Age Before Beauty: Barcelona 2019-2020

Zososoxfan

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Griezmann is officially in the fold. Who knows what's going on with Neymar. Neymar-Suarez-Messi with Griezmann behind or Neymar-Griezmann-Messi is titillating, but who knows how this will work. This tension is exacerbated by EV's conservative tactics in the biggest matches and the squad's older profile. De Jong will help a lot in this regard, but is it enough?
 

bosox4283

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Dembele is now out five weeks. The team seems really thin right now, with Dembele out for a spell (and injury-prone) and Countinho packing his bags for Munich.
 

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Coutinho loaned to Bayern for EUR 8.5M going to Barca, with an option to buy for 120M.

Rumors that Neymar is being discussed from PSG under similar terms. They'd discussed an outright purchase, but Barca went in offering 80 (plus Coutinho and Rakitic) willing to go to 100, PSG wanted 120 (plus Coutinho and Semedo), and there it sat - and moreover, Rakitic didn't want to go. So they're talking about a loan-with-option-to-buy under very similar terms to the Coutinho deal, which would make the whole thing cashflow-neutral for them. If it gets done for anything close to the Coutinho terms, it's absolute highway robbery of PSG and I'd frankly be shocked Madrid didn't go in and top it just on general principles.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca conceded first against Betis yesterday and I got worried that we were in for more of the Bilbao match. But Barca turned it around resoundingly and finished with a 5-2 win. Griez yesterday did what Coutinho was supposed to do. Griez combined with other attacking players and made the entire XI more difficult to defend. Once Betis sat farther and farther back, Griez punished them by hitting a curler from distance. He did all of that while playing at different positions along the front and dropping deeper occasionally. In sum, he was dynamic and stirred the drink. The team was much more organized with Perez stationed wide right and Rafinha and Griez creating havoc from the central and center-left positions. Both FBs got high and Roberto turned in one of his best Barca performances ever. FDJ was solid with his passing but otherwise unspectacular. Busi was OK but did cough up a brutal turnover that led to the first goal. Alba looked much more engaged. Semedo as starting RB is clearly here to stay. He's already good and has more room to improve. Pique and Lenglet are a solid pair at the back. Lastly, 16 year old (!!!!!) Anssumane Fati got on the field for 10+ minutes and looked like he belonged. He's electric fast and didn't seem overwhelmed by the moment. Between him, Perez, Wague, and others, the youth movement may be starting in earnest in Catalunya, but let's see if this lasts beyond September.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca got a nice result against scrambling Valencia on Saturday. The result should be taken with a grain of salt as Valencia were still clearly reeling from Marcelino's ignominious departure last week.

The headline has to be Ansu Fati's continued starts and production. the Prodigal 16-year old (!) added another goal to his tally and a nice one at that and pretty much gifted FDJ's goal minutes later. More broadly, Barca's early season tactical headline is that there is much more of a system in place with two bona fide and hardworking young wingers in Fati and Perez. They're showing enough threat to open up the middle for the genius of Griez, FDJ, Arthur, and the rest of the gang. Arthur clearly belongs in the XI every match where he's not being rested. He's the metronome of the club now (more so than Busi) and his possession and vision make everything operate smoothly. I still think Busi isn't part of the best XI for big matches--I'd rather have Rakitic, Roberto, or even Vidal in there to provide more workrate along side Arthur and FDJ. In fact, I think Barca are so lucky that they have Rakitic to play that role, even if the Board or EV doesn't want to do it. Rak finally got into the match on Saturday, his first minutes of the season IIRC and I hope he continues to get PT. Barca have a bloated schedule this month and I expect he will see a lot of time. Lastly, Luisito subbed in for a half hour of work did his patented 'look terrible but score a brace' routine. I honestly don't know how he does it.
 

bosox4283

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I don't get the Rakitic thing. Does Barca want to sell him? Does the team need to sell him? Is it that Barca wants to play with FDJ, Arthur, and the young guys so Rak is the old guy holding back the young ones?
 

Zososoxfan

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I don't get the Rakitic thing. Does Barca want to sell him? Does the team need to sell him? Is it that Barca wants to play with FDJ, Arthur, and the young guys so Rak is the old guy holding back the young ones?
I have no idea. During the summer it made some sense--Rak was a good player but at a position with other options who could still fetch a real transfer fee. That's why he was included in most of the Ney rumors--it made financial 'balancing the books' sense. But now that he's with the squad thru at least December? Play the man!
 

67YAZ

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I have no idea. During the summer it made some sense--Rak was a good player but at a position with other options who could still fetch a real transfer fee. That's why he was included in most of the Ney rumors--it made financial 'balancing the books' sense. But now that he's with the squad thru at least December? Play the man!
I recall rumors that FDJ has a playing time guarantee in his contract. That’s the best I can think of, but who knows how Valverde sees this squad?
 

Zososoxfan

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Interesting match yesterday against Sevilla. Sevilla is a strong club under the leadership of Lopetegui and have gotten off to a good start. Against this, EV decides to sit Lenglet (may have been suspension) and brings in Todibo, moving Pique over to LCB in the process. Semedo starts at LB and Roberto gets the start at RB. Busi sits, and FDJ starts at DMF. Arthur starts (predictably), but it's Vidal filling out the MF 3. Up top it's Messi, Suarez, and Dembele.

So while Messi's return will grab some headlines, Suarez has now hit some real bangers in the past few matches. I'm not Luisito's biggest fan, but when he's on form he's lethal in his finishing and hard to stop. He still makes some very bad turnovers that create breaks going the other way, but if he's finishing like he is right now, you probably have to take it. Dembele is like a worse version of this--his finishing isn't as good and he doesn't have the track record that Luis does, but he commits a lot of bad and dangerous turnovers (and apparently gets red cards now). That said, he seemed motivated to take on defenders yesterday and did create a lot of good attacks. He had a very nice finish for his goal.

I can't say enough about Arthur. His assist on the Vidal goal was sublime. This guy was born to play for Barca and he's slowly becoming more and more comfortable being the forward-most of the 3 MFs. That is ideal since Barca have numerous guys who are all good enough to play the other 2 spots.

I haven't seen FDJ's brilliance on full display yet--he's obviously skilled and has excellent movement off the ball. But I haven't focused on him enough yet. But even that notwithstanding, starting him ahead of Busi allows Barca to press effectively again. Look at Barca's third goal (Dembele):

View: https://streamja.com/o01X


Turnover in the final third with 6 (!) attackers. That is what made the best Barca squads unstoppable--not only were they insane with the ball, but they were fierce on defense and created offense out of turnovers.

A few other quick notes: Busi came on for Arthur after an hour and Rakitic came on for Vidal shortly thereafter. I still think Rakitic has a big role to play on this year's club but until he starts a few matches, it's all speculative. Grizi sat this full match and it's going to take some time for him to adjust. Writing out Arthur's part above, he may have a role as the AMF since he works hard enough on D. Having Grizi behind Messi-Suarez-Winger of your choosing may just work. I wasn't watching closely and didn't see why, but Araujo came on for Todibo in the last 5 minutes and got a red card for a last-man tackle.
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca finally look like they got in gear Saturday against Mighty Eibar. Griez-Suarez-Messi up front look cohesive, FDJ and Arthur bossed the middle, and Big Sam got a start and though he looked rusty at times was very good. Alba returned from injury. Lenglet was very solid next to Sam.

The key to this match was Barca ability to mix in an effective direct approach. The front 3 took turns dropping deep to receive passes and held possession and created offense brilliantly. Griez in particular was all over the place in the best way possible. He combined with the other two strikers, went wide and threatened the flank, and helped on defense. On the first goal, Griez showed his versatility by helping possess very wide in the MF before turning on the jets and getting behind his defender and topping it off with a cool finish:

View: https://streamja.com/1Mb2


The second goal really showed the ceiling for this squad--it had everything and everyone. Busi starts the move and passes to Messi in MF on the right to establish possession and transition to offense. FDJ gets the ball and now that he's more comfortable as one of the two attacking MFs, calmly combines with Griez who has drifted inside. Busi is playing high up the pitch because he trusts the defense and his mates to keep possession. Arthur has dropped back a bit because the other two MFs are high and he sprays the ball wide to Alba who has read the play properly. Griez again moves intelligently and gives Alba and outlet, but plays possession and gives back to Arthur. Arthur attempts an incisive pass (a big positive development from him this year along with outside shooting), but it's intercepted. Arthur immediately presses forward and disrupts the counter. The ball bounces to FDJ who is also in good position because of the pressing. FDJ creates the angle and finds Luis inside the box, and from there it's magic--Luis miscontrols the ball a bit but Griez reads it well and slyly passes to Messi for a cool 1v1 finish:

View: https://streamja.com/2mgz


On the last goal, Semedo does well to win the ball back and outlets to Busi. Messi drops deep to draw the defense higher and Messi properly returns it Arthur, who gets it quickly to Griez. Griez spots Messi's run from deep and splits the defense with a 40-yard run. Messi unselfishly gives the ball to Luis for the goal:

View: https://streamja.com/V9yw
 

Zososoxfan

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Barca kept things rolling midweek with a 5-1 win over Valladolid to move into 1st in La Liga.

EV lined up a fairly straightforward XI with 2 exceptions: Vidal in for Arthur and Fati on the LW ahead of Grizi. Lenglet got things started with a nice volley that took a deflection on its way in following a corner and scramble. Leglet has been an immense success so far and has allowed Barca to weather Big Sam's injuries. He's starting to show some consistent ability to get on the scoresheet on set pieces and he's fairly comfortable on the ball, although he defers to Pique a lot w/r/t distribution. Pique also gets underrated generally IMO as he has been the rock at the back for over a decade. Alba pushed up per usual but didn't combine all that well with Fati or anyone other than Messi. Semedo continues to be shown confidence at RB, and later shifted to LB to make room for Roberto at RB (presumably to keep him engaged and sharp).

In the middle, Busi had a fairly anonymous match and was overshadowed by FDJ's ownership of the MF and Vidal's sparkling first half. I finally saw FDJ's dominance in this match. He pitches in on defense and particularly served as an outlet to retain possession and transition to attack. He then helps establish possession in the MF and still has the ability to get forward and combine with the front 3. Vidal had an outstanding first half and his willingness to make runs forward and behind the line remind me of Paulinho's successful stint with the club. This was punctuated with a delightful volley goal assisted by Messi on a ball directly over his head. That is difficult and Vidal does have a certain amount of unique athleticism. Vidal is still a liability to make dumb fouls and clearly ran out of gas in the second half as Barca temporarily lost its grip on the match before icing it away with 2 quick goals, but he is a good option to have in rotation and can certainly provide some useful skills in key matches for 30 minutes (read: protect a lead and bring physicality). Generally speaking it seems that Vidal is going to continue to have to provide value in attack as his defensive ability and workrate continue to decline.

Up front, Fati showed aggressive dribbling, but overall had a poor match with lots of turnovers. He's clearly getting a lot of leash to find his game because what he brings is electric. Like Vidal, Fati gives Messi runners ahead of him behind the defense that provide Messi options and more space. For the past 2-3 years I've felt it was criminal that Barca didn't have more young runners ahead of Messi. Dembele was supposed to provide some of this but that's not really his strength either, as he is best with the ball at his feet on the wings and carrying forward from wide positions. Fati brings a much more well-rounded game and possibly even more quickness in the final third, although Dembele's straight line speed is unparalleled.

Luis and Messi took turns setting up centrally and on the RW. Messi had a stupid-good match, even for his standards. He assisted on Vidal's goal, scored a beaut of a FK, scored another goal in the 2nd half where he somehow dragged the ball to his left off his thigh on a half turn (!) before coolly finishing, and topping it off with an inch perfect assist to Luisito who had an embarrassingly wide margin for error. A total masterclass. Luis was pretty bad in this match, but as long as his finishing continues to be consistent he will be a fine option and starting CF.

Rakitic came on for FDJ for 30 minutes and looked engaged and aggressive, but rusty. It struck me how well Raki understands his teammates and his experience with Busi, Alba, Messi, Suarez, Pique, etc. shows with how much space he creates for himself and his mates with positioning. He looked determined to make incisive passes and that led to some unnecessary turnovers, but I chalk that up to his lack of PT. This directness paid off as he assisted Messi's second goal. Word is that Rak is headed to Inter in January and I think it's a huge mistake from Barca's perspective. Arthur and FDJ are clearly Barca's two most important MFs at this point, but Rak should be given the opportunity to spell Busi and play with the other 2. I acknowledge that Rak and FDJ are a bit duplicative and FDJ is the better of the 2 in the CMF role, but Rak is a much better defender and has a higher workrate than Busi. Having Rak and FDJ would also make planning against Barca extremely difficult as they can swap roles and change the shape of the team on the fly (4-2-1-3 <--> 4-1-2-3, not to mention 3-3-1-3 or 3-4-3 in attack). In short, I like that Vidal brings a different skillset and Roberto's versatility is also valuable, but I think Rak may still be part of Barca's best XI. Alena has to hope he can be Arthur's backup at AMF because he's not beating anyone for CMF.

Found a clip of the Messi thigh drag touch (penultimate replay):

View: https://streamja.com/nlrA
 
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Zososoxfan

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Messi netted a hattrick and the "S" and "G" of MSG each had another goal apiece in Barca's 5-2 dismantling of Mallorca over the weekend. Griez showed his world class finishing ability and Suarez scored one of the most unique goals I've ever seen. Perhaps even more importantly, Rakitic, Roberto, and FDJ led a useful press. Roberto in particular had a standout game. Against weaker opposition his workrate combined with MF-quality ball control and passing is effective. Rakitic has played himself into decent shape and his positioning is still better than most of Barca's other MF. Of course FDJ is the future and the MF should be built around him going forward. Barca are expected to throw out a heavily-rotated side against Inter today in UCL as they've already qualified, and have a fixture crunch with surging 4th place Sociedad this weekend, and a midweek Clasico looming in 8 days.

Also, the article below says that Barca are interested in Lautaro Martinez but are balking at the $100M asking price. Honestly though, for a player of his caliber, at his age, and that is not currently at a club that can afford to keep his wages at megaclub levels, I think Barca should absolutely pull the trigger on him. Barca can sell Dembele at a loss to help offset the cost. The only player I'd prefer over Lautaro over the next 5 years is Mbappe and he's destined for Madrid. I love Rashford and Gabi Jesus but I don't think either of them is going anywhere. There are other elite U23 strikers out there like Jovic and Abraham to name a couple, but they either haven't shown as much as Lautaro or are already on clubs like Real and Chelsea that won't sell them if they continue to improve.

 

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while sitting in first place in La Liga, and drawn against a weaker Napoli side in the UCL R16? What a bum, my grandmother could do better.
 

rguilmar

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Valverde out, Setien in.

I’ve been in the “move on from Valverde” camp for a while, but this is shocking to me.
 

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MDLzera
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I'll never understand how Euro teams approach managerial changes.
 

Zososoxfan

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Ernie seems like a nice enough guy and I think he's a professional, but he was never the right man for the job and he should've been sacked last summer. The fact that he held on this long is a testament to the ineptitude of this Board. Nothing has really changed from last summer. The rumor going around is that the Supercopa loss to Atleti cost the Saudis lots of money by missing out on a Clasico and that's what sealed EV's fate. That seems farfetched to me at least in a direct connection type of way, but there's not much else to go on, so...[shrugs].

EV was loved by the players because he was a caretaker manager--he was almost good enough to get them to the UCL Finals last season over a supreme Liverpool team and got them to the precipice of the Semis the year before, while repeating as La Liga champs. I will remember him as overprioritizing the League over UCL and tailoring the aging legends around Messi for a potentially final burst of brilliance, but also for playing uninspired football.

I wonder what type of mandate Setien has for the remainder of the season. Is he another caretaker with more possession-based philosophy, or will he be permitted to challenge some of the legends. Suarez going down for the season makes his job a bit easier in this regard, as the only key players he likely needs to worry about are Pique, Busi, Messi, and Alba. I don't think Rakitic is given the same deference, and for Pique, Messi, and Alba they're clearly still good enough to be in the XI. But apparently Setien is a huge Busi fanboi so perhaps Setien will build the squad around him. A 4-2-3-1 would be a good starting point for that, but the problem with Luis going down is who will stretch defenses vertically? A false 9 could be in the cards, but that requires a lot of positional discipline from the wingers to cut in and make space on the wings for overlapping FBs and keep the 10 and 8 clean. Nevertheless, this seems like the best option at the moment. Then the question becomes how to deploy Messi and Griez since they could both be the false 9 or the 10, and Griez can still be a winger too.

It will also be interesting to see how Setien manages Fati, Perez, and Arthur. Arthur has been one of the biggest mysteries these last 2-3 months. I still think Barca's future MF revolves around him and FDJ, but they need to start playing together now, so that the club can see what complementary pieces are missing. Barca could and probably should bring in a mid-level #9 just to have the option available, even if the plan is to move forward with a false 9 approach. What's Prince up to these days? Paulinho? More seriously, is Cavani totally out of favor at PSG? Could be a pretty seamless fit IMO.
 

Zososoxfan

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Excellent writeup about Setien's tactics:


What stands out is how much MATS is going to flourish being part of the attack cerebrally. While Setien uses a back 3, one of the videos towards the bottom of the article shows how Bartra jumps between the backline and the MF depending on where the team wants to create space.

I'm highly encouraged by having a manager who understands spatial concepts and adaptability. It looks like he will have the tactical chops for the job, and now the question is can he manage some aging legends and impose his philosophy on a squad that may not be tailored for his preferred style.
 

Zososoxfan

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After one match, there's a fair amount to be said about Setien's Barca and there were some interesting takeaways. First and foremost, what was immediately obvious is that Setien is going to keep the team more vertically compact and high up the pitch. EV's Barca was conservative by keeping the backline +1 fairly far back and keeping some wide players on a leash. This forced the 3-5 attacking players to be brilliant without conceding defensive balance. However, this also exacerbated the limitations of an aging squad and led to a stale approach in attack.

With Setien Barca were a 3-3-4/3-4-3 in attack (depending on where Alba setup) and the midfield had clear orders to help the forwards press and win the ball back in high areas. The CBs, Roberto, and Busi also played higher than EV and it was clear as those 4 made many interceptions. Roberto almost played like a CB in this match to allow Alba to get involved in the attack. It makes sense to have lots of speed on either side of Pique in the back 3 to help nip attacks, and Roberto, Umtiti, and Busi all have excellent instincts reading where the first ball will go. Messi even seemed more engaged in the press. I'd like to think Setien sat down with Messi and after expressing his admiration profusely told him that he needed some help from Messi to help the team win the ball back in high areas.

The second thing that stood out is that Barca maintained a lot more possession that they typically did with EV. Most of Barca's squad is well-versed in this style but it was also clear that they were rusty. In particular the MF seemed disjointed and passing options were limited for long stretches in the first half. The Rakitic-Vidal combo likely has a lot to do with this and when FDJ, Arthur, and Puig (!) begin integrating more I think this will get better. I didn't get to watch this match as closely as I'd like, but I didn't see as much of the field switching and direct attack as I expected. Some of this is likely due to implementing a big shift in approach piecemeal, and some of it likely has to do with how Granada setup.

The third tactical change that was interesting was the forwards changing positions throughout the match. Barca started out with Griez-Messi-Fati, then switched to Fati-Messi-Griez, and even looked like Fati-Griez-Messi for a bit. I don't think this was particularly helpful--some of Granada's best attacks came after these swaps, but I think it indicates that Setien is going to throw tons of looks at the opposing defenses and wants his players comfortable interchanging to get the best matchups. This will help long-term but will cause some growing pains. These pains will somewhat surprisingly be in Barca's defensive shape, as opposed to their attacking.

Player selection also tells us a good deal about Setien. Busi played his most effective match in some time and it's because the team's attack and defense were suited for his skillset. As mentioned above, Busi's reading of the game is pretty much unparalleled and he intercepted balls and directed traffic much better than running around aimlessly like he did at times under EV. He's just not much of a runner and shrinking the field is where Busi's awareness shines. With good width to both sides, the center opened up and Busi was able to spray balls and maintain possession like the Busi of old. Once Setien identifies the best MF 3, I think Barca will really start to thrive. To that point, the future may be Puig-FDJ-Arthur, but at least Busi can now be a high quality player and FDJ is certainly versatile enough to be a MF other than the pivot. Until Arthur rounds into shape and Puig gets comfortable at this level, Busi at the pivot is a viable option.

I honestly don't know what to make of the selection of Vidal and Rakitic for the other MF spots. Perhaps it was a nod to the veterans to give them a shot to shine. I've been a Rakitic fanboy ever since he joined the squad and I still don't think he gets the credit he deserves, but he wasn't very good in this match. Vidal brings a higher workrate and creativity that Rakitic doesn't have anymore. Vidal makes runs into the attacking box and had a huge part in the goal, and still has the legs to get all the way back and protect the backline. He nipped one late dangerous attack very well once Busi, Pique, and at least one other defender were beat. While I think both can be capable rotation options, I don't think either has the technical ability or spatial awareness to reach the ceilings of FDJ, Arthur, or potentially Puig. Getting the MF rotation down from 6-7 to mostly 4 and some spot starts for the 5th will do Barca much good.

At RB, Roberto once again got the nod over Semedo. I think Semedo is a much more dynamic attacker but Setien seems to value defense at this spot, at least while Alba is at LB. Alba is still a creative and smart player on the wing but for the first time I finally saw the step he's lost and it takes away a huge part of his game. I wonder if Setien will consider using Semedo is as the attacking FB and try Firpo as the stay at home FB. With Roberto, Wague, Alba, and Firpo, Setien has some options and I think he'll lock this in quickly but continue to rotate to get the best out of Alba.

At CB it was interesting to see Tanktiti get the nod over Lenglet. Lenglet has had a wonderful start to his career and his ability to come in and fit right in is impressive. But when Umtiti burst onto the scene he was one of the best CBs in the world for 18 months and culminated with the WC victory. If he can recapture that form, it's a no-brainer to pick him over Lenglet. But to be honest, I'm not quite sure where their skills are most different. I'd say that Umtiti is a better passer and more comfortable on the ball, but otherwise they are both big strong and fairly fast CBs. It would be cool to see Umtiti get some games at RCB in what essentially is a back 3 to get Pique some rest. Very sad that Todibo went out on loan before the Setien change occurred.

Lastly among the starters, the selection of Fati has to excite fans. The kid is absolutely electric and direct, even though he's slowed down quite a bit after his scintillating start to the season. The book must've gotten out on him because defenders are much more prepared for him now. Nevertheless, Fati must be keeping the seat warm while Dembele gets back. I have to think this will be Dembele's last chance to make this work.

For the subs, it was awesome to see Puig get some real minutes. The kid is tiny and young looking, but he had a major part in creating the turnover that led to the goal. He is a dynamic player and seems to have an understanding with Messi. If he can be the Iniesta to Arthur's Xavi, Barca may be able to recreate the Tiki Taka days for just awhile longer. It was also nice to see Perez make it onto the field, even if just for a brief cameo. I think the kid will be a very good system player and see a lot of Pedro in him. Lastly, it's important that Arthur get activated because if Barca intend to play possession-based football there's probably no one better or more important to that than Arthur.
 
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