Barcelona makes a swift return to the pitch after their comeback 2-1 win at Getafe on Saturday, but they do so with a bit of a somber mood given the severity of Ousmane Dembélé’s hamstring injury. The Blaugrana will take the field hours after Dembélé undergoes surgery in Finland, and after a draining run of fixtures for most of Ernesto Valverde’s key players, I expect he will field a heavily rotated side to take on Eibar.
Eibar has started the season with two wins and two defeats. They won away at Malaga to start the season, lost back-to-back games against Athletic Club and Sevilla and won at home against Leganes this weekend. Similar to most of Barcelona’s La Liga opponents so far this season, Eibar set up in a 4-4-2 shape and play a defensive style. Their two goals are the third fewest in the league, but they are a tough side to break down and only look to attack on the counter.
Perhaps Eibar’s goal scoring will pick up as the season goes along. They finished eighth in goals for last campaign, above Valverde’s Athletic and Quique Setién’s Las Palmas, which played some brilliant football over the course of the season. For now, though, Eibar’s attack is lacking spark, mostly because Pedro Leon, who scored the second most goals on the team last season with 10, has been out with a knee injury that he suffered in July. Without Leon’s creativity from wide positions, striker Sergi Enrich, who led the team in goals and assists last season, has been lacking a link-up partner.
The Armeros’ defense took a hit during the summer transfer window, with talented French centerback Florian Lejeune moving to newly promoted Newcastle United in the Premier League for €10 million. Eibar didn’t really reinvest that profit, with their biggest purchase being Paulo Oliveira of Sporting Lisbon for €3.5 million to replace Lejeune at the back.
Eibar might be a more challenging opponent once Leon returns, but for now they are the a team that shouldn’t threaten Barcelona’s inform defense at the Nou Camp, which should empower Valverde to rotate his squad and give his key players a rest.
Dembélé’s absence will have an immediate impact on Valverde’s selection. Whereas he might have been able to get away with resting both Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in a game like this because of Dembélé’s creative talent, I think having Messi in the team against Eibar is necessary. A forward line of Denis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu is a lot more dangerous around Messi rather than Paco Alcacer, and if Barcelona has secured the three points by the time the hour mark rolls around, then Valverde can remove him for Alcacer.
After the subdued performances from Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic against Getafe, I’ve gone for a total rotation in midfield. Sergi Roberto keeps a starting place, but moves to the holding midfield role, where Valverde deployed him in preseason. Paulinho’s winning goal at the weekend earned him his first start for Barcelona in my mind, and playing him in a box-to-box role should put him in a position to add an attacking threat. Finally, Andre Gomes will be the creative outlet in midfield in his first start of the season and will have the chance to combine with Denis on the left.
Nelon Semedo was a curious omission against Getafe (does one of the variables in his transfer having something to do with playing in away matches?) and the team missed his presence dearly. He returns to the starting lineup while Jordi Alba gets a rest. Lucas Digne starting on the left should give Semedo the most freedom to attack he has had all season because Digne’s positioning is generally more conservative. Javier Mascherano should also step into the starting lineup for the first time this season, with Gerard Pique getting a rest.
Even with a rotated squad, Valverde can have a strong bench, with his preferred midfield trio all available to play a role as a substitute. Paco should get some time in the second half and Aleix Vidal could even get a run out to try and improve his form, for he will likely be a useful figure while Dembélé recovers.