This season was always going to be a tough one, what with the financial issues at the club, instability at the top, Messi’s desire to leave and a global pandemic. Yet somehow, things keep getting worse.
After losing Ansu Fati for at least four months prior to the international break, Barcelona will now be without Gerard Piqué for at least six to ten months and Sergi Roberto for at least two months. While Piqué no longer features in international competition, there has been much criticism by club managers that the congested schedule is proving too much for their players. Fati and Roberto have both been with the Spanish national team since international play resumed in October.
Down one forward and two defenders, Ronald Koeman is going to need to get creative. Unfortunately, Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig are available to take minutes, but they don’t fit in those holes. Fortunately, there is a bit of forward depth on the wings between Ousmane Dembélé and Trincão, with Philippe Coutinho and Pedri also playing out wide out of necessity. Konrad de la Fuente, coming off another showing where he looked better than the third division, should be getting his first team debut shortly (maybe against Dynamo Kiev) and adding depth to the wing position until Fati returns.
Roberto will be replaced by Sergiño Dest; that’s a given. Jordi Alba will continue to be backed up by Junior Firpo, and Koeman may just need to cross his fingers for two months that Dest doesn’t go down. If he does, it’s hard to guess what the Dutch manager would do. Barcelona B are also missing their regular right-backs, and defensive midfielder Álvaro Sanz has been filling in there for Francisco Pimienta. It’s been a good enough solution for the third division, even though the squad is struggling mightily, but I’m skeptical that Sanz should be thrown into the fire into the first team at a position he isn’t yet comfortable with in the third division. Koeman would probably be better using Junior on the opposite side or playing three at the back.
But playing three at the back would be difficult this week, with only Clement Lenglet healthy. That won’t be an option against Dynamo Kiev, as Ronald Araújo and Samuel Umtiti are still not fit, Sergio Busquets is injured and Frenkie de Jong was given a break after playing three matches for the Netherlands during the international window.
Araujo should be back within the next week, and expect him to get a starring role now in Piqué’s absence. I would also expect a bit of de Jong at centre-back with Miralem Pjanic and Sergio Busquets in the double pivot. Even though the club wanted to sell Umtiti and Junior in the January window, the lack of an actual president until the last week of January and the injury crisis may prevent that from happening. The club may be forced to sell them anyway due to poor finances, but player salaries are a much larger slice of the problem pie than what the club could get on transfers for two fringe players. For that reason, I think they stick around. Football is also a business, and anyone who thinks other clubs won’t be licking their lips to upcharge a desperate FC Barcelona are foolish to the landscape. Manchester City don’t need the extra few million euros that Barcelona would pay to get Eric García in January, so that transfer should be expected for the summer as a free transfer.
The final name that will be in the headlines this week is Òscar Mingueza, the 21-year-old centre-back for Barcelona B. Unlike his centre-back compatriots in Chumi and Jorge Cuenca, Mingueza remained at the club over the summer, most likely to add some institutional knowledge to a fresh faced B team. Mingueza has been in La Masia since the U-7s, and if that isn’t institutional knowledge, I don’t what is. The problem with Mingueza is not his understanding of Barcelona’s way of playing or his versatility, he can play along the entire backline, but his level has always been the worry.
Mingueza does well to drive forward with the ball in possession and has some tricks to get himself space, but his athleticism is an issue. He doesn’t have the speed to stick with quick forwards and isn’t the best defender to rely on in the middle. For this reason, he has often been a role player and depth option for Barcelona B, regularly backing up more promising talents. This low ceiling is always what hurt his chances of getting looks from the first team, but the hope now is that he also has a high floor. I would love to be wrong about Mingueza, maybe he doesn’t need to be a star. Maybe all he needs to do is not make mistakes next to Lenglet, move the ball to Pjanic in the middle and provide depth to multiple positions. Araujo is the far superior talent, there is no denying that, but these are moments and Mingueza is the latest example that La Masia doesn’t have to be the way out of trouble, but it should always be able to keep the team afloat.
Dan Hilton is an American journalist, broadcaster, and current Editor-in-Chief of BarcaBlog. Extensive work as a play-by-play broadcaster, producer behind the scenes, and quite average player in his younger years has given him a well-rounded and informative perspective on the sport. Alongside BarcaBlog founder Francesc, Dan started The Barcelona Podcast in 2017.