It’s a challenging month ahead for Barcelona.
One that could put the team on the path back to the Champions League, or raise alarms that hard times are ahead.
The first test will be this weekend against top four opponent Atletico Madrid, but it won’t get easier from there with Valencia and Athletic Club on deck.
Add to that a Europa League contest against Serie A contenders Napoli, and you have what amounts to a sink or swim month for new manager Xavi.
It’s enough to tie a culer’s stomach in knots.
Or have hope that this is the moment the club turns a corner.
There are negatives, with injury relapses to Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay.
But also positives, with the exciting arrivals of Adama Traore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Ferran Torres, all of whom will hope to make the most of the fresh start to their careers.
The big unanswered question will be the role of Ousmane Dembele. Will he have a part to play? Time, and circumstances, will tell.
Here’s a breakdown of the roster, and where I think the depth chart currently stands.
Aubameyang, Ferran Torres, Luuk de Jong, Martin Braithwaite, Ferran Jutgla
This is Aubameyang’s job to lose. He’s not here on a loan, but rather a signing with the chance to play a key role in the resurrection of Barcelona Football Club over the next year and a half.
Before he signed, my money was on Ferran Torres to play up the middle, and I’m actually a bit concerned that doesn’t have the profile to shine as a winger.
If Aubameyang doesn’t take off quickly, don’t be surprised if Xavi gives the young Spaniard an opportunity as a false nine.
After that, it’s a three way battle with Luuk de Jong, Martin Braithwaite, and Ferran Jutgla.
If Luuk’s form dips, there will be an opening for Braithwaite, who started the season on fire before getting sidelined with an injury.
Jutgla has been impressive, but whether Xavi continues to show faith in the youngsters, or rely on the veterans, will be a space worth watching.
My bet, you’re going to see him shift to a more mature lineup with the forwards.
More options off the bench, however, is a welcome development.
Adama Traore, Ferran Torres, Ez Abde, Ousmane Dembele, Memphis Depay, Ansu Fati
When everyone is healthy, Xavi has tactical options here.
I’d expect to see a rotation of Ferran, Abde and Adama on the wing. If Xavi plays Ferran in the middle, there’s a good chance you could see all three at the same time.
Abde has been a bulldog, and a pure winger, but he needs to start scoring goals, and make good decisions with the ball consistently.
Adama will need to show he can adapt to the Barca possession style of play, or go rogue and make an impact with his unique ability to steamroll the opposition with pace and physicality. This a win-win situation since it would be, no doubt, a lot of fun to watch either way.
The Dembele question will be an ongoing topic of debate. Early struggles in February could force Xavi’s hand. Inquiring minds would love to see what happens when you play Dembele and Adama at the same time.
Barca will have to find a way in the short term without Memphis or Ansu, but both will be ready to take over on the left flank when they return.
Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Gavi, Nico, Riqui Puig, Sergi Roberto
The area of strength and depth. Let the competition begin.
Pedri, Gavi, and Frenkie need to be, and stay, at the top of their game (maybe score some goals?) to maintain a starting role in the attacking midfield.
But wait you may be saying, can’t we play all three at the same time?
Indeed, with Frenkie in the holding role, it would be more than possible. It would, however, require Xavi to make a brave decision with Sergio Busquets that no coach has been willing to make.
With Nico’s versatility, you even have a great backup option to experiment with.
It’s reassuring to know that with Nico and Riqui Puig, even an injury at this position wouldn’t be devastating.
Xavi would do well to experiment here, rotate, and keep the legs fresh. The internal competition would benefit everyone.
Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Nico
What are the chances that anyone but Sergio Busquets plays as the CDM?
Xavi would be sending a powerful message to his team by trying Frenkie and Nico in this role.
He could even try a double pivot, with Gavi or Pedri playing in front.
Point is, try new things, because the inconsistency at this position, especially in big games against physical opponents, has been hurting the team for years.
You’ll never know unless you try. Time to at least try something new.
Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Sergino Dest, Alejandro Balde, Ez Abde, Adama Traore
Will Xavi play with wing backs?
That would be a good way to get the most out of Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, especially on the days when Dani Alves can’t play.
It would also give the team an alternative to relying on the true high and wide wingers up front, especially if the team is determined to not let Dembele play.
Point is, you have two awesome attacking threats in Dest and Alba. Give them the cover of three center backs, and help rescue their confidence and unleash their potential.
We all know Dani Alves will be a source of reliability and creativity. But give that man a rest from time to time.
And please don’t forget that Alejandro Balde exists, and should be given an opportunity to prove himself too, the same way the young forwards have.
Araujo, Pique, Lenglet, Eric Garcia, Mingueza, Umtiti, Mika Marmol
First and foremost, Ronald Araujo needs to stay healthy. Barca, protect that man, because your future kind of depends on it.
After that, pick your poison.
Gerard Pique is probably still the man, and has put in solid performances, certainly better than his veteran compatriots.
With Eric Garcia out, maybe it’s time to try Oscar Mingueza from time to time in the middle where he belongs?
Otherwise, you’re stuck with Clement Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti.
Unless… will we see Mika Marmol?
Why not? Worse case scenario, he’s not ready for primetime and you move on quickly.
Best case, Barca discovers they have a left footed center back option right in their backyard.
What a great discovery that would be.
MATS, it’s you, it was always ever going to be only you.
Neto frankly hasn’t been able to offer much competition.
It’s Ter-Spiderman against himself.
At his best, MATS is a super goalie who can single handedly rescue the points needed to give the team a top four finish.
But he needs to fight through his mental demons, and get back to being the confident shot-stopper, and leader from the back, we all know he can be.
Possible lineup in a 4-4-3
MATS, Alves, Araujo, Pique, Alba, Busquets, Gavi, Pedri, Adama, Aubameyang, Ferran Torres
Possible lineup in a 3-5-2
MATS, Araujo, Pique, Lenglet, Dest, Alba, Frenkie, Gavi, Pedri, Ferran Torres, Aubameyang
Possible lineup in a 4-2-3-1
MATS, Alves, Araujo, Pique, Alba/Dest, Nico, Frenkie, Pedri, Adama, Dembele, Aubameyang
How do you think Barca should lineup?