Barcelona’s dominant victory over Atlético Madrid this weekend felt like a statement. It’d be crazy to claim that the reigning Spanish and European champions, armed with nearly the exact same squad that mowed down all comers in last season’s historically great campaign, were underestimated or overlooked in any significant way. But coming into this season, you couldn’t help but look at the club’s limited, largely unproven bench and see the potential for calamity should the Injury Gods inflict their wrath.
That’s was what made Saturday’s win so impressive. It wasn’t just how they managed to dictate the terms of play against a team that only a couple seasons ago appeared to have solved the riddle of Barça’s system. Nor was it how, through quick decision making and darting runs, they turned what is typically Atléti’s marble-solid back line into pumice, sifting through it seemingly at will.
No, what stood out most was the personnel with which they accomplished all of this. Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, and Lionel Messi were all missing from the starting lineup that day. In their place were hardly what you’d consider world-beaters: for Alves, Sergio Roberto, a natural box-to-box midfielder who never made an impact at his real position before the surprising decision this summer to switch him to right full back as a stopgap cover for Alves; for Piqué, Thomas Vermaelen, an accomplished though perma-injured center back that had made exactly one appearance for the club the season prior; and for Messi, Rafinha, a promising, young Swiss army knife of a midfielder.
All three players excelled in Madrid, as they had all season in the important roles into which they’d been thrust thanks to injuries, suspensions, and happier absences (welcome to the world, Mateo Messi!). Roberto took to the full back position automatically, able to use his athleticism, work-rate, and intelligence in understanding when to push forward and when to drop back in a way his limited technical ability didn’t allow for when he played in the center of the pitch. Vermaelen had been Barcelona’s best defender in most of his appearances, making a strong case that he should be the team’s third center back behind Piqué and Javier Mascherano. (Surprise, surprise: he had to be substituted early in the Atlético match due to injury.)
But the most promising turn of events was the growth of Rafinha. He’s long been considered one of the jewels of Barça’s youth quarry. Rafinha, the 22-year-old brother of Barcelona youth product and current Bayern Munich player Thiago, is some kind of player:
The attack-minded midfielder’s most lethal weapon is his dribbling; he can speed and spin past any number of defenders. But what makes him so promising are the other things that go along with his game: the creative passing, the movement, the willingness to defend, the goal-scoring ability. These are all attributes Rafinha has flashed at times in his career and this season has finally put together for more sustained stretches. No one who pays close attention to this club would be at all surprised if a couple years down the line he became a more-than-capable replacement for Andrés Iniesta.
So Barcelona beat Atlético away from home 2-1, and everything looked great. Maybe they could sustain this another few months, cobbling together shorthanded results until their transfer ban is lifted and reinforcements can arrive. Then the Roma match came and Rafinha got hurt and now Barça are in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.
Away to Roma on Wednesday for what would most likely be their most difficult match in the Champions League group stage, Barcelona were at nearly full strength with Piqué and Messi back in the side. Again the team looked ascendent and very easily could’ve won barring one of the most stunning long bombs you’ll ever see. In the second half, though, manager Luis Enrique brought on Rafinha for Ivan Rakitić. Just a couple minutes later, the young Brazilian was being carted off the pitch after an ugly Radja Nainggolan tackle. (We’ve heard that one before.) Scans revealed that Rafinha suffered a torn ACL and will be out at least six months. Sometimes all you can do is sigh.
Rafinha was by himself a huge chunk of Barça’s depth. Not only was he the fourth central midfield option, spelling Rakitić or Iniesta when they need breathers, but he was also the first-choice sub for the three forwards. Earlier this season he played on the left in place of a mumpy Neymar, and just this weekend he stepped in on the right for Messi, both of which have augmented the minutes he’s spent in his long-term position in central midfield.
Without him, Barcelona will struggle to make it through to January in one piece. Before the end of the calendar year, the club has 18 scheduled La Liga and Champions League matches, plus a handful more in the FIFA Club World Cup. They’ll go into those matches with only four central midfielders currently in the side (Sergio Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta, and Roberto—five if you count Mascherano). Even more distressing is the quality behind the forwards. The Messi-Suárez-Neymar trident is the core of this team, and now they’ll have to pray those three stay healthy and in form, or else they’ll have to turn to a pair of super raw and frankly unprepared 20-year-olds in Sandro Ramírez and Munir El Haddadi. A bench as shallow as a kiddie pool sprang a leak when Rafinha went down.
Luckily, none of the front seven ahead of the defense in Barça’s preferred XI are particularly injury prone. An ideal world would see those players slog through without too much wear and tear. With fatigue sure to be an issue, the club will probably play Mascherano more often in midfield and less in defense for rotation’s sake. Barcelona have never looked particularly good the handful of times Luis Enrique has tried playing Mascherano and Busquets together, but desperate times and all that.
Outside of shifting the vets’ minutes around more creatively, the youth will have to step up. Munir became one of the hottest young names in the game thanks to his call-ups with Barça’s first team early on last season, and he and Sandro—who’s actually been the more effective player of the two young strikers when given the opportunity—will be thrown into the deep end to see if they can swim.
In midfield, the most likely candidate to fill in for Rafinha would presumably be Sergi Samper. Samper has been called everything from the next Busquets to the next Xavi since he was a teen, but it doesn’t seem like Luis Enrique trusts him to approximate either of those player’s talents any time soon, judging from his lack of minutes in the preseason and the call-ups fellow Barça B midfielder Gerard Gumbau has gotten at his expense. Still, Samper has experience with Barça proper and has the pedigree to do something great.
Bringing along and trusting youth products has been a part of Barcelona’s very DNA, but usually those minutes were earned by superior talents rather than gifted out of necessity. It’s sort of ironic, actually; one of the key topics of interest in this past summer’s club presidential elections was the perceived decline of the Barcelona youth system. Josep Maria Bartomeu, the former VP and ultimate victor, was painted as the embodiment of the system’s impending demise, more comfortable buying established players from elsewhere than focusing on improving the in-house ranks. His challengers promised to restore the Johan Cruyff model of homegrown development that has stocked the club during the remarkable run of this past decade.
In the end Bartomeu won, and because of transfer sanctions (in which he played a major part in incurring) his first full season as elected president could very likely rest on the youth. By the time January comes around and the option for further investment is open again, we’ll have a good idea whether the youngsters were worth trusting just yet.
Photos via Getty