In my opinion, Barça’s biggest weakness (as it stands) are its fullbacks. With Alba ageing out and Roberto/Semedo often blowing hot and cold, the club has been left with mediocre options on the flanks, especially this season.
This tends to create structural problems throughout. With Messi playing as secondary striker and Griezmann as in Inside Forward, overlapping fullbacks are not an option anymore, they are a prerequisite. With Alba’s waning athleticism, however, this does not work.
Barça are often left exposed defensively, especially on the counter. With Semedo’s risk aversion and Roberto’s defensive weaknesses, similar problems appear on the right side. This was especially visible against Betis, Madrid, and Napoli.
This is an excerpt from a report I wrote after the Classico: “The 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 was certainly not helping. Due a narrow midfield and attack, Semedo and Alba were being forced to push up high. They were the main attacking outlets on the wings.”
Due to this, Barça were being exposed & were being left with two at the back, three if Busquets slotted in between the two centre-halves. Throughout the second half, the defence was often caught out; individual brilliance from Ter Stegen and Pique was what kept the game alive.
Similar problems arose with Setién 4-1-2-1-2 diamond. Barça’s choice is clear: no narrow midfield. Now, many of you will say ‘but why not a three at it the back? Well, with Messi in the team, a coach must pack the midfield. In a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 with Messi as the ten, Barça are left with 2 midfielders, which creates massive problems both in the press and defending in general.
So, a three-man system can work only if Messi plays as one of the two forwards, which leaves a lot of attacking options. So, we have outlined the problems. Where does that leave us? Several left-backs have been linked with Barça, including our very own Marc Cucurella (who is not really a full-back anymore, but bear with me).
Cucurella has played as a WM/Winger for Bordolas’s Getafe side. However, here is a look at him in the full-back template. (This may be a bit unfair on him, yes, but it is still telling). Cucurella’s biggest strength is his ability to exploit possession turnovers.
He is a relentless presser and is a great crosser of the ball. The question is whether these skillsets would translate into a Setién side. None of Setien’s teams have crossed the ball much. His Betis side averaged 14.8 crosses per 90 (Getafe average 21.6, this season). On the other hand, Barça complete around 10.3 crosses per game. How would this skill carryover into a possession based side is up for debate?
The one thing that Cucurella could add to Barça is his pressing ability, which is excellent. (26.8 pressures, 8.6 regains, 32.2% succ.) Currently, Vidal has an outsized influence on Barça’s press, including in the defensive third. Cucurella could help change that. (Graphic by @MatPilotto)
Here is Cucurella (as a fullback) in comparison with Jordi Alba. I understand some of these numbers could change if he is moved to LB and/or in a different style of play, but they are still telling, in my opinion.
From what I have seen, Cucurella has not been impressive in a back four. He seems to be a natural fit in a ‘heavy-metal’ football side, as a wide midfielder. A return to the full-back role is possible, of course, but seems like a stretch now.
So where does that leave Barça?
Clearly Alba is still the best full-back at the club (not contestable, imo). However, there is no denying that he is in decline. Firpo was brought into to ease his workload, yet that has not quite panned out, despite Alba’s injuries. This leaves Barça in a conundrum. Do they get rid of Firpo and bring in another full-back or do they stay put? Well, it depends. Unless the player being brought in is comfortably better than Firpo, it makes no sense to offload the player after just a season.
Here is Firpo’s radar for this season and the last (the sample size is very small for this season so beware)
So, who would even be a suitable and (yet) affordable replacement for Firpo?
Well, Grimaldo comes to mind. Even though I know the jump from Liga NOS to the Primera division is large, his performances have been impressive, nonetheless.
Here is a comparison of Grimaldo with Alba (@Wyscout). Just make sure to account for the discrepancy in league quality, here.
If Grimaldo is available for the right price, then it makes sense to bring him in. He does many of the things that Alba excels at, although he couples it with an athleticism that Alba has gradually lost. In all, it seems likely that Alba will still be no. 1 heading into the next season, especially with the current COVID-19 situation putting transfers and the money behind them, at risk.
It remains to be seen how Setién will incorporate Firpo and/or work around Alba’s flaws.