team vulnerable in all sorts of ways. With Dani Alves likely out for the rest of the month (unregistered in Europa and suspended in LaLiga), Xavi should look to reshuffle the pack and see what falls out (please don’t play Oscar Mingueza). These are three changes I believe Xavi should look to make.
Frenkie de Jong: The Chosen Libero
Frenkie has been an odd case this year. He flies under the radar because he hasn’t racked up as many goals or assists this year, but most average fans seem to disregard how he fits into the team. With a shambling defence behind him and Gavi and Pedri’s creative ability near the box, Frenkie’s been relegated to playing more of a defensive role. This may not get him any love from the entire fanbase, but letting him go would be a mistake Barcelona must not make this season. He consistently covers more ground than anyone in the game and often is one of the last defenders on counterattacks which is where I feel he’s most needed. His best trait is his ability to see passes before they unfold, but it’s not what the team needs right now. The group requires his stamina and ability to pick up loose balls. If surrounded by Araújo, Pique and Busquets, his job becomes quite simple: to do what he is best at and act as the team’s pressure valve. He can help cover Pique and Busquets fight for headers and cover for their lack of speed. He also gives another fast mate to Araújo to not have to try to stop the opposition’s wingers single-handedly. His endless circling around the pitch also helps the team’s defenders find more space around the opposition’s press and spreads the play. That is why I feel like this may be the perfect time for Xavi to let Frenkie be the anchor to the team and play him as a libero behind Busquets and next to the other centre-backs.
Luuk de Jong: What a pure striker offers
Luuk de Jong’s biggest strength has always been his heading. He’s tall, powerful, and not only does he take one or two center backs out of the game, but he also allows the rest of the team to do what they’re best at. He’s certainly not the fastest, but he’s shown he may be able to thrive within Xavi’s system. With his inclusion into this team, Jordi Alba may be able to cut into the box and lay in a cross for Luuk to head into the goal or, just because of the fear of his aerial gravity, allow Pedri, Ferran, or Gavi to drive into the box with no one marking them and score. On the other side, Adama may now have an actual target to aim his crosses at, and this would get the best out of Luuk and render Adama his assist numbers. Ferran could also find himself with a striking companion and play his best as a false nine rather than fulfilling his unfortunate duties as a pure striker. Araújo may finally end up finding someone with his long balls over the top that he’s tried multiple times this year alone (yes, we noticed Ronald). It’s curious to see how Pedri and Gavi would work as inverted wingers/attacking midfielders with a pure striker to play through balls to, and his Dutch connection with Frenkie may help get this team an odd goal too. Luuk’s form warrants inclusion, and Xavi must allow merit to prevail above all. Expect Barcelona to look like this for most of the game when Luuk plays (I tried my best to account for Xavi’s preferred high line and the opposition team’s low block).
Nico & The Midfield Quintet
I feel like Nico alongside Busquets, Frenkie, Pedri and Gavi in one team would be just the most exciting thing to watch. It’s the most Barcelona thing I can remember when Pep fielded a team consisting of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets, and Thiago. Please don’t get me wrong, this is not that team, but it does open us to the incredible opportunity of witnessing Tiki-taka again. The pressing capabilities are endless too. What Nico lacks in experience, he makes up for in the distance covered (within the time constraints he has), heart, athleticism, and raw fire. He reminds me a bit of Fede Valverde, not just because of his physical profile but also his endless gas tank. If played next to Busquets, De Jong covers for his age and its corresponding decline in speed and tracking back ability and adds another passing partner and option to form more triangles. He can help cover Adama just behind him, sort of like Gavi just behind Alba, but more importantly, allow Pedri to flourish right up top. If balls are played over the top, his speed will help Frenkie and Araújo stop counterattacks and pick up the odd man out. I feel like he could be groomed to play Busquets’s role soon and maybe another answer to Xavi’s dilemma by playing as an inverted right full-back of sorts within Barcelona’s system. Why not? Investing in Gavi’s playing time paid off, why not Nico? This is my best notion of what Barcelona would look like with Nico on the pitch (again accounting for Barcelona’s shape under Xavi’s tenure so far).
I think Xavi must make intelligent moves, and with what he’s shown his teams to play like, this may be the opportune time for him to experiment with the team and show where his strengths lie as a coach.