Ricard "Riqui" Puig is a sensational youngster who was one of the few bright spots for FC Barcelona in an otherwise disappointing 2019-20 season. After new manager Ronald Koeman hinted that Puig will find it difficult to garner minutes due to the competition in the squad, a huge debate among the Barcelona faithful has sprung up. In a recent press conference, Koeman said:
"It is not true that I have told Riqui that I don't count on him. However, there's competition and that complicates things right now. I recommend Riqui to leave on loan because a young player like him has to play."
It is not that Koeman does not like Puig, or that he thinks Puig has no future at Barcelona. But would Puig fit into Koeman's current plans for the side? The answer is rather complicated.
Puig is a promising number 8 midfielder who is developing in the mould of FC Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta. He is adept at operating in the left half-space and roaming around between the lines. He is an energetic player and is always hungry to win the ball. He has good dribbling skills too, and it is hard to get him off the ball (just ask Thomas Partey).
The only weakness he may have is fighting for aerial balls as he’s only 1.69 metres tall. He is the only player in the current Barcelona squad who can play a true number 8 role.
How can Puig be included in the new formation?
If the friendlies played so far have been any indication, Ronald Koeman is going to use a 4-2-3-1 formation as his base system for the upcoming season. It’s a high-risk high-reward system which sacrifices a bit of control for extra attacking power, and takes advantage of decisive players upfront.
As there are only two midfielders in this system, wingers are required to do more defensive work than usual. This formation speeds up the transition from defence to attack.
Puig would be considered a starter in a three-man midfield, but it is much harder to find a place for him in the two-man midfield of the 4-2-3-1 formation. How so? Let us deconstruct the 4-2-3-1 formation and see how and where Puig can fit.
Attacking front four:
In the attacking positions there are two wingers, one central attacking midfielder, and a striker.
Ideally, in a 4-2-3-1, the attacking line up would be headed by a lone striker. Just behind him would be Messi, playing the number 10 role, flanked by a winger on each side.
If Messi plays on the wings, the lineup will have an extra number 10 player. No matter what configuration Koeman opts for, there be will always be the need for a natural winger in the formation, to provide much-needed width in attack.
Puig cannot play in the wide positions, or as a striker. So there is only one spot Puig can truly fight for, which is the central CAM spot. This Barca squad has too many players who have established themselves as number 10 players in their career. Though this can be an advantage for the club due to their interchangeability in attack, it can be selection headache, as Koeman has hinted.
Puig would be second or third choice in this role, even if he adapts to it. It will be difficult for him to start regularly, as Barcelona have other, more experienced players in this role. Moreover, he may face competition from the likes of Pedri and Alena for the same spot.
Double Pivot Midfield (double 6):
The 4-2-3-1 formation has two holding midfielders. The first is the type of player whose duty is more offence focused, carrying ball the up the pitch, while the other stays back and focuses on defence. The first midfielder will mostly go behind the number 10 and help with the playmaking. The second midfielder will be the deepest player in the squad, and act as a libero in front of the defence while distributing the ball.
While both these players do share their duties occasionally, there is a discernible difference in their roles. It is also not uncommon to play with a two DM/CM double pivot, depending on the demands of different match scenarios and opposition setups.
One of the most successful recent implementation of a double pivot midfield in 4-2-3-1 formation is the Ajax team of 2018-19, where Frenkie de Jong was deployed as a CM and Lasse Schöne played as the DM. The key point here is that there should be at least one DM to provide stability in defence.
Let us look at Barcelona's first choice options for these two positions. De Jong and Busquets are the first choice for the CM and DM roles respectively, while Pjanic can cover either role
In this midfield setup, Puig's skill set makes him the best match for the CM role where De Jong operates. Currently, De Jong is poised to start in that role, thus making it difficult for Puig to start there. Moreover, he may face stiff competition from the likes of Alena who’s also in the same boat as him.
Barcelona's squad planning failure?
Looking at the depth in Barca’s midfield, it appears that there is too much competition for the roles that Puig could be put in. Apart from Puig himself, there are a total of six other players who can play these two roles, even without considering other youth players like Pedri.
This indicates a failure long-term squad planning at the club. Barcelona has been looking for a number 8 player to play in a three-man midfield since the departure of Iniesta. They even tried to buy a number 10 player, Coutinho, and retrofit him into the role. The experiment failed miserably.
Now that a number 8 player has emerged from their own La Masia academy, Barcelona's current tactical setup does not accommodate the role. It is too soon to tell whether the 4-2-3-1 formation will work out for the team. But unless Koeman opts for a three-man midfield, or key players get injured or fall out of form, Puig will be hard-pressed to find minutes that are crucial for his development.
Therefore, Puig finds himself at a crossroads. He can stay and fight for his spot in the current lineup, or go on loan to a team who can offer him a starting role. At the moment, some sources indicated that he wishes to stay. If true, it is a statement of intent and confidence from the Blaugrana boy. Only time will tell whether Puig's decision has been correct.Published 25 Sep 2020, 14:47 IST