As we enter the business end of the season, the matches are starting to come fast and furious. It was a great weekend for Barcelona, as we took care of business away at Sevilla and Madrid uncharacteristically dropped points at home (thank you Cazorla!) With Madrid’s lead cut to 8 points and
9 11 (man I’m really off form lately) games left to play a glimmer of hope has been twinkling in many culé’s eyes. Some are saying that Madrid has peaked too early, and has some difficult Liga fixtures nestled near a possible Champions League semifinal against Bayern. But with Granada on the horizon it is essential to remember that nothing has really changed, Madrid is in control of the title race and all Barcelona can do is win all our matches and hope. The important issue is where can Barcelona look for a spark to propel them through the final stages of the season?
The story of a player returning from injury and spurring their team to victory is a classic one, and we’ve seen it in varying forms over the last several seasons. Iniesta made a miraculous return for the Champions League final in 2009, and despite playing injured, he played a very important role in securing the treble. More recently Abidal returned from surgery last season and played some of the best football of his Barcelona career. It culminated with him lifting the Champions League trophy – a testament not to his sparkling form, but to his strength and calm in the face of personal adversity that he infused in the team. Iniesta and Abidal came back from their injuries with renewed hunger for the game and, although in different ways, their return was a huge lift to the team at the end of the season.
It may seem somewhat of a surprise then that the news of Afellay’s return to training this week was met with the equivalent of a nihilistic sigh. ACL injuries are notoriously difficult to return from and he is probably still weeks away from featuring in a match, maybe that is why his return wasn’t greeted with more fanfare. Then again, Afellay is different from Iniesta and Abidal as he wasn’t an essential part of the team when he was injured. He played 29 matches after his winter transfer last season and was an essential pair of legs coming down the stretch, even though many of his appearances were as substitutions. A goal in the final Liga match gave culés a bit of a tease and excitement about what he could bring next season. He was undoubtedly a part of Guardiola’s plans for the future as he appeared in the Champions League final; ahead of a certain Bojan if I may add.
Despite his role last season, there still seems to be questions surrounding Afellay’s best position. He played most of his matches last season on the wing. Although he’s played there in the past some of his best performances for PSV before he came to Barcelona were as a defensive midfielder. Even when he was playing on the wing he had a tendency to drop deep and central to receive the ball and he is a much better player when facing goal than with his back to goal – both tendencies that would indicate he may be a better attacking midfielder than winger/wide forward. Compare him to Sanchez (who has been a revelation at forward this season) and we see that instead of creating width, pulling defenders out of position, and stretching the defense Afellay is more comfortable dropping slightly deeper and dictating play.
This of course isn’t a knock against Afellay, as he has an interesting mix of skills. He can beat a man on the dribble even though the end line always seemed to sneak up on him, another indication he may be better in midfield. He’s an intelligent player around the box, and unleashed some long range rockets from outside the box last season. In all he has the skills to provide Barcelona with a little something different, it’s just a question of how to harness his qualities to maximally benefit the team. As a side note that’s another of his great qualities, he is a humble fellow and is versatile enough to play different positions for the team.
Unfortunately Afellay has a lot of hurdles to overcome in addition to returning to fitness and the mental difficulty of returning from such a serious injury. By now you probably realize I think his best position is in midfield, but our midfield is bursting with talent and it won’t be easy for him to find minutes there. On the other hand with Villa’s injury and Pedro’s injuries and poor form, Cuenca and Tello have been asked to play large roles in the squad. He may find more minutes taking the pressure off the young players and giving Sanchez a chance to rest. Unfortunately when he got injured he was still adjusting to playing in our system, and specifically to playing on the wing in our system. There is a danger that he has been left behind in tactical adjustments Pep has made throughout the season, and he will need to start adjusting all over again.
A major responsibility also rests on Guardiola to find a way to use him tactically that both takes advantage of Afellay’s strengths and helps the team. Luckily I’m more often reassured than worried when something is relying on Guardiola. Iniesta has been playing a role where he shuttles between left midfield and left wing, perhaps Afellay could play that role and free Iniesta up in the middle? Just a thought, I’m no Euler and I’m quickly getting out of my depth here.
For Barcelona to continue to win games and finish the season strong the team is going to need players to step up and play beyond themselves. Despite almost an entire season on the sideline and the other hurdles in his way, if Afellay shows mental strength and Guardiola can fit him into the team he could still play an important (but small) role this season. It may be a lot to ask, but with a tough end of the season in sight we are going to need all our resources.