Barcelona Storylines to Follow for the 2016-2017 Season

Barcelona Storylines to Follow for the 2016-2017 Season

 Looking back at last season for FC Barcelona, it was a “good but it could have been better” season. Barcelona was on a memorable 39 game win streak in all competitions (a club record), but then it all turned for the worse when they crashed out of the Champions League when they lost in the quarterfinals to Atletico Madrid. They ended up winning the domestic double and now the focus is on what they can achieve for the 2016-2017 season.

 As they have done every year since the Messi era began a decade ago, Barcelona will be in contention for La Liga, Copa Del Rey, and the illustrious Champions League trophy. It will not be an easy route to another season of trophy glory. Barcelona will have to get through the always difficult Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and possibly teams like Bayern Munich, Juventus, PSG, and Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League. Not only that, but the team also has internal questions that need to be addressed and they will be observed as the season progresses.

With concerns and burning questions for the upcoming Barcelona season, plenty of storylines will be closely watched during the upcoming campaign.

 

Barcelona will miss Dani Alves but how much will his departure hurt the team?

Barcelona could be given prime Philipp Lahm or prime Cafu and neither would be able to fully replicate what Alves produced on the field and most importantly, what he meant to this Barcelona squad.

Alves was the inspirational and motivational player for Barcelona. A player who was not afraid to let his teammates know what they are doing wrong. A leader who always had a smile on his face. Alves’ humor and personality were needed on the team, especially when the season is full of ups and downs during the nine-month season. Alves was just the perfect teammate for this Barcelona squad and he was a charismatic person on and off the field.

On the field, he played like one of the best right backs of all-time. During his time with Barcelona, Alves demonstrated high quality defending and was not afraid to matchup with some of the best forwards in Europe. During his eight seasons with Barcelona, Alves was a high IQ defender and was also an instant success for Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play. He was an underrated passer that was rated highly for his ability to move the ball upfield on the flank. Whether it was his effective crosses into the box or his flashy wingback play, it was a joy to watch such an incredible defender in his prime years.

Messi will arguably miss Alves the most as he was assisted 42 times by Alves, most by any player.

 

So how can you replace an icon right back defender like Dani Alves? It is near impossible to do so and now Luis Enrique will just have to move on without him.

At the moment, Aleix Vidal and Sergi Roberto will battle for the starting right back role but Luis Enrique will monitor them closely over the first month. With Vidal, he does have experience at right back and it was his exclusive role two seasons ago for Sevilla, where he helped them win the UEFA Europa League. It was an impressive 2014-2015 season for Vidal as he created 29 chances, had 29 interceptions, and he completed 44% of his take-ons.

Now for Barcelona, Vidal will need to repeat that and also improve on his crosses. Alves was a master at getting crosses into the box to create a scoring chance for Messi, Suarez, or Neymar. For Sevilla, Vidal focused solely on defending but now with right back position for Barcelona, Vidal will be involved in creating scoring chances.

The same should go for the versatile Sergi Roberto, a workhorse defender that has already proven to Enrique that he can handle the right back position. Going from a midfielder to right back defensive role has been a near facile transition for Roberto since he could read opponent’s attacks very well and he is physical with tackles, strives to take away possession from the opponent.

Going back to Vidal, Luis Enrique will have no patience with Vidal and if he begins to struggle, he might pull the plug on the Aleix Vidal right back experiment and bring in Sergi Roberto. Now if both of them somehow fail to put out consistent defending performances, then Enrique and the fanbase will go in total panic mode. If it gets to a “worst case scenario” with either immense struggles or injuries from Vial or Roberto, Enrique will be forced to consider Douglas, Mathieu or experiment with a midfielder like how he was able to do so with Roberto.

The club is relying a ton on Vidal and Roberto to continue the Alves legacy of dominant defending from the right back position. It will be interesting to see how they look to get involved in the attack and how they also look to get back to defend a counter attack. 

 

Impact of the new signings

While Barcelona said goodbye to players such as Dani Alves, Adriano, and Marc Bartra, the team officially welcomed in four new players.

Barcelona sporting director Robert Fernandez hinted at this moved for months and he ended up delivering with this transfer. On a buyback clause, Barcelona brought back Denis Suarez for €3.25M from Villarreal. Suarez is a 22-year-old attacking midfielder with a ton of potential. Suarez can play and quickly adjust to playing the midfield position on the left or right and also play the forward position, just a great versatile player for Enrique. Suarez is not going to marvel the crowd with world class assists like how Iniesta or Koke do on a daily basis but rather look to play a more attacking style where he would move across the pitch with excellent speed and is also not afraid to shoot when the opportunity is presented. Suarez might not get much starting time this season but he will join a world class midfield bench that can give a spark to the team when needed. Suarez has shown signs of improvement during the International Champions Cup preseason games and Spanish Super Cup and that momentum should continue into the season.

 

Barcelona also brought in two young French defenders during the transfer window.

For €25M, Barcelona purchased Lyon centre-back Samuel Umtiti. Umtiti is a 22-year-old French defender with a bright future. At €25M, Barcelona could look back at this transfer and reminisce on how it was an absolute steal. Umtiti made 131 appearances for Lyon over the past four seasons and he also has Champions League experience. Over the past few seasons in the Ligue 1, he emerged as one of the solid centre-backs in the league with 64% of duels won and developed into an exceptional passer. Umtiti completed 87% of his passes last season for Lyon and his superb passing continued into the Euros with France as he completed an outstanding 95% of passes. He also put on a spectacular and breakout performance in his 2nd game for France against Germany in the semis, where he was a clearance machine as he helped prevented any superb Germany scoring chances.

 

For Umtiti, his success as a passing defender will need to continue at Barcelona, especially with Barcelona’s style of play and the immense amount of passes that a Barca defender would attempt in a game. Like Pique, Umtiti likes to move up the field and get involved in the attack and he is a wild card to assist. Umtiti excels under pressure and in due time, he will get a chance to compete for a starting role.

 

Barcelona also purchased French defender Lucas Digne from PSG for £13.8 million. The 23-year-old Digne was not given much of a chance at PSG but he did perform well during his loan time at Roma last season. Last season, he completed 81% of his passes as a left back and also had 56% successful tackles. Digne has solid ball control and speed that can translate nicely into the Barcelona squad. Digne brings in much-needed depth at defense and hopefully it could also end the Jeremy Mathieu at fullback experiment. Digne was spectacular in the Spanish Super Cup vs Sevilla as he displayed his good passing and crossing skills and cleared any possible Sevilla attacking threats. Digne also does a solid job of getting off accurate long balls to open up the field when the attack on one side of the pitch is dull and stagnant with repetitve back and forth passes. 

 

The biggest and most controversial signing for Barcelona in this transfer window was Andre Gomes. For a fee of €35M, Barcelona brought in Gomes from Valencia and he joins a stacked midfield group. Last season with Valencia, Gomes had a rollercoaster season as he scored 3 goals, assisted 3 times, and had an 81% pass completion for the season. Gomes had another chance to impress in Euros with Portugal as he ended up creating 8 scoring chances but only played 63 total minutes in the knockout stage. Statistics aside, Gomes has the talent to become a starter for Barcelona but he will be a “work in progress” player. Gomes has the skill to breakaway past defenders to create a chance and dazzle the crowd with, as Ray Hudson loves to call it, “magisterial passes” but consistency is needed. Lazy passes that lead to loss of possession and ineffectiveness on the pitch will lead to no playing time at all and possibly, a quick transfer out of Barcelona. The Gomes signing is like receiving a mystery box, you do not want what you will get. Gomes can turn into a world class talent and eventually replace Andres Iniesta or become the next bust in European football…

 

At the moment, the four new players will be projected to come off the bench unless injuries occur but Enrique needs a positive impact from all of them to help out the team in this long season. Barcelona have also been in talks with Valencia goalie Diego Alves and Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen but regardless of who joins the club, they will serve as the backup goalkeeper to Marc-Andre ter Stegen in all competitions.

The best bet to succeed and have long-term success with Barcelona is Samuel Umtiti while Andre Gomes is the high-ceiling, high-reward player. Keep a close eye on the five players and look to see how well or poorly they adapt to Barcelona’s distinguished style of play. Considering how injuries can suddenly occur, these five players will look to step and shine when the opportunity is presented.

 

Can Luis Suarez win the Ballon d’Or?

Before the summer international tournaments kicked off, Suarez was the heavy favorite to win the Ballon d’Or. In the first half of 2016, Suarez scored 33 goals and tallied 17 assists… for a striker! Suarez displayed superb, high-quality play and turned into a top multi-dimensional threat when Barcelona were on the attack. Whether he was shadowing the box in anticipation for a cross or sprinting on the wing to pass to either Messi or Neymar for a goal-scoring chance, Suarez has turned into a threat as a scorer AND passer. The Barcelona effect.

What is in Suarez’s way of a possible Ballon d’Or winning season is Ronaldo and his reputation.

Now although his performances in 2016 have been good but no great at best considering his high expectations, Cristiano Ronaldo has won two of the biggest tournaments this year with the Champions League with Real Madrid and the Euro with Portugal. The fact that Ronaldo won two tournaments this season, with a poor UCL Final and a Euro Final where he left the game due to injury, over Suarez’s La Liga/Copa Del Rey/Spanish Super Cup victories has Ronaldo in prime position to capture his 3rd Ballon d’Or trophy. It is unfair but that is just the way it is.

Also when you consider Suarez’s reputation and the fact that managers and players from around the world vote for the Ballon d’Or winner. Suarez is definitely not liked by his peers and voters can use their own personal bias to screw over Suarez and again, it is unfair but that is just the way it is.

Now it might be a longshot at this point but if he can continue to be a scoring machine in La Liga and Champions League play this season, Suarez will be a serious contender for the Ballon d’Or. Also be on the lookout to see how Messi (going for a 6th Ballon d’Or) and Neymar perform over the next four months as both are also candidates for the illustrious award.

 

The 4th striker situation

Throughout the summer, Barcelona was rumored to bring in another forward to backup the Messi, Suarez, and Neymar trio but they struggled to complete a deal.

The team’s play late in the 2015-2016 season was evident that they needed a reliable backup forward. When Messi, Suarez, or Neymar are struggling up front, Enrique can bring in a speedy and electric forward to come off the bench to bring some life into the game. Plus in a long season, it is crucial to give your top players some rest and have a backup forward play in a few games, just like Pedro did two seasons ago in the treble winning season.

Barcelona was in deep discussions with Sevilla for Kevin Gameiro and Atletico Madrid for Vietto but the players rejected the offers. Why? For the same reason that Pedro left, they do not want to be a backup for the entire season. Many forwards in any of the top five leagues would love to have the opportunity to play for a winning team but they also want to be promised the chance to start but that is not happening with MSN up front.

At the moment, Barcelona are in a deep discussion with Valencia about a possible Paco Alcacer transfer but the talks have currently stalled. Now Barcelona could still go after attackers such Rondon, Luan, and Jose Callejon but they need to hurry up and get the deal done with the transfer window nearing an end.

So let’s say they the chase for a backup forward ultimately fails, now what? Trust Munir to deliver.

First off, Munir will need to prove to Barcelona that they made the right decision in investing in him rather than Sandro. Munir did not gain the trust of Luis Enrique last season but he has played well in preseason and has done enough to impress the boss. Munir will need to take advantage of the dozens of scoring opportunities that he will receive from the midfielder and Mess when they are on the field together and also effectively move the ball up field without any lazy passes that lead to a loss of possession. It will not just be Munir as the backup forward but Luis Enrique could also entertain the idea of playing players such as Denis Suarez and Rafinha as forwards.

With Neymar missing the first few games of the new La Liga season, Munir, and the other potential forwards will be put the test.

 

The beginning of the Marc-Andre ter Stegen era

It is all yours Marc-Andre ter Stegen, your era as the primary goalkeeper for FC Barcelona starts now.

As of now, Claudio Bravo is still a player for Barcelona but all signs point to him leaving to join Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Unless the projected Diego Alves or Jasper Cillessen transfer to Barcelona suddenly falls apart, Bravo will be leaving Barcelona. It is sad to see Bravo leave but it was bound to happen with Marce-Andre ter Stegen as he seems ready to take on the job of being the starting goalkeeper in all competitions. Bravo was a true professional and evolved into an elite goalie as he played in 71 games for Barcelona and won eight trophies. Thank you for your time here Bravo!

Now all of the focus will now be on Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Over the last two seasons, Enrique started Bravo in La Liga games while ter Stegen started in all Copa Del Rey and Champions League competitions. Marc-Andre ter Stegen will now go from playing around 23 games per season to an estimated 60 games per season but this is what the 24-year-old German goalkeeper wanted all along. Over the past several months, he had made his intentions clear that he wanted to be in the rotation for La Liga games and now with Bravo off to the Premier League, your wish has become a reality.

With regards to ter Stegen’s La Liga experience, he did have minimal playing time last season as he started in games that Bravo missed due to injury. Last season, ter Stegen played in all La Liga games in September and he was in for a surprise welcome to the league as he allowed 7 goals in 4 games, including the grand 4-1 loss to Celta Vigo. He also played in the last 3 games of the season and helped Barcelona capture another La Liga title.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen is on pace to be discussed alongside Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon for top goalkeepers in the world. He has an outstanding work ethic and is also one of the most athletic goalkeepers that the world has seen in years. Like his German counterpart Neuer, ter Stegen plays the role of a sweeper where he roams around the box and also outside the box to clear any potential scoring chances by the opponent. It takes a well-aware and smart goalie to know when to come out of the box to get involved in a play and ter Stegen has been praised for doing so at the right time. ter Stegen also has an incredible shot-blocking ability and his instincts are top-notch for a goalie.

This could be the first of many, many seasons with ter Stegen as the main goalkeeper and with an increased workload this season, look out for his performances throughout the season, especially on Champions League weeks.

Steve Zavala

Owner of SportsTalkFeed. Twitter is @SportsTalkFeed . One of the biggest sports fans you will ever meet.

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