FC Barcelona: 4 Biggest Needs as Champions League Play Gets Rolling
Get ready, Cules. Barcelona are in first place and unbeaten right now, but that could all change very soon.
We are nearing October, which is historically one of the most difficult times for European teams. This is when the schedule starts getting harder as there are more matches and multiple competitions to be played. Depth is tested and becomes key to success while the slow change in weather often becomes more of a factor.
Knowing the difficult times that are ahead, there are a few things Barcelona will have to do to stay ahead of the pack in La Liga, while also keeping atop their Champions League group.
What follows are three things fans would like to see as European competition gets under way.
A More Comfortable, Less Frustrating Cesc Fabregas
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Right now, this is as big a problem as any in Barcelona minus the central defense.
Why? Because Andres Iniesta is still not at full strength just as La Blaugrana start the most pivotal part of their first half-season. With Sevilla, Benfica and Real Madrid all on deck, it is vital that Cesc Fabregas is in top form, whether as the uncontested started or a rotated player. All three matches are key.
To put it bluntly, Barça's No. 4 is not having a good season to this point. He has yet to score a goal in five appearances. What's more, his average of just one shot per game shows that he is rarely even getting himself in position to do so anyway.
Nor is the Spaniard helping his teammates. He has just two assists and both of those came in a 4-1 demolition of Getafe.
If this team is going to make it through the next three matches, they need more from their former La Masia prodigy.
Guardiola and Vilanova partially to blame
To be fair to Fabregas, his slow start is not entirely his fault. He has been shifted all over the front half of the pitch and continues to be played out of position.
Fans have long complained about his poor discipline, patience and positional awareness, but perhaps it is time to accept that Cesc Fabregas isn't the second coming of Xavi OR Iniesta, after all.
In all truth, the most ideal place for him to play for Barcelona in their current 4-3-3 is as a false 9, the same role he played for Spain.
Unfortunately for Fabregas, that role is currently occupied by the best player in football, Lionel Messi. There is no chance of him taking the reins there.
Change is needed, but not just from Fabregas
Rather than continuing to try and use Fabregas as a winger or having him get lost in Barcelona's complicated midfield, it's time to use him where he is more comfortable and where he is most useful.
That means a potential change in formation, which leads me to my next point.
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To get the most from Fabregas, Tito Vilanova needs to consider reorganizing his team. If Barça's No.4 is going to play, the formation needs to change no matter who partners him in midfield.
Since Cesc is never going to play Messi's false nine role, the best way to use the former Arsenal great is in the hole—the same role he excelled at in North London.
To do that with the current squad, there are a couple of options here.
This first one we have already seen used this season, albeit as an adjustment rather than from the start.
In their second match of the season, Barcelona struggled to break down a tough Osasuna defense, largely because they were unable to spread the back line and when they did, there were too few options in the middle to feed the ball to.
What Vilanova did was slide Xavi into a deeper holding role alongside Busquets while Pedro, Sanchez and Tello played in front of the pairing.
No. 4 left out
Messi was left alone up top, but continuously swapped places with Sanchez in the middle. Now, Fabregas was subbed off before this change occurred, but it would have been perfect for him. Leaving Cesc behind Messi and swapping with him in attack is the absolute best way to get the most from him.
With two false wingers spreading play and opening the two side channels, it utilizes all of Barcelona's strengths at the same time.
The second option requires a bit more from the defense than injuries currently allow—which, again, leads me to my next and final point.
Bartra on the Pitch
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Poor Marc Bartra. When he was promoted to the senior side this season, he must have dreamt of playing alongside the legendary Puyol and getting his first taste of European and Spanish football as a starter.
Apparently he didn't get the memo. It seems that to play center-back for Barcelona one has to be a midfielder—or have come from an English squad.
Logical... but still limiting
It's easy to understand why Vilanova continues to leave Bartra on the bench in favor of Alex Song. The latter has more top level experience, even as a center-back, while Bartra is only a few months removed from playing in the second division.
But while having two experienced defensive midfielders is not crippling for Barcelona, it has many weaknesses.
With no true understanding of what it is to play Barça's highline while switching off attacking duties, what the Mascherano-Song pairing does is leave a huge gap between the attacking midfielders and the defense.
Having two very attack-minded fullbacks leaves even more space and risks splitting the central defense very easily.
So far so good?
Thankfully for La Blaugrana, Granada is not a team strongly suited to exploit these weaknesses.
Sergio Busquets does a masterful job of filling this space between defense and attack as well as cutting off counter-attacks, but a faster, more accurate passing team would tear this defense to shreds.
The secondary counter-attacking lanes are just huge with Barça's triple DMF defense. Busquets creates the normal tiki-taka triangles going forward, but leaves his own empty one at the back when he has to trail forward to account for Fabregas leaving too much space out wide.
This would be fine as long as Dani Alves or Jordi Alva moves back to shift the triangle sideways, but that was not the case against Granada and probably won't be going forward.
This experiment of three defensive midfielders did not get beat yet, but it has so many flaws that it is only a matter of time before a team like Real Madrid takes advantage for a handful of goals.
Going forward, it would be worth at least considering the use of Marc Bartra in the central defense. At this point, the only way for him to become ready is to actually get on the pitch.
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Of course, as was the case last season, there is not much for La Blaugrana to work with.
Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are both out injured and the only true center-backs available are Bartra and Andrue Fontas, both very green and the latter recovering from injury himself.
With only three defenders, some creativity is needed from the first-year boss and that leads me back to formation changes.
Maybe a reversion back to the 3-4-3 of last season is in order even though that would be very risky with only one true center back on the pitch.
However, depending on how Vilanova employs the central defenders, it could work well enough.
If using a vertical diamond, he could push Busquets deep with the three defenders while leaving Xavi and a fullback beside him.
This gives deep cover in the middle while also providing solid defense help in midfield. High possession is maintained while the attacking options are actually improved.
Options improve because this moves Cesc Fabregas into that central attacking midfield role that he excels at.
Back at full health
When Pique or Puyol get healthy, it gives Vilanova another option with the three-man back line as he could also opt to use both Busquets and Song in midfield. This double pivot would give them the true anchor in Sergio while also freeing Song up to venture forward as he so often enjoyed at Arsenal.
This would see that pair slot deep between the three CBs while putting two attacking or central midfielders in front of the double pivots.
The combination of pure technical genius along with strong physicality is a mixture not found in many teams today and long missing from Barcelona.
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Now I turn it over to you readers.
What would you like to see from Barcelona over the coming weeks and Champions League football starts and the schedule gets more congested?
Do you agree with my plans for Cesc Fabregas and how to best utilize his strengths? What about the defense, can these changes happen with the current squad and fitness levels?
As always, I welcome and look forward to any and all feedback.
Please also check out my latest piece looking at 4 things Real Madrid fans would like to see in the coming weeks.