This season was always going to be one unlike any other because of the unprecedented scheduling of this World Cup in Qatar.
Managers and players have been lamenting for years the lack of recovery time between games, and the increased risk of injury that comes as a consequence.
The first international break is already raising the alarm bells for Barcelona with Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde going down for an extended period, right before a string of games that could prove decisive for the Catalan’s ambition to win trophies now.
Just a year ago, Barcelona’s lack of depth turned an already difficult situation for Ronald Koeman into a crisis he couldn’t overcome when the injury bug struck, resulting in the team missing out on the Champions League knockout round.
Xavi came in, and because of the reinforcements he was given in January, was able to salvage what was left of the season, keeping the situation from devolving further.
Going into the summer, he made an effort to reinforce each position with quality backups, and we’re now seeing why that approach was so critical.
Barcelona can’t afford to make excuses. They need to stay on track, and keep winning games, regardless of the obstacles that are thrown at them.
The starting eleven was just starting to come into focus. Now those best-laid plans are being shaken up. Every player on this roster needs to stay focused and ready to contribute when their name is called on, because inevitably they will all have an important part to play at some point, and they’ll need to be able to pick up where their fallen comrade left off.
Right now, it’s the defensive backs that are in trouble. Araujo and Jules Kounde not only are the best at the position, but they have brought a very specific profile. Substituting them in for Eric Garcia and Gerard Pique changes the tactical dynamic completely. Xavi needs to have the team prepared to make adjustments as new players’ strengths and weaknesses are introduced to the lineup.
It has been refreshing to see this team become so much more solid in the back. With Pique, and maybe even the reintroduction of Jordi Alba at some point, it may seem like Barca is taking a step back. Hopefully, that’s not the case, and the old guard can learn something from the young guns who replaced them.
Maybe their veteran experience could be an asset as the season progresses. Ultimately, it will come down to minimizing costly mistakes, and playing with tempo that leverages the array of attacking talent up front, taking pressure off the back four and their lack of defensive prowess.
But what happens if Robert Lewandowski or Ousmane Dembele go down? No one wants to think about it, but there needs to be a plan.
What about Pedri? We already know what happened last season as a result of him being overused and unable to help a team that was becoming dependent on his ability to organize the midfield.
That’s why rotation will continue to be critical.
Barcelona can’t depend on anyone. From game to game, Xavi needs to be able to trust that he can call the name of any player, and that they will have the hunger to perform.
The club has invested heavily to build a deep team that could withstand the challenges of this World Cup season, and beyond.
Ready or not, throw caution to the wind, because a player like Ansu Fati will be needed.
Ferran Torres, in form or not, and regardless of whether he’s your cup of tea, will need to step up and be the player that Xavi and Luis Enrique believe he can become.
With proven goal scorer Memphis Depay out, Ferran may need to deputize as Lewandowski’s center forward backup.
Pablo Torre, don’t get too discouraged or settled in at Barca Atletic. You may just be needed after all to give relief to a Barcelona midfield that is also moonlighting as the starting trio for the Spanish national team.
And who knows, maybe Xavi will decide to use Frenkie de Jong as a central defender if the recovery of Araujo and Kounde drags on, and their replacements don’t show they have what it takes.
So many possibilities are on the table. Xavi needs to become a weatherman and start forecasting the future, because once the storm hits, his men need to be brave and sail through it head on.
This is a fascinating season to be a manager with each decision made loaded with consequences.
Coming out of this international break, it’s back to business, even if new and unproven faces are the ones doing the work on the field.
There will be opportunities aplenty in October.
Who will be the most motivated to take advantage of them?