preview | 2016-08-19
Exciting opportunities and small concerns ahead of Barcelona's La Liga opener
New players, a complete overhaul of the bench and Messi as the captain, what Barça has gotten in story for the La Liga season?
Summer’s almost over and with it, the new season kicks off. With the Spanish Cup wrapped up, Barça sets its sights on all the possible opportunities this new season has to offer. We saw a busy summer of transactions all over Europe, and it’s clear Barça duly missed the rush of bringing in new recruits. Sure it hasn’t been as busy as the English Isle, and you won’t see multibillion-dollar infusions coming into La Liga from television rights anytime soon, yet a lot has changed.
Lucas Digne (23), Samuel Umtiti (22), André Gomes (23), Denis Suárez (22), and the promotion of Sergi Samper (21) - it’s becoming obvious how Luis Enrique wants to reform the bench in his third summer transfer window; Barça finds itself with a dynamic squad filled with youthful quality in depth. It was something they’ve lacked over last season, that inability to field reliable substitutes over the iconic treble winning gala XI. So while most positions have been well covered with suitable recruits, there are still some minor concerns here and there. The market’s not closed yet though, so there’s still time for more changes.
Luis Enrique will treat this season just as he treated his first one with the first team - intense rotations with freedom to be tactically flexible and dynamic. While many could accuse the Asturian of how he handled his squad selections in his first few months at Barça, many will claim that it was thanks to exactly that the players had enough energy in them to push through and go all the way winning the treble. And this statement was arguably proved more last season, when Lucho’s problems were more about giving his star players some rest rather than finding a consistent eleven within 29 games. This season however, Luis Enrique has the reliable resources to field his strongest men while having sufficient resources to rotate confidently.
Barcelona (1.73) right now the favorites to win La Liga according to football betting odds at William Hill in front of Real Madrid (2.40) and Atlético Madrid (11.00). The new team with Messi embracing the role of captainship more than ever before, is filled with not only star players but opportunities for young players to own certain positions.
The first one is between the posts; with Bravo likely to be on his way out, it’s finally time for Marc-André ter Stegen to take the center stage as his jersey number claims it. And while it is frankly sad to see Bravo part ways so soon, it’s safe to say that the Chilean was the only flawless goalkeeper I’ve seen in a Barça jersey. However in this new, young Barça, it’s unhealthy for the German to play second-fiddle for a third season in a row. Goalkeepers need consistency more than anyone, and Bravo’s in the way of this young man’s development.
The second is the back line. Starting with the right-back position, I’ll try to make it clear that you cannot replace the irreplaceable. Dani Alves left Barça as a legend, the best-ever in that position, redefining it to his own name. Expecting someone to replace him is unfair. However, I do have many concerns over that position, and it’s down to the little faith I have for Aleix Vidal at the moment. He has the right skills to fill the spot, he’s quick, his passes are fine and he’s generally good on the ball - especially in attack. When defending however, positioning is one of his biggest flaws, just above his slow decision making. These flaws can be turned, with time and experience the player will get better. The cost of that time however is down to how much Barça can depend on Sergi Roberto, which at the moment it’s safe to say that it’s a lot.
Other positions that offer opportunity are Samuel Umtiti’s integration within the team and whether he can bench El Jefecito. So far the Frenchman’s been reliable and I am excited to see how he’ll fare besides Pique. There’s also Andre Gomes, whom with all the money he was purchased for, will serve firstly as an understudy to Don Andres before he - dare I say it - ultimately with time, share his position in Barça’s midfield fort.
So while all in all, this new Barça looks frightening and fresh to rule once again, there are five players apart from those we’ve discussed whom I expect, or better yet ask, to step it up.
The first man is the one I picked to become the breakthrough player of the year, and that’s Denis Suarez. With Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta already laminated in Barça’s midfield, and Gomes coming in with so much talent and investment - the pressure is all on Denis Suárez to show his qualities on the midfield. Luis Enrique clearly likes him, and I see him having more opportunities than initially perceived. However when time gets tough during the season, he must not find himself in the dispensable zone of the locker room because he has more to offer than what he’s already shown in that brief pre-season period. He’s got the potential, now he has to step up.
The second man might come as a surprise to some of you, but that would be Neymar. Most of us forget he went through a slump in that second half of last season, and he did play a role in some of Barça’s misfortunes. It’s no secret the Brazilian is mesmerized by the idea of making it to the top, however that should not be his main drive. Looking at his goal charts last season before he was nominated to the Ballon d’Or podium for his first time ever in January, Neymar had bagged about 20 goals in the lead up and celebration of that nomination - suffering all of his injuries beforehand - but became more sporadic in his goal/game rate in the second half of that season with 11 goals since February. We mustn’t forget that it was he who stepped up to bring Barça goals in Messi’s absence in August/September. The Brazilian’s getting better every season, but last season’s slump cannot be repeated - this is the time when Neymar must take that mantle from Leo and truly lead in attack like he once did.
As for the final three men: Arda Turan, Rafinha and Munir El Haddadi. The three find themselves in awkward situations where they must show their worth under the shadows of the powerful MSN. If the club fails to sign a reliable striker this summer, the three will serve to fill out the puzzle in times of rotations or injury.
Starting with Turan, I cannot see the Turk playing long on the midfield, which is why it was tough for him last season to adapt. The Super Cup games have shown how much use the 29-year old can bring when fielded on the wing. Conservative and a lot more intelligent when covering up for the left-back, Arda Turan can offer stability on the pitch and still able to cut in and score goals when playing against a team waiting for counter-attacks. Very different from Neymar, but could be well-used in certain matches.
Then there’s Munir. Personally, I’ve lost patience with the Moroccan-Spaniard. By now I would have wanted him to offer more than what he already is - but you cannot deny that he’s growing, albeit slowly. Right now, no striker in the world wants to wait on the bench while three superstars occupy his opportunities. So Munir will have to take that extra step, show some grit and will to fight up front this season. The expectations are low when it comes to him, and he finds himself as an understudy to some of the greatest talents the game has ever seen - but this should give him confidence to learn, not intimidation to compete. Munir seems afraid everytime he’s on the field, and the age of 20 that’s just normal, but I doubt the coach or the fans will give him more than this year to show himself without him delivering.
Then finally there’s Rafinha, one of my favorite youngsters in the squad. Rafinha found himself with a bad injury last season that kept him out of most of the campaign. With that, it kept him out of the squad for quite some time until other recruits were brought. This leaves a major question mark over his role next season, and he finds himself along with Arda and Munir as a replacement for the star men upfront since the midfield has become overly crowded. In these times, Rafinha could be easily be pushed out of the squad had he not been one of Luis Enrique’s favorite prodigées.
Hopefully Luis Enrique finds solutions within all these concerns. He’s got a big squad full of quality and talent. In this squad, no player is useless, and the new signings have shown how exciting all these changes can be. Will we win a treble for the third time? We can’t hope for it this soon, but a recruiting Barça, a stable Real Madrid and a growing Atlético offers much incentive that this season in Spain will be very interesting indeed.
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WRITTEN BY: Aly Abdelwahab
Content writer and Sports Management graduate, Aly has lived in Barcelona for four years and intends to work in the modern development of the Beautiful game. He's weird, overly descriptive, and maybe too much of a film buff for his own good.