It’s a new Barcelona this season. It feels very much like a more exciting one, but is it truly a better Barca as Xavi seeks to combine style with substance by integrating Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix into his side?
Defensively speaking, the addition of the two Portuguese internationals weakens a team that looked on course to shatter a host of records last season. With Barca’s unlikely penchant for a 1-0 win, they may well have set all-time LaLiga defensive records had they not won the title so quickly and comfortably with 9 of their 20 goals conceded coming after the 70th minute on matchday 34 which saw Xavi’s team clinch the title in the derby at Espanyol.
Barcelona have since lost Sergio Busquets and with funds tight, there was relatively limited movement in the transfer market until the deadline day additions of Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo, two extremely talented players who have already shown what damage they are capable of causing in the final third of the pitch.
Barcelona stats since signing Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo
|Matches (all competitions)||8|
The early signs are certainly positive in terms of the difference the two Joaos can make. Barcelona are unbeaten in 8 matches in all competitions since the duo arrived, winning 6 of them and averaging 2.63 goals per game.
While it’s still only a small sample size, we’ve seen some excellent attacking football from the Catalans who only averaged 1.84 goals per game during LaLiga 2022/23. Of the 21 goals scored by Barcelona in their last 8 games, 8 have been scored or assisted by either Cancelo or Felix.
The positives and negatives to playing both in the same team were most vividly demonstrated in the recent home game against Celta Vigo as the visitors stunned the Estadi Olímpic by taking a two goal lead and finding gaps in the Barca defence that were seldom present last season.
However the presence of Cancelo and Felix and their ability to serve up opportunities for Robert Lewandowski was ultimately the utterly decisive factor in the game as the hosts scored three times in the final ten minutes with the two new boys setting up goals for the Polish striker before Cancelo himself popped up with the winner.
It’s striking just how quickly Cancelo and Felix have emerged as not just nice new options, but key members of this team and for now at least guaranteed starters in Barcelona’s best eleven. Both men have started every game in LaLiga and the Champions League since coming off the bench to make their Barca debuts at Osasuna in early September.
That’s particularly surprising in the case of Felix, given Xavi’s apparent reluctance to sign a player who flattered to deceive throughout much of his time at Atletico Madrid.
How do the Portuguese duo alter Xavi’s approach?
Xavi’s decision to so quickly integrate both Cancelo and Felix into his team has partly come about due to the immediate impact that both made, but also because of injuries to Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, two of Barca’s most creative players.
That has largely enforced the current trade-off which has seen the Barca coach field a more combative midfield with Gavi operating in a deeper role than we often saw him in last term, whilst relying more on his new signings to create opportunities. Cancelo has been given freedom to roam forwards from right back while Felix is clearly enjoying his role on the left with the flexibility to cut inside and operate as more of a number ten.
It’s an approach that has produced good results, although it’s true that there has been a slight dip in recent performance levels with Barcelona not at their best in the 1-0 Champions League win at Porto, nor the 2-2 draw at Granada just prior to the international break.
It’s going to be very interesting to see what Xavi does when he finally has a full squad to choose from, a situation that may still be some way off given the club’s current injury problems.
For now, he seems very happy with Cancelo at right back with Jules Kounde playing in, or at least competing for a place in his preferred central defensive role.
Finding the right balance further up the pitch will be the challenge when De Jong and particularly Pedri is fit again, while the emergence of electric teenager Lamine Yamal presents a fresh dilemma as a new, more watchable Barca takes shape.
Acid tests lie ahead
Excitement over the initial impact of Cancelo and Felix should be cooled by a relatively favourable set of fixtures and Barcelona’s place in a considerably weaker Champions League group than was certainly the case last season.
That will soon change though with a testing fortnight ahead that will see the Catalans face fellow top six opponents in the shape of Athletic Club, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad in successive matchdays.
With Robert Lewandowski, Frenkie de Jong, Raphinha, Jules Kounde, Pedri, Alejandro Balde and Lamine Yamal all currently struggling with injuries, Barca fans will be anxious about the damage that could potentially be done to their title defence, particularly given there is already a three point deficit to make up on Real Madrid.
The prospect of going into El Clasico without so many key players is particularly worrying from a Barca perspective and the fixture may prove the acid test of whether Xavi is willing to be bold and truly trust the likes of Felix and Cancelo to turn it on against elite opposition, or whether he reverts to the more pragmatic approach that we frequently saw last season.