In thinking of a single-word depiction of feelings entering this new football season that kicks off Saturday against Rayo Vallecano, that simple word comes to mind. Apprehension, nervousness, risk and excitement exist in equal measures as Barça laces up the boots for real this time.
We know about the levers, so many levers, all the levers being pulled all the time in an effort to bring solutions to the many problems that have plagued the team over previous seasons. And the solutions bring their own sets of problems, a can being kicked down the road as Isaiah so eloquently lays out in this Barça finances post.
After dispensing with the “GULP!” of fiscal unease, we’re left with that feeling where everything is possible, even as it’s also likely that nothing will be possible. The club has brought in Robert Lewandowski, Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie, Jules Kounde and Raphinha. The club is also working to lock down the extravagantly repulsive signing of Marcos Alonso from Chelsea, presumably because two old fullbacks who are crap at defending, along with a young fullback who is crap at defending, aren’t enough.
In coup after coup, most notably at the expense of Chelsea, Barça has reinforced key areas, adding a generational goalscorer, the best CB in La Liga not named Araujo, a dynamic Brazilian winger and a CB who Eric “Sta-Puft” Garcia will be sideeyeing for months to come.
Coming off an unbeaten pre-season that featured romps with the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus, compliant MLS sides and a right pummeling of Pumas in the Gamper. Dembele was the top scorer, something sure to rile many, Lewandowski showed what an exceptional associative player he is and Raphinha has the work rate of Thierry Henry. And we haven’t even really seen what Kounde can do yet.
MVP of the pre-season is of course, Mateu Alemany, who managed to, with astute buys and monitoring Chelsea’s WhatsApp channel, set the team up for what, on paper, presages an impressive season for a group that finished second in league last year, buoyed by a resurgent Dembele and key goals from the likes of Luuk de Jong and Aubameyang.
The depth in attack the team has on offer this season is astonishing. Ansu Fati and Ferran “Broad Side of a Barn” Torres are also part of that bounty of on-the-ball talent that will have Xavi salivating as he writes his lineup card. Dembele, Raphinha, Fati, Torres, Lewandowski, Aubameyang and maybe but not likely Memphis Depay is just absurd.
Xavi will be equally happy filling in that midfield portion, as Kessie arrived from AC Milan to surprise those who hadn’t watched that much of him in Serie A, and make those who are familiar with the agile, talented mid smile in approbation. He adds so much to a group that includes Sergi “Grecian Formula” Busquets, a fit Pedri, a much improved Gavi, “Lord Knows” Pjanic, who punted Nico Gonzalez to Valencia, Sergi Roberto and maybe, just maybe, Frenkie “Show Me the Money” De Jong.
And then we have the defense. Keeper is etched in stone with Ter Stegen, who has been moving and passing better, as the undisputed incumbent. His back line which returns with Ronald Araujo, “Regrets, I Have A Few” Pique, Garcia, and adds Christensen and Kounde. Madness, when you consider that Araujo has improved to the point where he is an automatic starter. Christensen surprised in pre-season with smart play, on-the-ball elegance and a willingness to get down and dirty in defense. And then there’s Kounde, who adds that ball-driving CB that the team has been lacking since Umtiti’s knees went on permanent holiday.
Xavi could start any two or three of those and be confident of a solid performance, especially given that everyone in attack now presses, which is good because we need to talk about those fullbacks, or lack thereof.
At present, the team has Jordi Alba, a player continuing his decline due to a lack of any meaningful competition for his slot along with creeping decrepitude, Sergino Dest, a right mess at both ends of the pitch even as he fills his supporters with hope that this will be the season he comes good, part-time Sergi Roberto and a much-improved Alejandro Balde, whose pre-season performances seem to have quashed all that loan talk around him.
That Balde, just up from Barça B, is the best defender of the bunch is distressing. The flanks of the Barça defense, whichever of that group starts, will read “Welcome” to opponents who found so much joy in those zones last season. Even if Alonso comes, he won’t do much to make those worried about fast, tricky wingers rest easy at night. This position is the notable failure of Alemany and the technical staff this season, even as that failing also brings up many fascinating questions. But let’s start with attack.
Based on what we saw in pre-season, Xavi’s preferred front three is likely to be Raphinha, Lewandowski and Dembele. This gives Fati the opportunity to return to full fitness at his leisure, while also providing different looks with Torres or Aubameyang. The front three brings pace, shotmaking creativity and work rate. And even if Dembele’s pre-season goal fest doesn’t continue, Raphinha and Lewandowski are more than capable of adding to any tally.
In midfield, things are a lot more complex. Busquets is still an automatic starter, which is confounding when you consider how long people have been talking about the need for a successor. He can’t cover ground like he used to and is even more of a defensive liability on opponent breaks. And yet, there he is, not as brilliant as ever but sufficiently brilliant to make his inclusion a no-brainer.
If Pedri is the other no-brainer, a mid who should make any thinking culer salivate in anticipation of his connection with the front three — and he’s also scoring goals — then we are left with one, possibly two slots to fill if Xavi goes to a 3-4-3 for some matches. In pre-season Kessie was a standout, adding exactly what that midfield needed as he went about the task of being new and improved Paulinho.
But you also have Gavi, who managed to roll in an improved player. Smarter on and off the ball, still as pugnacious but less reckless, a force to be reckoned with in any Xavi XI. Pjanic is a bright, capable sub who also surprised in pre-season with his grace on the ball … and then there’s De Jong, whose future with the club is in limbo. The Dutch mid had his brightest outing of the pre-season against Pumas, but everybody except the fullbacks feasted against them. In pre-season appearances De Jong most frequently featured at CB, and there is even a wild rumor that Xavi has been experimenting with lineups that feature him at fullback. His profile in midfield is unique and if he stays, a significant IF with about two weeks left in the transfer window, Xavi will have selection headaches.
All that said, I suspect that Kessie is going to work his way into a regular slot in that three-man midfield with Pedri and Busquets. He adds everything those two lack, and can score goals. He anticipates opponent moves excellently and keeps the ball moving. In a four-man midfield Gavi will be added, which will leave Pjanic and De Jong as two of football’s most expensive subs.
At back, Araujo and Kounde will be the featured CB pairing. None of the others offer anything like those two. In the mix of Pique, Christensen and Garcia, smart money is on Christensen. Pique looked absolutely washed in pre-season. He starts slow, but even for him his quality of play was distressing. Garcia resumed exactly where he left off, which wasn’t all that great a place to begin with.
Fullbacks will start with Alba, because who else is there, even as my view is that Balde deserves some good, hard looks. Dest is likely to get some time as Xavi tries to figure out the American before the January transfer window. If Alonso comes, that situation will become a bit more intriguing even as nothing defensively will be added. Sergi Roberto, given how crowded the midfield is, likely will be in this pot more than his natural midfield position.
In the land of “Ugh,” the likely pairing to team with Araujo and Kounde will be Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, the two geriatric captains. But the qualities of available fullbacks will lead Xavi to mess with a 3-4-3 more often, particularly as Araujo is so strong defensively at right fullback.
What all this will end up as depends on so many factors. Culers are by nature pessimistic, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If everything comes together right, this is a team with a legitimate shot at a treble. Depth, and quality depth, has been added. Last season after the XI, the quality of the subs left much to be desired. There is a much tighter sine wave of talent this season as Xavi could realistically field two completely different XIs that wouldn’t be all that far off in capabilities. That Bayernesque depth has been a long time coming.
Fitness is still the key issue. If Dembele and Pedri can keep fit and stay in the goals, sky is the limit for Xavi’s men. Adding Raphinha means there is no answer for opponents at any of the front positions. Can’t double all three of them, so somebody will look to be eating good. And then there is Kessie with runs into the box.
Or, a plague of injuries will leave Laporta’s Wild Ride a clunky, trophyless mess on a road to recriminations and more levers. And don’t forget that Real Madrid, already formidable, returns with an effervescent Benezma, a more mature but still gravity challenged Vinicius, and an improved midfield with the addition of Aurelien Tchouameni. Atleti is also right there.
None of my season predictions have ever had Barça winning any silver, so why break a trend. The fullback conundrum will be significant, and likely damaging at key times for the defense. In Champions League, a silly goal or two conceded and even in the absence of away goals it’s game over.
That same complexity looks likely to cost against the top-tier opponents, especially Real Madrid. Kounde will help a lot, but those flanks will still be vulnerable and there isn’t a forward in the game who occupies space and takes advantage better than Benzema.
Ultimately, look for Barça to finish second in league, make the Champions League semis and the Copa del Rey final. A trophyless finish won’t make the world burn as there will be lots of entertaining, exciting football. The season will be fun and is something to look forward to, which is noteworthy in an of itself as feelings we haven’t had in quite some time.