In an effort to evaluate what’s going wrong at Barcelona, let’s consider a key position. The wingers.
They are the attacking specialists. The creative spark to break down the last line of defense. But at Barcelona this season, they are struggling to fulfill their role.
Here’s the stats line in La Liga.
Raphinha has 2 goals and 1 assist in 9 games.
Lamine Yamal has 1 goal and 3 assists in 13 games.
Joao Felix has 1 goal and 2 assists in 10 games.
Ferran Torres has 3 goals and 0 assists in 12 games. Most of his goals came while playing as a false nine.
These numbers are not good. They show that the wingers are not scoring from their position, and even more important, they are not providing service.
Beyond the numbers, the eye test doesn’t lie. They have had little success in one versus one situations, which is why they’re struggling to take advantage of one of the best center forwards of his generation in Robert Lewandowski.
Just this last weekend it was Jules Kounde who put in the cross to help break the goal drought of the Polish international.
In recent games, because the forwards are doing little to provide a threat in the box, Ronald Araujo has galivanted forward to show them what it means to pick a spot in the area in order to be goal dangerous in live play.
Lewandowski rightfully took criticism for berating the young Yamal. His struggles can’t be blamed solely on the lack of danger coming down the flank, but he knows better than anyone else what world class service and decision making looks like.
Frankly, Yamal’s role is only so big because the veterans in front of him have contributed so little. Remember that his first big opportunity came as a result of Raphinha’s silly red card on opening day.
Ferran Torres has never impressed from the position. At the moment, he’s shown he can be valuable in a utility role off the bench, but can’t be relied on to take on a much bigger role than that when the whole team is available.
Give credit to Yamal, a 16-year-old, for bravely seizing the opportunity, but we are now reaching a point where it looks like reality is setting in. It’s not good for his development or confidence to be so overexposed and overused so early on in his career.
And that brings us to Joao Felix. The emergency loan signing at the end of the transfer window. The cast-off from Atletico Madrid who Diego Simeone was desperate to get rid of. A player whose arrival has also coincided with the drop-off of dynamic left full-back Alejandro Balde.
Really only at Barcelona because of Ousmane Dembele’s shock departure, and Xavi’s harsh evaluations of Ansu Fati and Ez Abde.
For a second, just for the sake of conversation, ask yourself which group of wingers would better serve Barcelona if they were with the team.
Joao Felix, Raphinha, and Ferran Torres.
Or Dembele, Fati, and Abde.
There is a world in which Xavi and the club could have any combination of the above player pools if they had counted on and courted them with more intention.
Dembele isn’t lighting up the stats sheet, but he is indispensable to Luis Enrique for the same reasons that Xavi would never drop him. He is simply one of the most dangerous players on the field every game day.
Roberto De Zerbi has taken a methodical approach to using Fati. He’s forcing the former prodigy to earn his minutes. He’s believing in him, which keeps his confidence high, but also pushing him to be the very best version of himself. And to not be satisfied with achieving the bear minimum for a talented player from game to game.
Maybe the answer is that for years Barcelona’s approach to cultivating, and signing new wingers, has been a failure. A lot of money has been spent, and young talent has been squandered.
In the short term, Xavi will have to determine a way to get the most of the players he has available to him.
The wingers on the roster may not be long-term solutions, but if they hit their form, they still have a lot they can provide.
Down the road, however, across the front line, Barcelona needs a reckoning.
Lionel Messi is gone and the era isn’t coming back. Lewandowski won’t be around for much longer either.
So who will be the next great Barcelona goal scorer and playmaker?
It’s hard to believe it’s anyone currently on the roster, but Yamal is certainly the great hope.
And with little money to spend, it may not come in the form of the next big name on the market.
But if Barca is to reach the summit of the European football again, they need to know where the goals will come from.
Right now, they are scoring less than Girona and Atletico Madrid. Meanwhile, Jude Bellingham is leading the Pichichi race for Real Madrid, and former Barca player Antoine Griezmann is right behind.
Barca target Nico Williams has the most assists. Could he be a solution?
Maybe the problem isn’t the players at all, but rather with Xavi?
If that’s the case, would bringing in the right manager get the most out of an expensive investment like Raphinha?
There are no easy answers, but with a season-defining stretch of games coming up, the wingers currently on the roster will need to step up and prove the doubters wrong.
They can start by learning a lesson from the Alaves fixture.
Look for Lewandowski. If you can find him, chances are he’ll finish.
If Barcelona can get that dynamic going, a lot could change quickly.