Barcelona: How does Ernesto Valverde rotate out Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi?

Barcelona's Spanish coach Ernesto Valverde looks on before the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2018. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Barcelona's Spanish coach Ernesto Valverde looks on before the Spanish league football match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2018. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images) /
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These two players are key to Barcelona’s season so keeping them fresh is pivotal.

Ernesto Valverde has some major issues to solve heading into the international break because Barcelona are winless in the last four league games. The only bright spark in recent matches was the Lionel Messi inspired 4-2 win over Tottenham, although there were some defensive lapses in that match as well.

Against Valencia, the strongest lineup was played, but even then they could only manage a draw at the Mestalla. Therefore, taking out the most important players to keep them fresh would be disastrous at this stage. It has to be done at some point, though. If not, Barcelona’s fight on multiple fronts is likely to grind to a halt in the latter stages.

Valverde’s first task will be to ensure some consistency, however, the next three games against Sevilla, Internazionale and Real Madrid will be challenging so more points are likely to be dropped. Once Barcelona hit form, Valverde can afford to tinker against weaker sides in order to find solutions for rotating out key players.

Messi has decided to not join Argentina in the current international break and that’s likely to continue in November for the next break, so he will get some much-needed rest. Nonetheless, at 31-years-old he can’t afford to play every game.

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His impact in multiple areas means that replacing his output is tough. No one player can fill his role so it needs to be broken down into multiple parts and scattered among various players. Arthur Melo’s promising start to his first season at the club means he can take some of the build-up responsibilities usually entrusted to Messi and act as a deep-lying playmaker. Valverde’s decision to bring him in alongside Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets while pushing Philippe Coutinho further forwards has certainly improved ball retention and balanced the team out.

Coutinho becomes the chief creator in Messi’s absence, although he has to improve his decision-making because he is too insistent on distance shooting once he creates space rather than making use of that opening to break open the defence and create a better opportunity. Ousmane Dembele or Malcom start in their preferred right-wing position with the task of stretching the defence and getting in behind the full-back/ wing-back to cross from the byline preferably with a cut back.

Without Messi, there can’t be a reliance on someone to beat three or four players in a small space or score from the tightest of angles. Therefore, slick, sharp passages of play are needed with the emphasis on the ball moving quickly to destabilise the defence and create openings. In this regard, Munir El Haddadi would be a better option than Luis Suarez because the Uruguayan’s main contributions are combining well with Messi. His touch, movement, finishing and interplay isn’t what it once was.

Munir proved in his loan spell at Alaves last season that he can be a significant goal threat with 10 goals in 2456 minutes. He would also be a willing runner in behind to ensure the defence can’t play a high defensive line in order to keep the opposition shape compact which means they would have to play in a low block. This front three should have the dynamism and variety to carve open defences of the smaller teams, at the very least, in the absence of Barcelona’s talisman.

Busquets’ importance can go somewhat unnoticed in comparison to Messi due to his lack of direct involvement in goals. He is a key cog in the Barcelona machine because he links all the team together and ensures that the short passing possession-based style is fluent. His vision and sixth sense in understanding where pressure is coming from allows him to escape danger and avoid costly turnovers in key areas even if he has his back turned to goal. This is a rare skill due to the quickness of thought and problem solving that is required.

A midfield three of Rakitic, Arthur and Arturo Vidal has the potential to deal with his absence, but it would require a strong understanding between the three. In the early build-up stage, Arthur would be the best option to act as the deepest midfielder due to his close control and awareness as well as his ball progression ability. However, as the Catalans progress up the pitch him and Rakitic should fluidly rotate because of his incisive passing, which is needed in the final third, while the Croatian is less ambitious so he is better suited to keeping possession circulating.

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Vidal acts as the enforcer because he can break up opposition play which is especially useful when counter-pressing. He also provides runs from deep, similar to Paulinho last season, that creates space for the attackers. Messi often drops deep so he can also help out during build-up in breaking through the opposition lines.

Rotating them both out at the same time would be a huge mistake because of how they can help the team deal with the other player’s absence. They showed against Spurs that in top form they can blow teams aways if they are in peak condition.