Barcelona youth coverage reaches its final part. After covering Goalkeepers and defense in part one, then the midfield in the second part, we move to the final stage:
Barcelona’s current system demands certain type of players to serve offense. We can classify the offense needs in two categories:
1) Players capable of playing a dual wing/inside-forward role.
2) What I like to call “Total Football Strikers”.
We will follow the same method we used in the first two parts, scouting the first team needs to figure the opportunities available.
In the first team, there are already quality players to serve the first category for many seasons to come. Messi (exactly 24 years old by the end of this season), and Pedro (same age as Messi) are long term knights for the squad.
Bojan (21 by the end of the season) is another quality-under-observation player for the future if he completes his learning curve steadily –I see more future for him as a converted inside striker than a nine. Afellay (25 years old) will be an option if he ticked all the boxes.
Jeffren is a talent that I’m not so optimist about at the moment. He is injury prone, and if the medical staff has no solution for that, his future at the club is in serious doubt.
Iniesta proved –unlike the common belief- that he can offer world class performance from the flank.
We must not forget Villa who is a better inside forward –Henry style- than a striker. Even Maxwell and Adriano are capable for that advanced role. There are no reasons to be concerned about Barcelona’s offense on the flanks for the short term. But if we take in consideration that one of the mentioned names has to play as a striker (Messi/Villa), two of the names are yet to confirm their validity for the future (Jeffren/Bojan) and two of the options are better as midfielders (Afellay/Iniesta), we can open a path of hope for Barcelona’s reserve players to break through to the first team.
Are their quality players for that category at Barcelona B?
Generally speaking, most of Barcelona B players who can play on the wing are at the same age or older than the first team players. Unlike the other departments (Keepers, Defenders, Midfielders) there isn’t a continuity queue that go smoothly in a balance with age, time and experience.
Víctor Vázquez and Jonathan Soriano are the first to be noted. The first was considered once the best attacker in the youth squad that included Messi. He was that good. Then an injury at the worst time hammered his progress (to prove again the unpredictability of youth progress). He is struggling to catch up, and one can only hope he get more playing time at the first team this season to show his progress. I am still a believer in Vázquez and I think if he makes a comeback, Barcelona will have a world class player to count on for a long time. But if we take in consideration the players available in the first team, it is highly unlikely, and that’s a shame.
Soriano gives you a feeling that he is a quality reserve player who will struggle to get anywhere further. Besides, he is more a center forward than a wing. Both seems too settled to their role in the reserve and Pep showed little interest in offering them time (compared to other youth). But we all know Pedro’s tale and there is always a chance that another Pedro may spark his talent anytime. Will they have a chance in the first team this season? It is highly unlikely. The other options available are a bit too old to catch up the progress of younger players.
Total Football Strikers
There is no doubt that this is one of the most demanding positions in Pep’s system. Pep knew exactly what he wanted since day one. I tend not to talk about the Ibrahimovic experience anymore for obvious reasons. Yet, we have to track Pep’s approach toward the kind of strikers he was looking for in order to understand the needs of the future. And for the record, I had –and still have- the same belief as Pep regarding this case. In other words, he was not wrong –IMO. He was just unfortunate.
Barca’s offense review:
Pep needed a striker who has Eto’o’s qualities in terms of aggression, work rate, and well calculated runs into the area to finish. But at the same time, he felt the need of having a striker who can open to the flanks, work as a false nine, and play inside the box when needed. Such additional qualities are as crucial for Pep’s platform to work because it creates more fluidity and positions interchange between offense players where everyone is capable of playing every where. It also solves the complexities appear every time the fluidity of the team is damaged by opponents’ tactics or players’ form. It offers a standard offense mechanism that is less dependent on spaces and possession. It helps countering the ultra defensive tactics where the players suffer to find spaces to exchange passes and dribble the ball to the net.
After the first season at the club, Pep became more certain of his demands. The offense worked perfectly there because the offense trio complimented each other and covered each others deficiencies. Yet, in many occasions, the lacking was too obvious for a coach like Pep to ignore. Against Chelsea for example, the absence of Henry who used to play the inside forward role led to an offense sterility where only luck and controversial referring helped Barcelona to overcome. There was a need for something different to counter offense predictability. Pep was looking for a forward who can clone this one:
Pep Guardiola captained Barcelona when they lost 4-0 against Van Basten’s Milan in the historical champions’ league final (Though the striker didn’t play that match). Van Basten’s quality dominated Europe at that period of time and even while suffering a knee injury, he was able to perform at a level that put him at the top of the best strikers List. In my opinion he is the most complete striker ever –and by a margin.
It is a given that finding the new Van Basten is like searching for Aliens in Space. But if there is a player who could be considered as a work-in-progress to come close to Marco's level, that’s the player Pep demanded and Barcelona bought.
There were valid concerns about Ibrahimovic work rate and attitude. Will he learn to do his defensive role? Will he become more a team player than a solo performer? I do think Henry’s tale at Barcelona provided Pep with a hope that there are possibilities. The risk was high, but the potentials –if worked- were immense. Things started well –when at the beginning of the season it was more about individual quality than personal conduct. Then an injury at the wrong timing created the first challenge. In that grey area between Ibra’s attitude and Pep’s man management damage happened and fed the stream of concurred interests leading to offloading the player.
Currently, Barcelona’s offense could be described as lethal, but not perfect. Having Villa forced Pep to use Messi as a (false) nine. I think that was an intelligent decision. But it was more dictated option than a selected one. Villa is a better player in Henry’s role, so he plays there. He added the quality Barcelona missed last season where Henry was in a comma and Pedro was still finding his way to the selection. Pedro is just getting better and his current form makes him a definite starter. Messi simply plays where the other two can’t, ‘cause when in the right form he performs brilliantly anywhere.
The team is back to square one where the system represents an offense of massive destruction-as long as it rolls. The defect there is that this system lacks the diversity needed to do things differently when needed.
Will Barcelona’s youth provide a solution?
As already noted, it is not easy to find a complete striker who meets all the demands of the position at Barcelona. The back up plan is to have a poacher –Target man, A.K.A Larsson- on the bench and a more versatile striker as a starter. Barcelona B provides no interesting names at the moment for any of the mentioned positions. The most qualified alternatives are already older than those available in the first team. I had lot of expectations on Rubén Rochina, but it seems he is struggling to comeback after his injury. Nolito is a bull (Tevez-ic) type of forwards, but he has one foot and an arm outside the club already (He is not a rare talent anyway). So, generally speaking, Barcelona may count on Bojan to do part of the job for the future, but they will still need to look elsewhere for a striker who can complete the offense puzzle.
This offense drought in the reserve team is not permanent, and Barcelona fans should be unconcerned about it. Deep inside the youth veins a very exciting generation is in progress. The likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Gael Junior Etock, Mauro Icardi and Alain Richard Ebwelle are just samples of what is coming next. And you can smell excitement in the air. It is hard to predict who will keep on progressing to meet expectations, but any of the candidates can end up being the new revelation for Barcelona’s offense in the coming years. I cant wait till the mentioned four earn their promotion to Barcelona B.
Per marcos_c suggestion through Football Mood Twitter, the image bellow is an attempt to rate some of the reserve players and their chances in the first team. I took a wide range of conditions in consideration, but by no mean I take this presentation as a definite roadmap. Players’ progress is an extremely unpredictable matter.
1) Rubén Miño Peralta
2) Martín Montoya Torralbo
3) Andreu Fontàs Prat
4) Sergi Gómez Solà
5) Carles Planas Antolínez
6) Marc Bartra Aregall
7) Marc Muniesa Martínez
8) Oriol Romeu Vidal
9) Jonathan dos Santos Ramírez
10) Thiago Alcántara do Nascimiento
11) Sergi Roberto Carnicer
12) Martí Riverola Bataller
13) Jonathan Soriano Casas
14) Víctor Vázquez Solsona
15) Rubén Rochina Naixes
Finally, big thanks for Anonymous_69, a regular contributor, who in the comments session suggested writing about Barcelona’s best selection and about Youth future at the club that ends here (Links to part one, and part two). All comments and suggestions are always welcomed and appreciated.