Which Player from Outside the Liga Elite Should Barcelona Sign in January?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2017

Athletic Bilbao's forward from Spain Inaki Williams (Up) vies with Zorya Louhansk's midfielder from Ukraine Maksym Lunov during the UEFA Europa league football match Athletic Club Bilbao vs FC Zarya Louhansk at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on September 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ANDER GILLENEA        (Photo credit should read ANDER GILLENEA/AFP/Getty Images)
ANDER GILLENEA/Getty Images

La Liga is only seven games into the new season, but as usual, thoughts are quickly looking ahead: who are favourites to win the title, how can Real Madrid close the gap, who will teams buy in January?

Barcelona have made a stunning start to the domestic campaign, top of the table with a 100 per cent record, but there remain thoughts that they didn't quite get things spot-on in the summer window. The very public chase of Philippe Coutinho is already back on the agenda, with Mundo Deportivo suggesting (h/t MailOnline) Barca will revisit it in January, but who else could they snare?

Since his arrival, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has seen new signings for the club come exclusively from outside of Spain: Gerard Deulofeu from England, Nelson Semedo from Portugal, Paulinho from China and Ousmane Dembele from Germany.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 19:  Ernesto Valverde, Manager of FC Barcelona looks on prior the La Liga match between Barcelona and Eibar at Camp Nou on September 19, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images)
fotopress/Getty Images

Last season it was different: Three of the six senior signings came from La Liga clubs, so who might the Camp Nou side consider next in line to poach from their national league rivals? Who, from Spain's top flight, is good enough to help improve the squad that sits atop the table?

     

Considerations

First of all, in the interests of relevance and likelihood, we're not going to be considering players from either Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid.

Moves between Real and Barca are extremely rare, and it's unlikely Real manager Zinedine Zidane would sanction any sales of his current squad to their greatest rivals.

As for Atletico, they may offload one or two to make room for new arrivals, but as they try to hunt down Real and Barca, it makes no sense for them to strengthen their opponents while they attempt to close the gap.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JULY 29: Arda Turan of FC Barcelona during the International Champions Cup 2017 match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at Hard Rock Stadium on July 29, 2017 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

It might happen once in a while when huge fees can't be turned down—Arda Turan for example—but it's not a factor being considered here. We're looking beyond the usual top three, to see who Barcelona can take to step up a level.

Additionally, we're looking for players who can join the squad assuming no sales are made to accommodate the signings.

Valverde's squad is deep, but in particular the back five are sorted.

Barcelona have two senior goalkeepers, two left-backs, three right-backs and four central defenders. No additions in this area are needed, or likely.

      

Changing midfield

Further forward it's a different matter. Valverde has alternated between variations of 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, playing Lionel Messi just off a striker, usually Luis Suarez, and having his wider midfielders tuck inside, keeping the team compact and negating the departure of Neymar by adding two supporting wide men to the remaining parts of the "MSN" attack.

LISBON, PORTUGAL - SEPTEMBER 27: Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez of FC Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League group D match between Sporting CP and FC Barcelona at Estadio Jose Alvalade on September 27, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Octavio Passos/
Octavio Passos/Getty Images

That means the central-midfield balance is different; sometimes a double pivot, sometimes the usual three, with Sergio Busquets anchoring and a rotating cast in front as interiors.

Centrally, regardless of system, Barca are stacked. Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Paulinho, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez and Rafinha can all play there. For the four-man systems, though, there's room to manoeuvre.

Iniesta, Denis and Deulofeu have all covered that role, as well as Aleix Vidal, but they could do with another, one with pace and ability to head directly for goal—especially given the long-term absence of Dembele.

There are plenty of options for this role throughout La Liga.

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Mikel Oyarzabal of Real Sociedad reacts during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and Valencia CF at Estadio Anoeta on September 24, 2017 in San Sebastian, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Get
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Real Sociedad's Mikel Oyarzabal, Villarreal's Pablo Fornals and Valencia's Carles Soler are perhaps three standout options, with the latter two being options for central midfield in the three-man system. Fornals, though, has only recently joined the Yellow Submarine after departing Malaga this summer.

        

Forward line

When the midfield system changes, it affects the front line. Messi has roved from wide right to false nine to supporting forward—equally effectively—but his partners have been varied: supporting Suarez, feeding off Deulofeu, even a few minutes watching Paco Alcacer toil away.

With Suarez not hitting top gear yet and Alcacer clearly either not rated or not trusted, an additional option to cover centre-forward while ideally being able to run the channels, if not a genuine wide starter, would also be ideal.

Around La Liga, there are a few who fit the bill.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 20: Arnaldo Antonio Sanabria Ayala (r) of Real Betis fights for the ball with Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and Real Betis at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 20 September 2017 in Ma
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Betis' Tonny Sanabria remains impressive, if not the finished article. Nolito, now at Sevilla, was linked with a move to Barca two years ago. La Real's Willian Jose is a more central option than Nolito, but can also play deeper behind a forward, while Villarreal's Cedric Bakambu is a tremendous goalscorer with great pace and directness who can also play from the left wing—but stylistically, he's much more a counter-attacking striker than one who suits Barcelona's traditional build-up.

Finally, Athletic Club's Inaki Williams is a real option, fast and skilful, a winger or central striker, and perhaps this season at age 23 finally showing signs that he can significantly up his productivity levels.

    

Chosen one

Realistically, the choice comes down to Oyarzabal or Williams—and we're opting for the latter.

Inaki Williams during the UEFA European Under-21 match between Serbia and Spain at Arena Bydgoszcz on June 23, 2017 in Bydgoszcz, Poland. (Photo by MB Media)
MB Media/Getty Images

The Athletic forward has the big bonus of being able to play at centre-forward for his secondary role, where Barcelona clearly lack a little depth given Alcacer's lack of involvement.

Inaki has been linked with the likes of Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund over the past few months, per Tuttomercato (h/t TalkSport), but interest in the attacker has come from elsewhere, too. It seems inevitable that he'll depart San Mames at some point, but for now, he's much-relied upon to be a source of goals, a pacy outlet and a key first XI starter.

All that means he wouldn't come cheap, and his buyout clause is €50 million, according to Marca (in Spanish).

Still, he'd be a fine fit, with the one question mark coming over where he would get to feature when both he and Dembele were available; it's feasible that they could both feature on the sides in Valverde's four-man midfield, but it would be incredibly offensive-minded and requiring the central pairing to remain rigid and deep.

GETAFE, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 16: Ousmane Dembele of FC Barcelona (L) fights for the ball with Juan Torres Ruiz, Cala, of Getafe CF (R) during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Getafe CF and FC Barcelona at Coliseum Alfonso Perez on 16 September 2017 in Getaf
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

On the other hand, how often have Barcelona been without at least one key starter? Suarez was injured at the start of the campaign, Dembele is now; Inaki could have been a perfect replacement for either of them, right or central, and both wide men could start either side of Messi if required in a three-man attack.

Barcelona aren't missing much. Despite early-season fears that they'd fall behind, they've started tremendously well and Valverde has the side in good shape.

A little more depth in key attacking areas, a little more goal threat from different players, and they might well win back the title from Real Madrid.

And Inaki Williams would help them along that path.

       

Twitter.com/karlmatchett

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