As far as results go, Ernesto Valverde’s first preseason with Barcelona could not have gone much better. The blaugrana swept through their ICC competition in the United States, winning the illustrious summer tournament with wins against Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid, before returning to Catalonia, where they drew in a practice fixture with Gimnastic Tarragona and defeated Chapacoense in the Joan Gamper Trophy match.
But as we know, at Barcelona, the way the team plays often supersedes the result, and this especially true for Valverde’s first training camp at the club. With the Catalans set to open their competitive season with a pair of Clasicos to decide the Spanish Super Cup, here is my review of the performances of the players and the manager during the preseason.
One of the many negative side effects of Neymar’s move to Paris is that it rendered a large chunk of Valverde’s tactical plans useless. Barça started the preseason playing a 4-3-1-2, with Lionel Messi playing as a 10 behind Luis Suarez/Paco Alcacer and Neymar, who tucked just a little bit closer to a left forward role rather than playing the whole game on the wing. The team looked great with this setup, with Messi and Neymar combining for goals on numerous occasions and the rest of the squad offering midfield and defensive stability.
Now that Neymar is gone, Barcelona will almost certainly revert to the tried-and-trusted 4-3-3 unless a star signing dictates otherwise. And that is fine, because even though nobody currently at the club can replace Neymar, the basic functions of the LW role can still be fulfilled by in-house options, particularly if the rest of the lineup offers enough support.
What Neymar’s departure doesn’t change is this: Messi is going to play wherever he wants to under Valverde. Even if the team sheet says 4-3-3, Barcelona might very well attack with their right back filling Messi’s spot on the right wing while Messi drops into central positions to get on the ball and dictate player. It puts a lot of pressure on Nelson Semedo and Aleix Vidal to always offer an attacking option while not abandoning their defensive duties, and once against Ivan Rakitic will be asked to help out tracking back on the right-hand side.
But such sacrifices are necessary to help the world’s best player play in a role he feels most comfortable and effective in, and there is certainly no denying that Messi will carry an even larger playmaking burden now that the trident has become a duo.
What is exciting is that Valverde has done his best to make Messi’s midfield touches, which were often out of necessity last season, more of a creative luxury now. The midfield was humming during preseason, with the ball flowing through Barcelona’s creative central outlets so they could distribute to the forwards rather than playing a more direct style that often left them as docile bystanders last season under Luis Enrique
Moreso than what the midfield was doing when they got the ball, it was what they were doing without it that makes Valverde’s midfield much more attentive and involved than Enrique’s. Barcelona seemed to have returned to the counter-pressing that made Pep Guardiola’s teams one of the most efficient defensive outlets in Europe, and that starts with the midfield making instant and calculated movements to win the ball back any time it is lost in the attacking zone.
Turning possession back over in the opponent’s half not only presents opportunities for quick counters, it also keeps momentum of the game firmly on Barcelona’s side, for it allows their midfield to establish rhythm and dominance in possession and good habits in regaining it. In the Juve game, even Messi was tracking back and making tackles and closing down, though that level of pressing might be a little too good to be true during the course of a season (it didn’t really happen in any of the preseason matches, either). Even if Valverde doesn’t instill a full press that involves an aggressive forward line, the added responsibilities in midfield will certainly be welcome for a group that did a lot more watching than playing in key games last season.
We will get a clearer idea of how Valverde’s attack will develop in the final third once whoever replaces Neymar has had a month or two in his role, though you can always be sure that Messi and Suarez will be at the heart of his plans. For now, Barcelona supporters can rest easy knowing Valverde has already brought with him key building blocks that should get Barcelona back on track after losing their way last season.
After a decent preseason workload, Messi looks like he is close to his usual form, though his finishing looked a bit off in the Gamper Trophy match. Messi is obviously the last person to worry about in the squad, and whether he wants to be a right winger or a 10 this season, he can surely be relied upon to carry the squad as far as possible. As long as the rest of the team takes shape around him in a more effective manner than last season, it should be another all-time great season for Messi.
Messi’s strike partner Luis Suarez had a pretty average preseason. For a player of his quality, he doesn’t quite seem up to the pace and his finishing, particularly on Monday, has been very poor. He scored his first goal of the summer against Chapacoense, but he also wasted five or six clear cut chances, and right now you would have to say he isn’t in the best form to face the likes of Madrid. Although Barcelona were able to win at the Bernabeu without Neymar in that thrilling 3-2 contest last season, they will need Suarez to give Messi as much support as possible in this tie, because Zidane’s men will surely be focusing on stopping Messi more than ever.
Of course, even with a slow preseason, Suarez is still the best striker at the club by a mile. While Paco Alcacer was decent in his first season at Barcelona, he has already racked up at least 30 missed sitters in a Barça shirt to match his €30 million fee, including a number of blunders this preseason. If this were hockey, I’d be critiquing how poorly Alcacer’s “line” did all preseason, as any combination with him and Munir as forwards seem to be static and wasteful in front of goal. Despite his free kick against Tarragona, Alcacer played poorly this summer, and he didn’t do his confidence any favors when his penalty against Chapacoense was saved before also missing the rebound.
Who Alcacer played with certainly didn’t make matters easy on him; as I mentioned before, Munir was almost invisible in the few minutes he played this summer, and I would advocate for his permanent departure this summer on behalf of both parties. But even still, Nelson Semedo created a couple of brilliant chances for him in transition, and Alcacer deserves a lot of blame himself for not being as involved when Barcelona had the ball. After failing to impress last season, one would hope Alcacer would come into camp motivated to start the season off strong, but if his preseason is a sign of things to come, it might be another frustrating season at the Nou Camp for the Spaniard.
It’s no secret that Barcelona are looking to spend the bulk of the money they got for Neymar on a replacement who can play on the wing, but for now Valverde has to assess the few in-house options he has.
Gerard Deulofeu was unlucky to miss out on the US tour due to an injury he picked up in the Under-21 European Championship this summer. Although he wouldn’t have gotten a ton of time because Neymar hadn’t left yet, he would have had more time to get familiar with Valverde’s tactics and he would have had a couple of halves under his belt against decent competition. Instead Deulofeu has only played about 70 minutes this preseason through his first half outing against Chapacoense and his 25-minute cameo against Nastic.
Despite his lack of playing time relative to someone like Denis Suarez, it would seem Deulofeu is the best bet to start on the left wing against Real Madrid in the Super Copa, so long as Valverde sticks to a 4-3-3. Deulofeu showed enough of an understanding with Jordi Alba down the left in both of his appearances to prove he can handle the most basic of his responsibilities in the role. The question, of course, is whether he can make a difference against the two-time defending champions of Europe after a shortened training camp.
If Deulofeu doesn’t seem up to the task in the first leg, Denis Suarez seems the most likely replacement. There is another member of the squad who has more experience at LW for Barça (I’ll get to him shortly) but Denis has played his best football of the summer in a wide position in which he had freedom to tuck in just a bit.
Perhaps Denis is more suited to a LM role in a system with four midfielders, but he definitely seems to offer more in a wide role rather than a true central midfield spot. That’s why I have him listed in the forward group despite him most often being labeled as a midfielder. For me, he’s a bit too slight and not confident enough when receiving the ball in the middle of the pitch compared to when he’s got the touchline protecting him down the wing.
And last, and certainly least, is Arda Turan. Turan played his best football at the club as a LW at the start of last season when Neymar was at the Olympics, offering the odd goal and enough involvement to keep Neymar’s spot warm. But outside of that, Turan’s stay at the Nou Camp has been a disaster, and during the preseason he looked like he knew his future at the club was about to come to an end. He showed an extreme lack of motivation and work rate, was never involved in the buildup play and I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a single positive touch all preseason.
If the reports are to be believed, Turan’s departure is in the works, whether it is a loan or a permanent move, so you wouldn’t think he would be an option. But perhaps the board, hoping to convince Galatasaray, his supposed suitor, would like for Turan to have a chance or two to squeeze even a modest transfer fee out of the Turkish side. For footballing reasons, though, sticking Turan on the field against Madrid would be a terrible decision, and it would be a slap in the face to Deulofeu and Denis, two more prepared players who have worked hard to earn their place in the team when they were on the field in the preseason.
The preseason did little to unclog Barcelona’s logjam in the middle of the park, and there may yet be more players in the fold before the transfer window closes. What the preseason did do, however, was confirm that Valverde’s preferred midfield trio is the same as the one that started for the majority of Luis Enrique’s time at the club: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic.
Despite taking some time to round into form, Iniesta and Busquets looked good in the Clasico in Miami and sharp against Chapacoense. With Valverde giving the midfield a bit more life than they had under Enrique, these two are in for top seasons if they can stay fit. Iniesta is certainly wearing down and at his age that is expected, but for 20-25 games this season, he can still offer Barcelona the services of one of the top midfielders on the planet, and even if Barcelona sign some new blood like Philippe Coutinho, Iniesta will not fade into the background – he can still play at Barcelona’s level.
Busquets should be the midfielder most affected by a managerial change. So much of what makes Busquets the best No. 5 in the world is the way he transitions play from defense to midfield and sometimes even midfield to attack. Once Enrique instilled a more direct system that asked the fullbacks to get the ball to the forwards with little help from the midfield, Busquets’ legendary ability started to go to waste. Valverde is giving Busquets his game-managing responsibilities back, and that should lead to a bounce back season for him.
Although I wouldn’t expect either Iniesta or Busquets to struggle that much this season, Barcelona do have two La Masia products itching for playing time to keep them on their toes.
Sergi Roberto and Carles Aleñá have had fantastic preseasons, showcasing the skill and temperament befitting of Barcelona midfielders. For Roberto, the return to midfield is a welcome one, and during the preseason he played all three positions in the middle of the pitch. Covering for Rakitic as a box-to-box option seemed like Roberto’s most obvious role, but to me he looked most solid as the holding mid this preseason, often times outclassing Sergi Samper, who I will get to shortly. That versatility should get Roberto a lot of game time this season, and I’m sure he’ll prefer some spots starts in midfield to starting consistently at right back.
Aleñá might not be in for as much game time. He’s only 19 and is still registered to Barça B. But his play in Iniesta’s role during the preseason opened eyes enough to see him getting a few first team appearances without having to squint too hard. Denis Suarez was a frequently used option for Enrique when it came to filling Iniesta’s boots for a game or two, but I think Aleñá looks much better in the role already.
Aleñá was such a natural fit in the midfield and had all of the instincts you would expect from a properly groomed Barcelona midfielder. The one concern I have with him is that I think he might be too slow to reach a world-class level. Aleñá reads the game extremely well and he processes his movements extremely well for someone his age, but he seems to lack burst when moving forward, like his body is having to catch up to his brain.
Iniesta isn’t going to win any 100-meter dashes, but during his prime he had insane quickness in tight spots to burst past defenders before slowing the game down to his pace once he had open grass in front of him. Aleñá doesn’t quite seem to have that explosion in his step, and that isn’t necessarily something you would expect him to add over time (quite the opposite, in fact). Aleñá has all of the technical qualities to make him the most-hyped La Masia product at the club, and if his athleticism can ever match his talent, it isn’t hard to see him becoming a club legend in due time.
Rakitic, often overlooked and underrated, didn’t generate a lot of buzz during the preseason, but for me he looked in fantastic form and he should keep his place in midfield for a good while even if the club makes a signing to give him tough competition for his spot. The addition of Semedo and healthiness of Vidal will lighten the defensive load on Rakitic; though Roberto did a great job filling in at RB last season, his lack of blazing pace meant Rakitic had to cheat over to help him quite a bit. While Messi’s lack of defensive work and tendency to drift to the middle will still give Rakitic some defensive covering to do, if Valverde can give him a bit more offensive freedom, we should start to see more of what Rakitic is capable of going forward this season.
Andre Gomes missed out on a key opportunity to prove himself to Valverde by taking an extended holiday rather than traveling to America with the team. While he had every right to stay on the beach a bit longer just as Marc Andre ter Stegen did, new signing Nelson Semedo was also in Portugal’s team at the Confederations Cup yet he decided that it was important to cut his vacation short and get to work with his new club as soon as possible. I’d argue Gomes should have seen this as his first camp with Barcelona, too, because the presence of a new manager certainly changes his status in the team, particularly when he didn’t have a very clear role last season either.
Gomes’ first season at the Nou Camp was both confounding and frustrating. Enrique clearly had too much faith in him, starting him over more reliable options when his form suggested he should be on the bench, he also didn’t do Gomes any favors by failing to iron out a clearly-defined role for him. Gomes played in Rakitic’s spot, covered for Busquets on a couple of occasions and even played as an emergency right back when injuries popped up.
I’m of the opinion that the club should have sold Gomes if the reports of offers in the €35-40 million range were truly coming in, but if Valverde backs him, perhaps he can unearth the potential that so many fans and pundits keep insisting he has while Barcelona supporters ponder whether the Gomes signing will look like the Turan deal in a couple of years time.
Similar to Deulofeu, Rafinha was unlucky to miss all of preseason with an injury, though it seems due to the lack of updates from the club on his status and few votes of confidence from the manager for the player that he is the most likely midfielder to be sold this summer. It makes sense in a way because he can command a good fee and doesn’t seem to be even second in the pecking order at any of the CM spots, and with his injury history Barça haven’t been able to count on him consistently during his time at the club.
Even still, Rafinha is an insanely talented footballer and offers cover in midfield and even as a wide midfielder depending on the system. Keeping him at the club would not hurt at all; I would guess the only one who loses in that situation is Rafinha, because I’m sure he could go to a number of reputable clubs and get a good amount of game time. It seems few concrete offers have come in for him this summer – he’s mostly been rumored in swap deals to help lower fees for Barcelona – and if his market doesn’t change and he remains, I’d be happy with it.
Perhaps then, that means Sergi Samper is the most likely midfielder to depart, whether through a sale or on loan. Some cules were impressed with Samper’s preseason play, and I can agree that he didn’t look out of place, but for me didn’t jump off the pitch at any moment. Holding mid is a very complex and nuanced position; often times not getting noticed is the best thing you can say about a CDM, and in that respect Samper certainly did well.
But he still seems timid to me. He often recycles possession to the centerbacks when the situation calls for him to turn around, pick his head up and pick a pass. The frustrating thing is that Samper has the vision and the technique to make these passes, but he doesn’t have the confidence in tight spots to pull it off. On that basis, last year was basically a wasted year for Samper, because he only got 13 starts at Granada, a team that finished last in the La Liga, which wasn’t enough for him to get comfortable. I could see the club selling Samper, but I think another loan, this time with an obligation for a first-team role, is preferable so he can come into the club with one last shot next summer.
Barcelona’s central defense comes into the season in fantastic shape, having two excellent first-choice starters, a reliable veteran backup and a Barça B graduate waiting in the wings. And also an extremely injury prone fifth option if Thomas Vermaelen stays at the club.
Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti had tremendous preseasons, though it must be said that the only team that really ever threatened Barcelona on the attack this summer was Real Madrid in the Clasico. Pique did get fooled on Madrid’s opening goal in that game, with Mateo Kovacic dancing around him to get into the box, but their second goal came off of a Barcelona corner where both CBs were in the box, leaving the covering duties to Jordi Alba and Aleix Vidal, who both got burned by Marco Asensio.
Outside of that, the defense had a spotless record. Umtiti looks even more comfortable in his second season at the club, and the way he pings the ball around and glides forward when given space is alluring. He’s so good at covering defensively that what he offers going forward almost seems unfair. Mascherano looked good in preseason as well. He hasn’t seemed to have lost a step, though the fastest players in Europe will still give him trouble from time to time. He’ll be looking to have an excellent season, not because it could be has last at Barcelona, but because he will want to be in his best possible form heading into what is likely his last World Cup with Argentina.
With veterans like Pique and Mascherano to learn from a fellow young player in Umtiti to grow up with, Marlon is certainly well placed to become a key figure at the club going forward. He looked good in the first team whenever Enrique sprinkled him into the lineup last season, including a standout performance in his first ever league start against Las Palmas late in the year. If Marlon can use this season to improve his defending in the air (he was beaten on a corner in the game against Juventus) and gets a handful of league starts under his belt, this year will be an excellent developmental step for him.
As of now, aside from buying back Deulofeu, Nelson Semedo is the only signing Barcelona have made. And back before the Neymar saga, Barcelona looked to be in great shape because of it. At the time right back was the only real hole on the roster and the board managed to sign the most exciting prospect on the market who was also developed enough to come in and start right away. Semedo has shown his quality in the preseason, with his best performance coming in his cameo against Real Madrid, but he didn’t get a chance to truly blow people away, mostly because he had the misfortune of being partnered with Turan or Munir on the right-hand side while his competition was almost always lined up alongside Messi.
Thus, it would appear Vidal is going to be Valverde’s starter for it least the first portion of the season. Semedo might very well start in the Super Copa and prove me wrong, but Valverde’s minute allotment in preseason would suggest Vidal is still first on his depth chart. I don’t mind Vidal and he has certainly looked good in preseason, at least going forward, but I would think getting Semedo minutes in big games against Madrid right away would be the best way to integrate him into the team. Regardless, I think Semedo will wind up as the starter at some point this season, even if it isn’t right away, and if Vidal can stay fit all season, having him as the backup gives Barcelona great depth at a position they’ve been struggling with in recent years.
On the opposite flank, longtime starter Jordi Alba might be the happiest man in the dressing room to have a new manager in charge. Alba fell out of favor with Enrique last season for reasons that are still unknown, with Enrique even switching to three at the back late in the season to avoid playing him. Valverde’s return to a 4-3-3 or even a narrower 4-3-1-2 will place heavy responsibilities on the fullbacks to provide width with overlapping runs and to get involved in the buildup by linking up with the wingers, and that is music to Alba’s ears.
Alba is a player who relies heavily on athleticism and at 28 it might be time to start thinking about a longterm replacement. But for the next couple of years, Alba should offer Barcelona the kind of quality in attack that Barcelona thrive on, even if he will make the occasional defensive gaffe simply because of his aggressive positioning.
And who knows, perhaps Lucas Digne fancies a larger role at the club in the future. He’s a much more defensive option compared to Alba and is more conservative with his positioning, so he isn’t a like-for-like replacement, but in a couple of years perhaps that might be just what Barcelona needs if Semedo turns out to be the kind of attacking talent Barcelona hope. For now, Digne provides some balance for Valverde on the bench; he’s got enough pace to handle slippery wingers, he’s good at moving the ball and he should be more comfortable in his second season at the Nou Camp.
Keeper might very well be Barcelona’s most solid position man-to-man.
Marc Andre ter Stegen has nothing to prove, and thus he could comfortably take his holiday after the Confederations Cup. But to his credit, Jasper Cillessen was fantastic with his feet and his hands on the US tour and made a case for a few more chances during the course of the season. Cillessen will obviously remain the cup keeper, but if Valverde wants to give Ter Stegen a week off before or after a tough Champions League tie or something similar, there will not be a large drop in quality if Cillessen is the man in goal. Even youngster Marc Ortola, on loan from Alaves, was pinging the ball around the pitch when he got a chance against Juve. From top to bottom, Barcelona won’t have to worry about their goalie this season.