One constant, in the midst of this crisis, has been hope. Another has been the Lautaro to Barça transfer news. It simply does not go away. Ever since the summer, Barça have been linked to the Argentine forward, with many branding him the heir apparent to an ageing Luis Suárez. It was expected that with the pandemic in full flow, transfer spending (and as a consequence) transfers rumours would subside. Yet, that has not transpired. Instead, even more news has emerged, of ludicrous ‘swap’ deals and what not. Many outlets have reported that the club is looking to move on Arthur, Junior and even Antoine Griezmann, to get the move over the line. It is highly (very highly) unlikely that there is any truth to these rumours. However, it is clear that the club is interested in the player, and has been for a while.
Replacing Luis Suárez is a tall order. For years, the Uruguayan has functioned as a selfless no.9, with countless dummy runs, wide-shifts and deep link-ups. Suárez has proved the perfect foil to an ageing Messi. Suárez has been particularly excellent with his wide-shifts, moving onto the flanks to make space for a marauding Messi; sometimes he’d drag defenders alongside or make them hive around Messi, freeing space either way. Suárez has also possessed a sort of gravity, an ability to split defenders, especially inside the box. Playing with this version of Messi is tricky for a centre-forward, considering he constantly floats into their sphere of operation and doesn’t offer them much in terms of off-the ball facilitation. Suárez has managed it, can Lautaro do the same?
Intuitively, one would say yes.
As confirmed by the radar above, Lautaro and Suárez are good at many of the same things, only Lautaro couples that with a level of athleticism that the current version of Suárez lacks. Lautaro is an adept presser and manages 4.89 pressure regains p90 (which for your reference, is more than Sergio Busquets). In a high-octane Conte side, he leads the press from the front, alongside a more reserved Lukaku. This is something that could really boost Barça’s press in the final third. Currently, Barça often press with nine men, with the midfield doing a disproportionate amount of the off-the ball work. Suárez and Messi have never been particularly adept pressers, yes, but that has worsened with age. Their lethargy is often offset by adequate end product, yes, but it hampers Barça’s defensive structure. The addition of Lautaro Martinez may help balance out Messi’s off-the ball work, especially if Griezmann stays in the mix. In a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond/3-4-1-2, with Messi operating behind Lautaro and Griezmann, Setién could (in theory) have a much more effective pressing setup. Lautaro could, as a volume shooter, also facilitate Messi’s withdrawal into a deeper position.
However, it is uncertain whether that 3-5-2 would work, even with a Lautaro Martinez in the mix. With Messi’s off the ball limitations, Barça have no choice but to pack the midfield (central areas especially). With a two man pivot behind a more advanced midfielder (i.e Messi) that would be tough, unless one of the wing-backs tucks in (which of course, may create problems of its own). It is likely, therefore, that Barça will stick to a three-man midfield and that Lautaro (if he does come) would be deployed as part of a three-man attack. A 4-1-2-1-2 may help rectify the numbers in midfield problem, however it would severely stretch Barça’s full-backs who would need to work double time to provide width and support the two centre-halves.
It seems there’s no escaping the 4-3-3, then? Well, that comes with its own set of problems. Barça’s current 4-3-3 works because Suárez and Dembele (when fit) act as runners, opening up space for Messi and allowing him to play it in. The dilemma is that Lautaro often does the same at Inter, moving into deeper areas to allow Lukaku/the wing-backs to advance; in the absence of a ‘10’ Lautaro often plays the ‘facilitator’, moving into deeper areas to link up with the midfielders. In Conte’s system, he actually bears resemblance to a secondary striker more than an out and out striker, as evidenced by his heatmap. That would mean, in theory, that if Barça were to field Lautaro and Messi together, they could run into many of the same problems that they do with Griezmann and Messi; that is, a lack of runners in behind the defensive line. However, that is assuming that Lautaro will be unable to play as a more ‘direct’ forward, which is quite possible as evidenced by his games with Argentina.
He is only 22, however, and has already made giant strides as compared to last season. As evidenced by the radar below, Lautaro has sharpened almost every aspect of his game and has consolidated a spot in the starting eleven, under a demanding coach. Lautaro has sharpened his off-the ball game and positioning further, fully living up to his ‘El Toro’ nickname.
Intuitively, it makes sense to sign Lautaro. And under normal circumstances, the club would surely go for him. However, these are not normal circumstances. Barça’s finances would have been seriously haemorrhaged by the drying up of football’s own demand and supply. And with (upcoming) end in sight, in terms of the COVID-19 crisis, it is unclear whether Barça will even be able to spend in the summer. Throughout that lens, a €111 million transfer fee seems absurd. Especially when cheaper options may be available.
However, things are changing so fast these days. By tomorrow we may even have landed El Toro.