Barcelona sit atop the La Liga table, progressed through the Champions League group stage unbeaten and have the best player in the world in their team.
However, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Most of the Spanish Champions’ games this season have followed a similar and unsustainable pattern: start the match poorly and rely upon Marc-André ter Stegen to produce a wonder-save or two before shutting their eyes and praying Lionel Messi scores or sets up the winner.
While Messi may currently be the top scorer in La Liga, he is undoubtedly slowing down and La Blaugrana may have the unenviable task of replacing the Argentinian sooner than they hoped. Add this to the fact that Ter Stegen is injured and Ernesto Valverde’s side will have to find a different way to battle through matches, as fans reminisce about better days.
On 25 November 2012, after an injured Dani Alves was replaced by Martin Montoya in the 14th minute, Barcelona had 11 graduates from their much-heralded academy, La Masia, on the pitch at the same time.
More than six years have passed and no players have been able to live up to the once-in-a-generation La Masia greats such as Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Messi himself, but 2020 could be the year that the new crop come closer than those before them.
The 17-year-old Ansu Fati has proven that Valverde is willing to entrust youth with the responsibility of wearing the first-team jersey, but there are several others who could make their breakthrough this year.
Moussa Wagué (Right-Back)
To put it bluntly, Barcelona have never been able to properly replace Dani Alves since he was picked up by Juventus on a free in 2016. Aleix Vidal was thought to be the solution in 2015 when they splashed £15m to acquire his services. Suffice to say, the 30-year-old, who now plays on the right-wing for 15th-placed Alaves, was not the answer.
Nelson Semedo was the next solution but the Portuguese full-back has oddly looked better filling in for Jordi Alba on the left rather than in his natural right-back slot. And so, the current duties fall upon the Swiss army knife that is Sergi Roberto.
Moussa Wagué, a 21-year-old Senegal international, has already made his senior debut for La Blaugrana but has been limited to 180 minutes of first-team football so far this season. The nippy full-back has only played against bottom of the league Leganes and in the dead rubber that was Barça’s last Champions League group game, yet impressed in both outings.
Securing a regular starting berth this season may be a bit ambitious, but Wagué’s potential is clear for all to see. And given the mess that has gone before the young man in the right-back slot, he may find his way into the first 11 by the end of the year.
Jean-Clair Todibo (Centre-Back)
After only 10 appearances in the French top flight with Toulouse in 2018/19, Barcelona bought the then-19-year-old and Jean-Clair Todibo has caught the eye in his limited appearances since. Gerard Piqué will be 33-years-old next month and 6’3 Todibo could serve as a ready-made replacement for the Catalan captain.
Imposing, elegant, and comfortable on the ball, Todibo has all the attributes a Barcelona centre-back needs. Couple this with his ability to fill in at defensive midfield and it’s not surprising the Spanish giants pushed forward their transfer of the player from the summer of 2019 to January that same year.
Júnior Firpo (Left-Back)
Some may argue that Júnior Firpo has already broken through, during his time with Real Betis, which got him the move to Barcelona. A fair argument to make. But the 23-year-old Dominican-born full-back is yet to break through in his new and rather more daunting surroundings.
Júnior was bought for £16m in the summer as the eventual successor to Jordi Alba, a player who will go down in Barcelona and Spanish football history as one of the best. It seems as though the pressure of Firpo’s monumental task of replacing Alba has seeped into Júnior’s performance during the first half of his debut campaign.
This was perhaps most evident during Barcelona’s 1-0 smash-and-grab away to Atlético Madrid at the start of December. When Júnior wasn’t being targeted by Atléti’s wingers, his manager was desperately urging him further up the field to support the attack.
Unfortunately, and likely due to a desire to avoid a costly mistake, Júnior cast a striking resemblance to a mime running into an invisible wall every time he fought against his attacking instincts in favour of playing it safe.
However, as the match progressed, his confidence grew and at times he leapt over the mental barrier. As the year goes on, he will be given more and more opportunities and due to the age and injury-prone nature of Alba, it seems that 2020 could prove to be the year Júnior breaks through at Barcelona.
Riqui Puig (Central Midfielder)
The 20-year-old Catalan native is the prototype Barcelona midfielder. Standing at 5’7, he would have been turned away from the academy before he’d even kicked a ball had Johan Cruyff not scrapped the height requirements Barcelona enforced prior to the Dutchman’s arrival.
Puig has been part of La Masia since he was 13-years-old and made his senior debut in the Copa del Rey last season, assisting the fourth goal in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Cultura Leonesa. He may be yet to grace La Liga this season, but Puig is one of the most highly-touted youngsters on Barça’s books.
While it is entirely feasible that Puig follows in the footsteps of previously hotly-tipped La Masia youngsters such as; Sergi Samper, Isaac Cuenca or Sandro Ramirez, it would be unfair to condemn him, or any others on the list, to this fate just yet.