A new Barcelona season is upon us with the La Liga opener against Getafe on Sunday.
The market remains open and there’s plenty of work to be done, but the squad is starting to take shape.
The mission is clear: Barça must defend their league crown, get out of their Champions League group, and look to make a deep run in Europe’s top competition for the first time in three years.
Ready or not, Xavi Hernández and his men must hit the ground running.
The following season preview seeks to evaluate how prepared they are.
Xavi’s starting eleven seems pretty clear, with one big question to answer after the departure of Ousmane Dembélé.
If everyone is healthy, his pick of the defenders will be Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, and Alejandro Balde. Captain Marc-André ter Stegen is in the prime of his career, and will lead the team from the back and between the sticks.
For the defense, Iñigo Martínez provides much needed depth, and may be counted on as a starter if Xavi experiments with a three-man backline.
The lack of depth in the full-back position, however, is where things get dicey.
Kounde and Araujo would prefer to not play there, but at the same time most of us are hoping to see as little of Sergi Roberto and Marcos Alonso as possible.
One new full-back doesn’t feel like enough, especially given the marginalization of Sergiño Dest. A right-back is a necessity, and a new left-back isn’t far behind in the priority list.
But the midfield may very well be where the team succeeds or fails this season.
My guess is that instead of replacing Dembélé, Xavi will play with four midfielders instead.
We know that Frenkie de Jong, Gavi and Pedri will pick up three of the four spots.
If we are to read into the preseason, it looks like Oriol Romeu will get the first crack in the lineup even before Ilkay Gundogan, who will surely get plenty of minutes but may have to fight off one of the midfielders in front of him to become an undisputed starter.
On the forward line, Robert Lewandowski will need to have a super season in order for Barcelona to succeed. For that to happen he needs playmaking, hence the importance of the midfield stepping up and showing creativity.
Raphinha is good for a moment of brilliance, as he demonstrated with the assist to open up the scoring at the Joan Gamper Trophy, but continues to underwhelm in spite of his work rate.
Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati both looked goal hungry over the summer, and either one could be a breakout star if Xavi trusts them enough to provide meaningful opportunities.
The wildcards of the bunch are Ez Abde, Fermín López, and Lamine Yamal. The youngsters will put pressure on their more experienced comrades, and Xavi should give them serious consideration in order to maintain high standards from game to game. Poor performances can’t be tolerated.
There’s a lot of pressure on Xavi this season.
We should start by giving him his flowers for putting Barça back on the rails with a domestic title. In the short term, he has already proven to be the right coach at the right time.
But going forward is another question. The next step in the process is to be competitive again in the Champions League knockout rounds, and this is the area where the Barça legend has fallen short the most.
It’s not just that Barça failed to get past the group stage last season, or that they weren’t able to reach a Europa League Final.
The performances in the group stage were actually quite spirited. That’s already a big improvement from the Ronald Koeman days. The esprit de corps was the best we’ve seen in years, but that’s not saying a lot given the European failures under Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién.
Xavi’s failures quite simply came down to tactical errors, poor player selection, and subpar game management.
For one, that’s why it’s so important for this team to have depth. Xavi got unlucky with Araujo and Kounde going down at the worst time during the Champions League last season, but he is to blame, for choosing Marcos Alonso over Alejandro Balde… more than once.
It gets even worse when you throw in Sergi Roberto and Eric García and seriously expect the backline to hold strong instead of going with Balde, Jordi Alba, and even the experience of Gerard Piqué when he was still there.
Being blindsided by Eintracht Frankfurt and falling apart to Manchester United suggested that Xavi’s Barcelona still lack a backbone in knockout games.
Xavi needs to get Barça ready for these games with the same passion and preparation that he’s used to take down Real Madrid over and over again. These games shouldn’t be looked at as “finals”, bur rather as Clásicos. In large part the issue is one of attitude. At the end of the day they need to compete ruthlessly for trophies the way their rivals do.
To get there the tactics will also matter, and that’s where we may see the biggest changes.
With the departure of Dembélé, is the 4-3-3 gone?
Ez Abde is the player who can most easily step in and take over that position forming a trident with Lewandowski and Raphinha, but whether that’s the strongest lineup Xavi can put out remains an open question.
Ferran Torres, who for all intents and purposes looks like he may be used as a backup striker this season, is another player smart enough to play the position, but probably won’t help Barça get to the places they want to go. For me Ansu Fati deserves his shot this season, but a 4-3-3 doesn’t play to his strengths.
Stepping back from formation, what is it that Barça need on the pitch?
First and foremost, goalscorers.
To that end, Lewandowski and Ansu Fati are your two best options. Ferran can get hot, but he can also go ice cold.
Can you play Ansu and Lewy at the same time? Or would it be better to have playmakers on the wing like Raphinha, Abde, or even Lamine Yamal?
Most likely, even if Xavi does play a 4-3-3, he’ll insert a false winger, like Gavi, instead. If Bernardo Silva somehow makes his way to Montjuïc, he’s another candidate.
But if Xavi really does want to play with four midfielders, it’s probably best to move away from the 4-3-3 all together.
This preseason we expected to see experiments with three at the back but instead got a glimpse of a midfield “diamond,” although I’m not sure I would call it that exactly.
It seems clear that Xavi likes Romeu as a stand alone defensive midfielder.
After that he’s giving Frenkie the freedom to drop low to pick up the ball off the defenders, making a pseudo double pivot at times, while also encouraging him to carry the ball forward, one of his greatest strengths. This would make De Jong a true box-to-box, leaving Pedri and Gavi to play as left and right interior attacking midfielders. I’d also expect to see Gundogan and Fermín play in those positions if that is indeed the default system.
As seen against Tottenham, it still looks like a work in progress. How much time will Xavi allow in order for the midfield to click? We have to assume that the desired outcome is to progress the ball through short passes in the middle, but instead the progress has mostly come from Frenkie, Pedri or Balde carrying the ball forward by themselves.
The shape looked very narrow, especially given the lack of presence on the right side. That could be where a player like Yamal makes his impact.
Maybe Xavi would have experimented with a three-man backline if Martínez was healthy. That remains to be seen, but having Balde as a left-back is promising. They’d just have to figure out who to play on the right side.
With the unfortunate injury to Thibaut Courtois Barça have been given a golden gift, and are now once again the favorites to win La Liga.
But that comes with added pressure. Even without their starting goalkeeper, Real Madrid has great players who are sure to be able to win games on their own. It’s possible that his absence will be felt the most in the Champions League, if he can’t return from injury by then.
Barça need to remain consistent domestically, as they were last season. If the defense can maintain their high level, Barcelona may have all they need, but they shouldn’t take it for granted.
They need their attacking players to score more goals, period. All eyes will be on Robert Lewandowski, but even if he can’t get back to his Ballon d’Or level there should be a supporting cast good enough to provide reinforcement.
Raphinha will surely be given the first chance, and hopefully he takes it. If he doesn’t perform early on, Xavi can’t waste time. Hopefully he gives a fair chance to Fati and Ferran.
Even more important is for Xavi to trust the drive and desire of the young players looking to make their mark. Do we have breakout stars in Yamal, Fermín and Abde? At the very least, they will have the energy and incentive to make an impact in whatever minutes they’re given.
When it comes to the Champions League, hopefully Barça get a more favorable group stage draw compared to the last few years, but part of me also wants them to have to prove it, even if they are put in a Group of Death again.
I want to see where this team is at, and if Xavi is the man to lead the club forward.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but not a lot of time to do it in.
Let’s go Barça. Don’t settle. Back to the top where you belong.