A win is a win, there’s no point in denying that. However, victories like this one against Valencia or even Real Madrid prior to that could put some aspects of Barcelona's squad into question. Namely, its quality and quality in depth. For the last couple of weeks, Xavi has had a diminished team on his hands, forcing him to rotate where he, perhaps, wouldn’t have done otherwise. But the quality of a team’s fringe players determines so much of their success too.
For Barcelona, it’s very difficult to say how successful Xavi’s squad planning has actually been. The starting XI, when fully fit and firing, is excellent. Not many teams in Europe have a striker of Robert Lewandowski’s calibre, a midfielder of Pedri’s magic, a backline including Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde and finally, a goalkeeper of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s well-rounded profile. But how do they stack up beyond that?
Intriguingly, the 1:0 over Valencia is a good showcase of their level across the park. In a clash where silly mistakes and missed opportunities reigned supreme once more, we bore witness to a game of two halves; the first one being the positive one with some warning signs and the second one being best described as ‘hoping for the best’. Let’s start with the positives, then.
In a largely downgraded frontline, the tandem of Raphinha and Ferran Torres shined the brightest. Interestingly, on paper, if you add Ansu Fati to that equation, you get a highly optimised strike force. Raphinha is the creator from the right, inverting into the half-space and deploying deadly inswinging crosses with his left right into the path of Ferran and Fati, both of whom are excellent off-the-ball threats and box presences. The former, in particular, is great at recognising where the space is and how to exploit it. This is best seen in the ease with which he seemingly always ends up in the right place at the right time, regardless of the missing finishing touches.
Fati is similar but usually with a much better eye for goal. Usually. His fall from grace takes this highly optimised forward line and makes it highly unbalanced as one of the three key pieces is, at best, a little bit wobbly in everything it does. But we’ll get to Fati soon. Ferran and Raphinha, however, showed there is a place and use for them in this team. For now. I say for now because for now, that’s the best and the only thing Barcelona can get. This isn’t an insult to them; only an indicator that there is still room for improvement. But back to their good performance in the first 45 minutes of the game.
With both Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele and Gavi’s absence, Barcelona’s generally left-side heavy build-up phase swapped to the right side. Usually, we’d see Gavi start as the false left-winger who inverts into the midfield and Lewandowski would regularly drift wide left too, dragging markers, linking up and aiming to isolate the right side where we’d see Barcelona’s best 1v1 player, Dembele. But with all three out of the match, Xavi’s structure was slightly tweaked.
Balde was the isolated piece, enabled by Fati’s inverting movement into the half-space, and Ferran, the striker on the night, would drift right (as opposed to Lewandowski drifting left) to combine with Raphinha. And this is where perhaps the best aspects of this frontline came to fruition. Ferran was great at dropping and combining, recognising where to move to optimise ball retention and provide penetration alongside Raphinha. One of a striker’s core abilities is dismarking and Ferran did it well through back-and-forth movement (drop deeper and then explode back into space).
He would drift to the right, engage in a one-two with Raphinha before making a darting run beyond Valencia’s backline to meet the Brazilian’s laid-off pass. This wasn’t the only thing he did well on the night either. It was very difficult for him to be heavily involved vs Real Madrid in their high line and Valencia’s mid/deep block didn’t make it any easier despite the drop in quality. However, he did well to get involved, penetrate the backline through movement and send low cutbacks into the box.
Raphinha, too, was effective, albeit in different ways. He handled the build-up prioritisation of his flank well while still retaining some of his best offensive qualities, not least of which is the infamous parallel run.
When he’s switched on and in his element, Raphinha is an excellent asset to have. The circumstances and the context surrounding the club, however, are often setting expectations he’s unable to meet. Being a luxury sub seems a role that does not befit a player of his calibre but it is also evident he’s a tier below someone like Dembele, despite the Frenchman’s erratic nature. But in games and a role like the one he was given today, Raphinha still provides depth and quality for a side that’s currently sorely missing some. Fati, however, remains in limbo.
If you watch the way he moves, you can see the instincts are still indeed there, and so is his ball-striking. He knows how to dismark himself and knows how to move in the final third. The youngster’s control and technical quality are still there when he’s in tight spaces and weaves through defenders or links up with teammates. But the intensity, lethality and sheer quality of his actions are undeniably much, much lower. The same with confidence, which invites negative energy like flame invites a moth. As sad as it is, Fati doesn’t provide Barcelona with enough quality in depth at this moment.
The same could be said of Sergi Roberto, another fringe player given a chance to impress. Lauded for his versatility and dedication, the newly renewed right-back-cum-midfielder’s performance still leaves a lot to be desired. Having him in the interior role, doing his best to emulate Pedri or Gavi, is a very ungrateful position to be in. It isn’t fair to him. At the same time, however, if he’s to provide depth at Barcelona, he needs to be ready to perform. Today, that wasn’t exactly the case.
Finally, Franck Kessie. Again it feels unfair to judge how much he contributes just based on this game as he mostly played as part of a 10-man squad following Araujo’s red card. But with Kessie, what you see is what you get and considering what he was brought in to do, he’s doing a decent job. The box-to-box nature paired with intensity is a good combination to have, albeit very situational too. Kessie isn’t a player who will or even should fit most of Barcelona’s plans A but is someone who can do a great job at plan B.
All in one, the Catalans’ form has been dipping for weeks now, despite the triumph in the Copa. A lot of it is due to the injuries and absences of key players. But that’s the time for fringe players to prove their worth. Unfortunately, the extreme circumstances and anomalies aside, questions need to be raised about Barça’s quality in depth and squad planning.
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