While all of the attention is on Ousmane Dembélé’s impending arrival at the Nou Camp and final pursuits of Philippe Coutinho and Jean-Michael Seri, Barcelona has a tricky fixture away to Alaves to get through before a number of players are released for the first international break of the season.
When Alaves got promoted to Spain’s top division for the first time in more than a decade last season, they did well to secure a number of good players on loan to bolster their chances of survival. Unfortunately, even successful loan deals have a fleeting effect. Alves’ two best players from last season, Theo Hernandez and Marcos Llorente, are now at Real Madrid and their top goal scorer Deyverson, as well as solid midfielder Victor Camarasa, returned to Levante (and both were subsequently sold).
The club managed their fourth-best finish in the league at 9th last campaign and also reached the Copa del Rey final for the first time in their history, losing 3-1 to Barca in the final, which doubled as the last competitive game at the Vincente Calderon.
But along with some of their top players, Alaves also lost their manager, Mauricio Pellegrino, to Southampton this summer, stretching their odds of staying in the top flight for a successive season thin. Their La Liga TV money share provided a modest boost to the Basque club’s transfer budget, but it remains to be seen if its recruitment this summer will fill all of the cracks left by departing loanees.
Luis Zubeldía, who is managing his first club in Europe at Alaves like Pellegrino before him, played a 4-4-2 away at Leganes in his debut match, and seems intent on getting the defensive mindset his predecessor instilled to persist. Alaves scored the fifth fewest goals in the league last season, but also allowed the fifth fewest. They will be a tough nut to crack on their home ground, but as was the case last season, their attacking quality seems to be lacking.
After Valverde started the season in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Real Betis, I’ve gone for the same alignment against Alaves. Paco Alcacer started as a wide midfielder in the season opener and performed about how you would expect him to in such an unfamiliar role. I’ve brought Denis Suarez into the side to take his place, with Gerard Deulofeu keeping his spot after his strong performance last weekend.
With Iniesta back in the team, I think placing him as the attacking midfielder behind Lionel Messi is a good way to fit him in without having to change to a 4-3-3 or playing him out of position as a holding midfielder. Messi would reprise his false nine role once again in the absence of Luis Suarez, and Alcacer remains an option off the bench if Valverde needs to switch to a more conventional look in the second half.
In midfield I have decided to give Paulinho his debut for the club, starting alongside Sergio Busquets in a double pivot. Perhaps this is unfair to Ivan Rakitic, who was brilliant against Betis, but getting the weight of his debut off Paulinho’s shoulders early on can help alleviate some of the pressure on him. Ideally Paulinho will offer Barça an option against teams that are good on the ball, so seeing how he’d fare with the Blaugrana dominating possession would be interesting.
Gerard Pique should step back into the starting XI after missing the La Liga opener through injury, while Javier Mascherano takes on the role of emergency CB. Outside of that, the defense should remain unchanged for a few more week until Valverde has to start rotating to deal with multiple-fixture weeks.
I think the only risks I am taking with my selection are giving Paulinho his debut and moving Iniesta into 10 position. Outside of that, I think Valverde will mostly agree with me. I’d be surprised if he placed Alcacer out of position again and against a defensive side like Alaves, Denis Suarez’s creativity should be useful.