Hello and welcome to the latest, greatest wrinkle in BFB season previews: groupthink! Err, I totally mean collaboration. Yeah. That. We’ve assembled a Super Team of people who sometimes write words — K(x)evin, Levon, guest writer Eric Coffin-Gould, and myself, Isaiah — and have decided to write some words in a conversation-esque format. There are some questions to maintain a semblance of structure since we couldn’t all be together at the same time in the same collaborative space.
And so, as Barça, dear beloved Barça, readies itself for the kickoff of the domestic season at home against Alaves, we are here to provide you with only the best thoughts worth thinking when going into a new season. And away we go.
Let’s start with a recap. How do last season’s results temper or increase your expectations for this season?
Eric: Last season still feels like a weird dream – the sort that is thrilling and seems so real but also, when you try describing it to your buddy, makes no sense whatsoever. We beat our rivals, won two titles, and were one game away from the first undefeated season in Liga history, but the season somehow felt like a disappointment. Most frustrating is the nonsense of it all – what team chases a record all season, then throws it away to Levante?
On the one hand, the pieces are clearly there and it was a successful season, but for some poor decisions from Valverde. On the other hand, will he learn from those mistakes? I don’t know, but I lean optimistic – we have a better, more well-rounded squad, bolstered with youth rather than panic signings. We can build off last season’s success.
Levon: Sorry, but I am culé to the bone and still sore about M*drid’s third straight Champions League. At the same time the debacle in Rome has not lost its sting. Looking at it coldly, my analysis of last season has not changed much since. The double was both an amazing achievement and a lost opportunity caused by a mixture of cowardness and/or stupidity of the coach.
I would not have minded had we changed managers. Now I am both cautiously optimistic that Valverde won’t repeat last season’s errors (lack of rotation, lack of development of young players, focus on defensive solidity over attractive football) and secretly scared he will do the same.
A repeat of last season would not be acceptable to me, even if we win the double. I want a team that puts up a serious challenge in La Liga and the CL with attractive football and I want our heavyweights rested while the likes of Dembélé, Arthur, Munir, Aleñá, Miranda and Puig get the game time their talent and status warrants so that they don’t stagnate. If Ernie Greenvale gives me that, I will probably be ok without silverware.
Isaiah: Ernie Greenvale! To directly answer the question, I think that last season’s results have to give fans a measure of expectation. Defending league and cup champs who strengthened the squad in very serious ways just have to be more likely to repeat. I would, of course, as always, give up the CDR for some youth development. In this case that’s Arthur, Malcom, and Lenglet in addition to Alena, Miranda, etc. Munir would do well to find his feet there. Paco won’t be finding any feet anytime soon, so can we just sell him already? Pennies on the euro is fine.
I think that changing managers would have been a destabilizing idea, if only because there were no obvious upgrades available (there are those who would argue that Sarri would have been perfect, but I’m not convinced–Chelsea may have won at the weekend, but they looked like garbage doing it, so only time will tell if they’ll improve), which means that we’re at the very, very least holding pat. The Champions League is cruel and it matters what your draw is more than anything–ask RM–so that’s so hard to predict if we’ll do better or not this time around. I think we’ll do worse in La Liga, but everyone will agree that the team is better. And sure, maybe we’ll win the cup or something. I dunno.
Kxevin: The criticism of Valverde has been, for me, misguided and petulant. Armchair coaches talk about what they would have done. The essential reality for him last season was that when he was inclined to want to change a match, he looked down the bench and what did he have? Failed transfers and a Masia-by-proxy midfielder/winger who only came reasonably good late in the season. So he had to play his veterans more than he would have liked, and more than any of us keyboard coaches would have liked. That perspective matters.
The season came down to a pair of matches: Roma and Levante. Both were crapshows for obvious and different reasons. With Roma, Valverde got the XI wrong, then the subs wrong. But was he counting on his team of veteran killers turning into scared punks? Probably not. Who did? In hindsight, Paulinho could have taken down those long balls that Ter Stegen was launching over the pressure, for an Iniesta who was being buffeted in the wind by the Roma press. And Dembele should have come on sooner. But the performance of the XI flat-out sucked in that match. Levante was a group crapshow that the team still almost pulled out. This match has become the fault of Yerry Mina somehow, but it’s easy to forget that Suarez missed a pair of excellent chances that would have equalized the match.
Last season was a success for me. I think that people are letting a pair of results and outsized expectations affect their view of matters in reality. How easy it was to forget the dire predictions people had for the team, and how Real Madrid was going to sweep all before it.
On a scale of 1-10, how good has our offseason been?
Levon: Judged by the summers in which Luis Enrique bullied Robert Fernandez into signing off on Turan, A. Vidal, Gomes and Alcácer, followed by the summer in which we failed to anticipate Neymar’s departure and spent most of July and August in a collective nervous breakdown, this summer is a solid 11. Trying to look at it more objectively I will give it a 7.5.
We are probably a bit stronger now than last year, mostly because we are getting rid of some of the failed signings of the years past and replacing them with quality players, but we are not done yet. With Vidal, Mina, Gomes and Deulo out of the picture, we still need to find homes for Marlon, Samper, Paco and Denis. Our squad will be healthier once we do.
Arthur Melo will prove an amazing signing. Vidal’s heart, bite and overall play warrants taking a risk on his knee given the low price and 3-year contract, Lenglet will do fine and Malcom is not Willian. However, we did not bite the bullet on Suarez nor did we add a forward who likes to run into space. This can prove very costly.
Isaiah: 8. It’s just a 9 that we’re missing to make it a perfect 10. I think Munir can do well, but he’s not a world beater. Paco has done fine, but not well and will continue to give us exactly that. I like all of our signings (Malcom was completely unknown and while Arthur was too, we had enough time to fake ourselves into thinking we knew him), though I’m wary of Arturo Vidal. He has apparently reformed since his crash during the Copa America and that’s a big deal.
I know this is Lev’s realm to harp on, but missing out on a true 9 is a big deal. Even if Suarez is capable of playing at a high level throughout much of the season, we need to be readying his replacement because at best he has a full season left at the top of his game. And he hasn’t been at the top of his game in a while, which given that he’s 31 already probably means he won’t be there again. So we need to have someone waiting in the wings and that person is not Paco Alcacer, whatever his continued existence on the squad suggests.
Had we signed someone to take minutes from Suarez, I would have called this a 10/10 because the squad seems so much deeper than it did even this time last year. Obviously if Munir pops up with 20+ goals this season, we can edit this number upwards, but I think he’ll be more like 10-15 during garbage minutes rather than actually putting pressure on Suarez and looking like a long-term replacement. And yet I like his continued inclusion because I like youth products being given shots.
Levon: Hmmm. Suárez played 51 matches last season and scored a still impressive 33 goals. Munir scored 14 goals in 36 matches last season. For Alavés.
If 20+ goals is enough to convince you, I dare say giving Munir those 51 matches with the likes of Messi, Dembélé and Coutinho behind him should get him there. Also he’s more mobile and can make those off-the-ball runs our frontline so desperately needs, he defends and he can link up well with those around him. Did you know he created more chances per 90 minutes than Suárez (1.53 vs 1.47) in La Liga last season?
Kxevin: It’s been an 8, possibly a 9 if the right transfers out are made. But I am looking at the off season in aggregate, coming as well as goings. Sales have been astute and profitable, loans necessary. If Alcacer and Denis Suarez can be moved, it would go up to a 9 for me.
Incoming transfers made the team younger, faster and pacier. Malcom will be an exceptional signing eventually, even if he isn’t going to displace Dembele, as many have been worrying about. The Frenchman is just that next level of refinement and quality over the Brazilian. Arturo Vidal, despite holding my nose at the moral stench of the transfer, will bring something to the club, and Lenglet is class. His passes between the lines are a benefit that I wasn’t anticipating. And Arthur, while he won’t be what everyone expects right away, if the precise kind of midfielder that will be useful. Add to those the promotion of Carles Alena and keeping Rafinha, and the off season has been fantastic. Expectations should be higher for Valverde with this team, for sure.
Isaiah – I can’t really argue with Lev on this one. He used stats, after all and that’s simply always going to win an argument.
Which player do you think will surprise this season?
Isaiah – If I’m channeling my inner Kxevin, I’d say any positives from Rafinha shouldn’t surprise. It’s always been there. So I’ll say that Dembele will come good, which will surprise far too many people. There will still be a lot of work to do with him since he’s only, what, 14? Whatever the right small number is, it’s small, but even so he’ll be one of our top performers by season end.
Kxevin: Aleña. Rafinha is a known quantity. He just had to keep fit. His absence cost Luis Enrique and Valverde, but particularly Luis Enrique in that system that needed a between-the-lines player to shuttle the ball and keep it moving. Had Rafinha been fit, Paulinho probably wouldn’t have been acquired. Aleña has such quality on and off the ball. I think people have forgotten about him, but he will be brilliant.
There’s a lot of hype around youth development this season – which youngster do you think will actually play an important role this season?
Eric: The competition is tough, but Aleña for me. I know Riqui Puig is the Masia darling of the moment, but Aleña is much more mature and able to raise his level to play with the big boys. His injury was unfortunately timed, and he’ll have to spend some time with Barça B, but I think we’ll see him have an impact on the back half of the season.
Kxevin: Aleña for me as well. Puig isn’t physically ready yet, and Miranda has a lot to learn. Aleña is for real.
Isaiah: I’m still rooting for Bojan.
Levon: Since Jordi Alba is the only starter without an adult backup, Miranda would be the obvious answer, right?
What is an experiment or tactical wrinkle you’d like to see Valverde try this season?
Levon: Malcom in the middle.
I am pretty sure that both Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola would bench Suarez. Munir can probably give us more overall – he is not ready and might never be but we should give it a shot. Many people want a Coutinho / Messi / Dembélé frontline but that gives us three forwards who all want the ball at their feet without anyone to make forward runs into space.
Back to Malcom. From what I’ve seen he likes the ball at his feet too, but he is quick, likes to shoot and judging by the way he celebrates his goals, if his ego were only a little bit bigger he’d rip off his shirt to flex his abs, build hotels in his name and have statues sculpted in his image with notable bulges to show off his man parts.
He’s young and hungry enough that he just might work at the 9.
Isaiah: This feels a bit like poaching given that it made an appearance in the Supercopa, but Dembele at LW. Against Sevilla, he was marvelous. Simply marvelous. Yet he scored his goal from the right. I’d like to see him constantly moving flanks and providing sudden imbalances that the opposition might not be ready for given that they still have to key on Messi, who is floating around ready to pounce and kill just behind that forward line.
Also, Lev, you’ve thought about this Malcom goal celebration a lot, it would appear. Any other wrinkles you’d like to add to other goalscoring celebrations? I think Suarez should focus on scoring goals just in order to do his little 3 finger kiss thing, but then end up with the L dance thing with those three fingers instead of just one to make fun of Griezmann.
Levon: How about Messi doing that ridiculous 180 degree jump after scoring at the Bernabeu?
Isaiah: I will accept any goal scoring celebration from any Barça player at the Bernabeu.
Eric: I agree with all of the above, but I think the key to it all is putting Messi back at false 9. The only reason we had to play 4-4-2 last season was because Messi has to occupy a free role – so let’s bench Suárez and go back to the shape we know and love, and the position that made Messi great. Flank him with speedy wingers, add goal-scoring threats from deep (Coutinho, Vidal), and watch the sparks fly.
Kxevin: I would like to see two wrinkles from Valverde. The first is a front line of Messi, flanked by Malcom and Dembele. I think you need Messi in the middle of the pitch, and the damage that can be done by a pair of fast wingers (Malcom is the player that Valverde hoped Deulofeu would be) is mouth watering.
On defense, I want to see Valverde try either Lenglet or Umtiti as a defensive LB. My issue with him during the Roma match was that he came out to play tight, but then rolled out with Alba instead of Umtiti at LB with Vermaelen at LCB.
How hard will it be to watch games in which they play with that rumored double-pink 3rd kit?
Levon: If the rumors are true we have hit a new low. Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your bellies as we are presented vomit-inducing 2nd and 3rd kits in the same year.
Isaiah: I still can’t watch highlights of the AC Milan game and figure out who is who. Maybe pink will help?
Kxevin: Pfft. I don’t really care about kits.
Prediction time, our title count at the end of the season?
Levon: One or none. Valverde will sacrifice the Copa or risk the wrath of his masters. If we solve our problems at 9 we have a shot at winning the CL. I expect both M*drid – no longer hampered by Cristiano – and Atleti to put up stronger domestic challenges than last season.
Isaiah: One. La Liga. Not by a country mile because I do think Lev is right about RM and Atleti improving, especially Atleti. Lopetegui will be an interesting opponent. We could do well in the CL, but as I said above, that’s a crapshoot.
Kxevin: I never predict that Barça will win anything, and don’t intend to start now. I think that the team has the quality and quality depth to win a treble, but that depends on a lot. Messi’s Gamper comment about the value of winning Champions League will apply a degree of pressure to that tournament, and most likely force a reconsideration of the Copa. As Mestre said, at Barça we go for all of the titles. That is important to note. Last season, Valverde felt that pressure. He also had crap for rotation. This season, between calling up B players and talents such as Malcom, Copa lineups are a lot easier to contemplate.
The key to success?
Levon: I like very much that our squad is so deep it is impossible to say which 11 players will make up our strongest lineup. At the same time we have many players (Messi, Suarez, Dembele, Coutinho and Malcom) who hardly defend. Therefore our strongest lineup will probably not be made up out of our best players. Finding that balance and rotating all our talent will be key this season.
Eric: Valverde has a ton of young, moldable players at his disposal, and apparently wants to use them. He needs to not just get the Xs and Os right, but support and challenge and develop these players. I’ve said it for the last month – Valverde has assembled a super squad, given the right coaching, and given a tall order for himself in the process. Bona sort!
Isaiah: The key is clearly proper prioritization of scheduling from Valverde. Why start your best 11 in a meaningless Copa match? Play the players who need first team action. If he gets that down, he probably won’t freeze in a situation like in Rome last season. That was some horse doo doo, I tells ya. Horse doo doo.
Levon: Right. We all laughed when RM was knocked out of the Copa by uhmmm was it Leganés last season, but I told people then, he who laughs last….
Kevin: Dembele and defensive tracking from mids and attackers. Barça conceded a goal against Sevilla that began life as a Busquets giveaway, then clown car defending from a team that was caught out of position. Rafinha and Malcom are the only attackers who really work at defending. What made the Guardiola teams was that they attacked and defended with eleven. It’s nine with Suarez and Messi, and that will cause problems on counters. The way that Rafinha and Malcom defend will get them more playing time than culers might like. The Dembele that showed up in the SuperCopa, if he is present all season, will make Barça a devastating team, especially if Semedo also shows up like he did in pre-season, and in the SuperCopa. Their partnership is exceptional.