Our series previewing the La Liga teams to watch continues with the most interesting squad in Europe And no, I’m not talking about Getafe. 😢
Where the heck do we even begin with Barcelona?
Lionel Messi, as you may have heard, is back for one final season, after all. Other than that, though, there are nothing but questions about new Manager Ronald Koeman and Barcelona.
With the La Liga transfer window open until October 5, this roster could be in for plenty more turnover. La Liga games — for everyone besides Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Atleti, Getafe and Elche, who kick off later this month — started September 12, though, so now is the time to preview Barcelona’s ’20-21 campaign.
The offseason began with talk that Sergio Busquets, Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic, among others, would all be gone as Barcelona looked to get younger.
So far, though, only Rakitic has actually departed, as the Croatian returned to Sevilla. Now, following Messi’s U-turn, all those players suddenly have a lot less interest in moving on.
We could easily write an entire piece on how we expect everything to go for Koeman as he tries to relegate proud veterans to the bench (especially Suárez, if he hasn’t joined Juventus or Atlético Madrid). For this piece, though, let’s focus on how we should expect Koeman to manage the players who were not pinpointed as “no longer part of the picture.”
Who steps in for Marc-André ter Stegen?
The one player other than Messi whose role is secure is Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The German will be looking to bounce back from the embarrassment he suffered in last season’s 8-2 loss to nemesis Manuel Neuer and Bayern Munich.
One of the most underrated concerns for this club early in the season is how they’ll hold up without ter Stegen, who will likely be sidelined due to injury until late October.
Once he’s back and healthy, Barcelona should be rock-solid at keeper. With everything going on off the field, it’s critical that they avoid another slow start this year (they sputtered while Messi missed time last October, securing just seven points from their first five matches). Can you imagine the uproar if this team is once again languishing around seventh place after a bad month to open the season??
No favors early from the schedule makers
Barcelona will not have an easy early schedule to ease into things, either. They open with a Villarreal team many expect to challenge for a spot in La Liga’s top four on September 27 before a relative breather at Celta Vigo on September 30.
They’ll be tested in a big way in their next three: home vs. Sevilla on October 4, at Getafe on October 18 and home vs. Real Madrid on October 25.
What will the back line look like?
Gerard Piqué gives the Catalans a solid center back, but the back four appears to be a big weakness. At best, it’s a questionable group, and not just because of how it looked vs. Bayern in the Champions League quarters. If Jordi Alba’s time is indeed up, who steps in at left back? Junior Firpo? Did we mention we have questions?
There is also uncertainty at the other center back spot (unless you expect one of Clement Lenglet, Jean-Clair Todibo or Samuel Umtiti to stay healthy and thrive there) and right back. Sergi Roberto will likely be phased out. Nelson Semedo does offer something to the attack, but can he prove solid enough defensively? I doubt it. And so does Bayern’s Alphonso Davies.
— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) August 14, 2020
What does Koeman do with his midfield options?
This is where we’ll likely see the most experimentation. Frenkie de Jong should be a regular, and a cog for his club, in his second season. Barcelona has invested so much in Miralem Pjanic that he’ll probably start more games than not, especially early.
So who will join those two? There’s been plenty of buzz about Koeman using a 4-2-3-1. Marca not only predicts that’s what he’ll go with, it even has his preferred lineup pegged. Per Marca, his midfielders would be Pjanic and de Jong in holding roles behind Ansu Fati at left wing, Messi in the No. 10 spot and Ousmane Dembélé at right wing, with Antoine Griezmann as the lone striker.
There are also rumors of a 4-2-3-1 with a front four of Dembélé on the left, Griezmann as a No. 10, Messi at right wing and Fati as the central striker
Is it just me, or is that a pretty imposing XI, especially up top? That’s assuming, of course, that you can look past that dicey Alba-Lenglet-Piqué-Semedo back four.
What if Koeman goes with a 4-3-3?
If he has any regard for everyone who discusses Barcelona on Twitter, he will make room for Riqui Puig. Puig, 21, would give his team a much-needed boost of athleticism if his performances late last season are any indication.
There’s also a good chance (or at least a lot of speculation) that Gini Wijnaldum signs with this club, and he’d obviously command a prominent role if brought into the fold.
And we haven’t even mentioned Philippe Coutinho yet! Does the Brazilian finally get a chance to remind us why Barcelona paid so much for him back in ’18? Anyone acting like they know the answer to that is fooling themselves.
Messi guarantees the offense will hum, one way or another
Regardless of how his team lines up and who plays alongside him, a front line including Messi ought to score plenty of goals. Assuming Griezmann finally integrates, Dembélé shows some durability and/or Fati continues to blossom, the offense should not be an issue. Big years from any of those three — God forbid two of them — would enable Barcelona to push for a La Liga title.
The bottom line
Messi is good enough on his own to keep his team in the title race in La Liga, but there are too many issues to bet on this squad to win the league (+150) or Champions League (+1500). If Dembélé, Coutinho and Griezmann all enjoy redemption seasons at the same time and the locker room somehow comes together amid all the organizational tumult, then yes, Barcelona could hang with anyone on the continent.
But raise your hand if you’re really banking on all those things.