For FC Barcelona, we all know what to expect from Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, and Xavi, but it will take more than just that trio if the club seeks to get back to being known as the best club team in the world. It usually comes down to role players and secondary team-mates when teams seek to make the leap from good to great.
Here are the players that I think need to step up at the Camp Nou this season.
He is a player that has been talked about for the past few seasons, but never as their best prospect. He’s played with the first team every so often, but it seems this year Sergio Roberto has finally arrived.
His first two pre-season matches have made many rethink their thoughts on the departing Thiago Alcantara, but he will have to really prove it against better sides when it counts before I’m ready to join that club. With Xavi nearing the end of his career, it will be more likely that he will see big minutes this season, either as a substitute or starting in matches against some of the easier Spanish teams.
Roberto will likely be the second midfield sub used, depending on how Cesc Fabregas is positioned. To play in the Barcelona midfield, you have to be confident with the ball and defenders have to fear you.
Xavi does something that is key to the success of the Barcelona attack – he creates a rhythm within the team that keeps defences at bay. He is very patient with the ball and not afraid to weave passes through stacked defences. Thiago was more aggressive, looking to get forward and this changed the on field dynamic at times.
I prefer the Xavi method of holding up the ball and making the defence chase the ball and wear themselves down, and so, generally, do Barcelona. The biggest issue I had with Thiago was he would rush forward too often and never establish that rhythm. I think the fact Roberto is not as flashy means he will take the Xavi approach. In order to achieve success playing that way, he must instil fear in the defences of other sides. Otherwise, he will get run over in midfield.
Success for Roberto this year will not be determined by goals or assists, but by his ability to keep the team in rhythm and the accuracy and purpose of his passes. If he can be solid in his appearances, then Barca will have addressed a depth concern without having to spend big money on a transfer.
Barca would love to make everyone forget about the loss of Thiago, and Roberto is their best chance for achieving that.
He was the big money signing that Barca coveted for years and has come at the right age and right time. His form for Santos had started to slip, but that was likely a loss of motivation as the Brazilian club had been in mid-table for the last few years.
Even with the Brazilian national team, he seemed to be struggling, but once his transfer was complete Neymar seemed happy again and started to play better – Brazil rolled through the Confederations Cup and Neymar was their best player.
Coming to Barcelona, many will have the expectation that he can create havoc alongside Messi, giving Barca a one-two punch that few clubs could hope to match. Yet, many top class strikers have struggled to earn their keep on the Barca front-line.
I would suggest it’s due to the fact that none of them came through the youth system and have to adjust to the style of play. Neymar will be no different. In this first season with the club, expectations will be high, but internally they need to be kept within reason. He will need time to adapt, just as Alexis Sanchez has needed time to adapt.
I really hope I am wrong, but I think history has been consistent on this topic. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez all hit major scoring droughts in their first seasons with the club. Some have suggested that it is difficult to play alongside Messi, but I do not believe this to be a valid argument because Messi creates a large amount of assists for the club.
I think it has more to do adjusting to a style where you barely dribble and have to navigate through a set defence versus open space. Neymar may find space to work with or he might create space for Messi and company.
There will be an adjustment period, especially with him starting to train with the team midway through the pre-season. Neymar is a raw talent and a few years in the Barca system will make him great, this I do not doubt.
But for now, let’s just hope for 25 goals in all competitions. If he can spend this season building a partnership with Messi and the rest of the front-line, it will pay dividends in the long run. Neymar is the future of the front-line for the club. For this season, anything spectacular he does is a bonus.
He seemed to finally find his feet towards the end of last season. The transition into the Barca system is a tough one, especially for a player that likes to go one on one and play with the ball at his feet.
Alexis had struggled in those tight situations and just appeared to be overwhelmed with the passing game. Tito Villanova did not give him a chance to get better and with Pedro’s strong start, he did not need to. When Alexis did play last year, it seemed like he was tripping over the ball or flopping way too often.
Everything seemed to change late in the season. He started to pick out passes and became a creator of goals, then he started to find his scoring touch again. I am always amazed with his ability to pick a ball out of the air that was chest high and get it to his feet quickly. His ability to do that saved possession numerous times, and created more chances. Going into this year, he seemed like the guy the club wanted two years ago.
If Alexis can give 25 goals and some assists to the team, he will make Barcelona’s front-line unstoppable. Messi, Villa and Pedro scored 20+ two years ago so this is an achievable number to hit.
Still, it may not be goals but the creation of easy chances where he could prove to be valuable. It will be impossible to image how clubs will handle all that creativity with Neymar, Messi and Sanchez along with the great midfield behind them. This would take a ton of pressure off the defence and keep Barca on the front foot. This is the year that Alexis needs to live up to expectations.
Many have compared Tello to Bojan Krkic because of the success they both had in the ‘B’ side and the quick starts to their ‘A’ careers.
Bojan eventually flopped and has been a loan exile since his time in the first team. Tello was trusted by Pep in his first year up in the main squad and he scored goals with stunning speed and strength. He plays like a young David Villa, with the ability to shoot from distance being his preference. His big advantage over Neymar and Sanchez is the fact that he came through the system.
After his first year in the ‘A’ side, many wanted to see him improve his ability to provide service to his team-mates in certain spots. He made a concerted effort last season to do so and had mixed success. The coaching staff seemed to lose confidence in him because of his erratic play: one week he would look like the future, and the next week he was messing up simple chances. He also lost playing time to Cesc Fabregas as Barca used him on the front-line.
Tello has shown himself to have no fear in scoring goals and taking chances. His speed is impressive and I would even dare say that he could displace Neymar if he does have a bumpy transition.
With Tello, it is all about being consistent. The top class players have an impact in nearly every game they play. Certainly we cannot hold him to Messi’s standards, but he has to be a factor more often.
We really do not know how good the full-back can be. Montoya has seen limited playing time and did not get the minutes he would have hoped for in his second full season in the side, but seems to have the speed and passing skill required to play at the top level and he also has an uncanny knack to get into the right place.
His failings have been being exposed defensively on a few occasions, and not converting some easy chances. Ultimately, he will be a great long term player for Barca, but this season he needs to make more of his playing time.
I often wonder if it would be a good idea to play him in central defence as a sub when needed. I have a hard time thinking he couldn’t at least be as good as Mascherano utilizing his speed and size, but his mentality and training have taught him differently so that might not be best.
I was surprised when Marc Bartra started over him in some key matches last year, but that further indicates that he might not have the skill set for central defence. Perhaps, it also underrates Mascherano’s football intelligence – this is an area where Montoya needs to improve. Getting caught out of position too often is a vital flaw.
He will certainly see more time this season. I think this player needs to be better defensively when given his chances and utilize his speed and passing talents to shut down players seeking to counter attack a slower Barcelona midfield.
Dani Alves and Adriano have missed time the last few seasons – Montoya is likely to get more opportunities than he has had in the past if that trend continues. He needs to make the most of it.
For Pedro, this is a massive season. Three seasons ago he dominated on the right wing and scored 20+ goals and was crucial in the Champions League Final against Manchester United, scoring the opening goal and setting Barca on their way. The following 2011-12 campaign was marred by injury and he was sorely missed, returning too late in the season to have an impact. This past season, he started strong and was a big part of Barca’s fast start in the league.
Towards the middle of the season, Pedro suddenly was struggling to find the net. He failed to score in some really key matches and the one that stands out the most to me was against Real Madrid in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey tie.
With Barca up 1-0, he was one on one with Iker Casillas but failed to convert. That goal would have likely sealed the tie for Barcelona, but instead they settled for a 1-1 result and lost the home leg. When you are struggling, easy chances have to be converted. It seemed like all too often, Pedro had his face in his hands in disbelief due to chances that went begging.
Pedro’s goal tallies have really dropped off the last two seasons. In 2011-12 he scored 13, but this past season he scored only 10. It is scary to see that figure, considering he was injured for most of that 13-goal campaign.
One could argue that the team is driving the ball to Messi more often as his two monster goal seasons coincide with this decline, but I do not believe that to be the sole reason. I think Pedro has lost his confidence.
Tito backed him over Alexis for most of last season, but I think new manager Tata Martino might not share the same level of patience. Sanchez has been good as of late on the right side. With Neymar and Tello on the left, Pedro will be forced to win his playing time on the right. Pedro has never been the supplier that Sanchez has become as of late, which will hurt his chances. I think this could be the determining factor between the two, but he is a system guy and that is a big edge for him.
Pedro needs to find his shadow and convert the chances that he gets a greater percentage of the time. The pressure mounts on players when they botch easy chances. Tello and Sanchez were guilty of this last season as well, but Pedro missed chances in really big matches.
We can forgive missed chances in matches the side is leading by three goals, but when you miss against Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, it can really sting. Let’s hope the extra rest this summer will sharpen his focus and confidence. He’s a player that has proven in the past he can rise to the occasion.
In a long campaign with many challenging competitions, you will need more than a great starting 11 to achieve success. No player or group of three is enough to be competitive in Europe.
It takes quality of depth and the ability to overcome injuries. Barcelona lost a bit of its lustre against the better sides last year. In most of those matches against Milan, PSG, Real Madrid, and Bayern, the role players were outclassed and many regulars were nursing injuries.
The best players need to do their part, but those around them need to pick up the slack every now and again to put away vital matches.