How Barcelona will line up in 2019-20
Barcelona are Spain's reigning champions but have plenty to prove after collapsing against Liverpool in last season’s Champions League semi-finals and then falling against Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.
The Catalans have brought in stars Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong so that coach Ernesto Valverde can shake up his side and attack the new campaign with fresh vigour and a more exciting style. They are also hoping to bring Neymar back to the Camp Nou after two years away at Paris Saint-Germain.
Few would deny Barcelona are favourites to win the Spanish title again but Diego Simeone’s rejuvenated Atletico Madrid have also impressed in pre-season and Valverde’s side need to hit the ground running.
They kick off the league season at Athletic Bilbao on Friday at the San Mames, an instant test for a new-look Barcelona side.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world - certainly among those who play the ball out from the back - and there is no doubt whatsoever that he is the first choice for Barcelona this season.
Jasper Cillessen played brilliantly for the club when called upon and could not displace the German, heading to Valencia this summer with Neto moving the other way.
The Brazilian - who is undergoing surgery on a wrist fracture - will feature in Copa del Rey games when fit but, barring a serious injury to Ter Stegen, will largely get a front row seat on the bench for Barcelona’s campaign.
Ter Stegen has impressed from day one and has now eradicated mistakes from his game – despite playing in a daring, impressive way, not afraid to beat attackers pressing him when he has the ball at his feet.
Only Gerard Pique can be sure of a starting spot in the defence this season, with the other three roles up for grabs.
At the start of the season it seems Jordi Alba will play left-back with Nelson Semedo on the right, while it’s a coin toss between Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet alongside Pique at the heart of the back-line.
It took Valverde a while but finally the coach appears to be convinced by Portuguese right-back Semedo.
Sergi Roberto has been told he can play in midfield this season, with Moussa Waguepromoted to the first team to rival Semedo for the right-back spot
However, when the going gets tough it wouldn’t be a shock to see Valverde drop Sergi Roberto back into the defence again, even if he will largely try to avoid doing so.
Umtiti and Lenglet have played virtually equal minutes in pre-season (249 and 225, respectively), with Valverde giving few clues away over who will be first choice when both are fit.
Junior Firpo has been brought in from Real Betis to provide competition for Alba, and while he will start the season as a reserve, the spot is there for him to win if he’s good enough.
Barcelona have far too many midfielders on the books and will spend the next fortnight trying to lose a couple.
Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Arthur, Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena are guaranteed to stay at the club, while Valverde would like Philippe Coutinho and Rafinha Alcantara to leave. One of Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic may also depart.
De Jong has impressed in pre-season after joining from Ajax for €75 million (£65m/$85m) and will battle Busquets for the holding midfield role.
However, the Dutchman is also capable of playing further forward in one of the two interior midfield positions.
Alena is hoping for more game-time this year and has done well on the club’s pre-season tours of Asia and America. Arthur is expected to improve and hold down a regular spot, while Sergi Roberto will finally get a chance to play regularly in his favoured position.
Valverde has shown a predilection for including a muscle man - Rakitic or Vidal, previously Paulinho - but this year seems more intent on playing a more classical Barcelona style.
That was reflected in the 4-0 pre-season win over Napoli in Michigan on August 11 which had supporters salivating, as De Jong anchored the midfield with Alena and Sergi Roberto ahead of him.
If Barcelona get their hands on Neymar again then Valverde will need to rewrite his plans, but for now the coach is looking at four quality players going into three - and whichever combination he picks should do the job.
Captain Lionel Messi, new signing Griezmann, mercurial winger Ousmane Dembele and lethal hitman Luis Suarez are vying for spots in the forward trident.
Although poised to miss the first game of the season with a calf injury, Messi will be the first name on the team sheet on the right flank, nominally, with complete liberty to roam.
So, it’s really two from three for the others, with Suarez or Griezmann able to play at centre-forward and Dembele or Griezmann on the left flank.
Griezmann grabbed his first Barcelona goal in that win over Napoli and as the club’s €120 million (£107m/$134m) marque signing this summer, will be expected to start most matches.
Suarez, in theory, should start to be phased out because of his age - he turns 33 in January - but when fresh and fit, the Uruguayan is still one of the deadliest strikers in the world.
Dembele has endured two mixed seasons at Barcelona since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in 2017 but he turned up a week early to start training this summer and finally seems to have his mindset right. When the Frenchman is at his best he is unpredictable and unstoppable.
Valverde faced extreme criticism last season after the collapse against Liverpool and the coach only just kept his job amid crisis talks.
Two titles in two years at the helm is impressive but only succeeding in La Liga again will not be enough this time around.
He’s expected to play with more pizazz this season, with De Jong and Griezmann two attractive arrivals who will quickly make an impact on how the team plays.
Valverde seems set on keeping his 4-3-3, and the team he picked in the win against Napoli looks to be his most likely starting line-up for the trip to face Bilbao on La Liga matchday one.
The coach’s decision to bring Sergi Roberto forward shows that this year he will try to play slicker, quicker passing football in midfield, focusing more on possession than power, pleasing the fans who pine for the Pep Guardiola era.
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