On numerous occasions since taking the job he was always destined to have, Xavi Hernandez has moaned: “Barcelona is the most difficult club to manage in the world.”
There are plenty of managers in Catalonia, let alone the rest of Spain or Europe, that would very much argue with that assessment.
While the ‘entorno’ – the raging wind of dissenting voices that swirl around every club decision – is no fabrication, there are plenty of benefits to being Barcelona boss.
One obvious plus is the glut of attacking options at Xavi’s disposal. Raphinha limped off in the first half of Barcelona’s narrow 1-0 victory over Sevilla on Friday with a hamstring injury that could rule him out of the upcoming Clasico against Real Madrid. Yet, Xavi is spoilt for choice when it comes to alternatives.
Here are some of the ways that Barcelona could line up without the absent Brazilian.
Cadiz manager Sergio Gonzalez has already cast his expert eye across the comparative profiles of Raphinha and the prodigious 16-year-old Lamine Yamal.
“Yamal is sort of similar to Raphinha,” Sergio explained before his side lost 2-0 to Barcelona in August – a match that Yamal started while Raphinha was suspended. “A left-footed winger playing on the right flank. They have a similar skill set, you can argue one might have a better one-on-one, but they are not too different.”
If Xavi is looking for a simple plug-and-play option, Yamal is his best bet.
(4-3-3): Felix, Lewandowski, Yamal
(4-3-3): Torres, Lewandowski, Yamal
It’s always a bold move to give yourself a nickname – just ask Paul Ince, sorry, The Guv’nor. Ferran Torres has embraced the title of ‘El Tiburon’ – the Shark – this term after endlessly preaching about developing a killer instinct throughout pre-season.
With three goals to his name already, averaging one every 92 La Liga minutes, Torres is living up to his own billing. The Shark famously never stops moving and can be fielded anywhere across Barcelona‘s frontline but is most naturally at home on the right flank.
(4-3-3): Felix, Lewandowski, Torres
(4-3-3): Gavi, Lewandowski, Torres
Despite a goalless draw to start the new campaign, scoring has not been an issue for Barcelona this season – keeping the opposition at bay has been the only nagging concern amid the club’s unbeaten start.
In a bid to restore some defensive solidity – which underpinned last season’s gritty title – Xavi could revert to the 3-box-3 hybrid system that only included one natural winger. Last term, the left-sided forward – often Gavi or Pedri – tucked infield, providing an extra body to slow the opposition down in transition.
In light of Raphinha’s absence, Xavi could shift the gravity of the formation, deploying a ‘false winger’ on the right flank. Fermin Lopez replaced Raphinha when he limped off against Sevilla and could bring his excited puppy energy to this hybrid role.
Gavi has been playing the best football of his career in a more central role in Frenkie de Jong’s absence but is versatile enough to pop up on the right as well.
(3-2-2-3): Felix, Lewandowski, Fermin
(3-2-2-3): Torres, Lewandowski, Gavi
Joao Cancelo adheres to a very loose interpretation of the right-back role. The Manchester City loanee has been shaky when stepping into midfield for Barcelona in possession but remains razor-sharp in the final third, with two assists already.
Cancelo is hardly shy in getting forward as a full-back – the Portugal international averages more touches in the final third than Robert Lewandowski – but could be fully unshackled by Xavi as another right-wing option. Any of Ronald Araujo, Sergi Roberto or Jules Kounde offer a more traditional alternative behind Cancelo.
(4-3-3): Felix, Lewandowski, Cancelo
(4-3-3): Torres, Lewandowski, Cancelo