How Fabian Ruiz can solve Barcelona’s midfield problem before it happens

Barcelona will be going into the 2020/21 season with a potential midfield crisis on their hands, and one man alone can fix that. Presenting: Fabian Ruiz.

As La Liga gears up for its return post a 2-month hiatus, the world will be witness to arguably the best title race Spain has hosted since the 2013/14 season. Barcelona and Real Madrid go into the final phase of the season with two points separating them with the former on top through what can only be described as a miracle (yes, we’re talking about Lionel Messi).

Both teams have a sense of added pressure because of their managerial appointments; Real Madrid brought back Zinedine Zidane, who has frankly spent a fortune on the overhaul, in the last month of last season while Barcelona sacked Ernesto Valverde half-way through the season to bring in an unemployed Quique Setien – a decision that delighted Blaugrana faithfuls.

Quique Setien - The man to take Barcelona forward (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
Quique Setien – The man to take Barcelona forward? (Photo by Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

However, for a significant amount of time now, Barca have caught themselves in a similar type of mess year after year in context of their approach in the transfer market and Champions League runs. Even domestically, they sit on top of the table by the skin of their teeth and to make things worse they’ve already been knocked out of the Copa del Rey – a competition they relied on for silverware for so many years running.

The wages to revenue ratio has been rising every season without fail due to several pointless additions. Case in point – Antoine Griezmann last year, possibly Neymar this year. The said revenue has also run out of the road because of the football interlude brought by Covid-19.

Barcelona have a dizzying amount of problems right now, with a solution that sounds simple in theory – a squad and board overhaul. Surprisingly though, the latter may turn out to be the easy bit for the club as they prepare for their presidential elections, due in the summer of 2021, with Josep Bartemou tipped to be displaced.

Where the problem begins…

The core crisis regarding the overhaul lies in the centre of the park, i.e. Barcelona’s midfield. For a team historically stacked with quality central midfielders, the club’s current problem seems unwarranted.

When you look at the likes of Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic, who are reaching the tail-end of their careers, and youngsters like Carles Alena and Riqui Puig, who are uncertain about their futures, the muddle begins to presents itself.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 06: Substitute Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona (R) replaces Arturo Vidal of FC Barcelona (L) is substitu during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Sevilla FC at Camp Nou on October 06, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
Is this time over for Rakitic and Vidal? (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

A midfield trio of Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets, Arthur Melo sounds good on paper, but we need to remember Busquets, too, is reaching the final juncture of his career and should have been phased out this season itself. Moreover, all three of them are quite similar and none of them adds lateral movement or creativity in the final third of the pitch.

As Lionel Messi’s career progressed starting from 2013, many predicted that by the time he reached 33 years of age, he would have found a comfortable spot in Barcelona’s midfield, acting as some sort of a deep-lying-playmaker or as a number 8. However, that has clearly not happened as the Argentine continues to add inventiveness from attack. It really is a one-man team.

A bit-part solution to the Messi problem lies in the signing of Lautaro Martinez, who has enough quality to come close to the 50 odd goals La Pulga adds to the team. The 22-year-old has been extensively linked with the club, to an extent where Barca’s Director of Football Eric Abidal has confirmed their interest in the striker.

The Puig Predicament

Riqui Puig made a great impression (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)
A prodigy in midfield. (Photo by Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

Standing at a mere 5ft. 6 inches with a rather frail frame, it is hard to acknowledge Riqui Puig as a professional athlete, no less a footballer. However, we can take apart this incredulity when we take a deeper dive into the club’s history and the sport itself, which prioritises technical finesse more than anything else.

The current first-team of Barcelona stars a mere five players that have graduated from their academy, not including a certain Ansu Fati, who is still a youth player. Of the five players, Sergio Busquets features as the only midfielder, while the most recent of the graduates is Sergi Roberto, who made his debut a decade ago(!). The once prestigious La Masia has failed to live up to the overarching expectations it set for itself, over and over again.

Puig is an upshot from the same academy, and is the club’s best attempt right now at trying to regain the confidence Camp Nou devotees once had in the youth system laid down by the great Johan Cruyff. But, since his debut in late 2018, the 20-year-old has only managed to squeeze in four appearances for the first-team in an overloaded and ageing midfield.

Several years of playing for Barcelona B might finally pay off, as Barcelona begin a club overhaul. With Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Rafinha Alcantara, Philippe Coutinho, Arda Turan and, one of Puig’s former Barcelona B teammate, Carles Alena all touted to be on the transfer list, Quique Setien will have a couple of midfield spots available in his squad. This is where Puig comes in.

The Spaniard is more than capable of acting as a second-fiddle for the likes of Arthur or Frenkie de Jong and boasts the ability to carry and pass the ball over long distances. Puig is also a hardworking midfielder who is constantly on the hunt for loose balls, pressing passing lanes and players – case in point Barcelona’s first goal under Setien. He is also capable of playing as a regista, operating in a deeper role, as he has so often for the reserves.

A lot has to go wrong at the club for Puig to not make it to the first-team next season itself, and it looks like it might. In at attempt to stay optimistic, however, the Blaugrana will need the services of at least another midfielder, who should come in the form of Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz, and not Miralem Pjanic.

The solution to Barcelona’s creative woes

It looks like Barcelona are on course to repeat the tomfoolery of every season by bounteously targeting Juventus’ central midfielder Miralem Pjanic. The mere idea of targeting a player who is 1. past his prime, and 2. nearly the carbon-copy of Arthur Melo seems rather unprecedented.

Thankfully, according to a report published by Mundo Deportivo, Josep Bartemou & co. will turn their attention to Fabian Ruiz if a move for the Bosnian fails to materialise. How a 24-year-old potential world-beater who brings something different to their team is a backup plan for a player past his prime is a question only the Barcelona board can answer, but The Hard Tackle now tries to make a case for the Spaniard.

The creative solution that Real Madrid seek? (Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)
Pjanic does nothing to solve Barcelona’s problems. (Photo by Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images)

Since his move to Napoli ahead of last season, Ruiz has not only improved leaps and bounds, but has transformed into a completely different player. At Real Betis, the midfielder operated in a rather deeper role as a number 6, and was known for his genius positioning and tremendous work-rate. However, under Carlo Ancelotti last season, Ruiz adapted to a much more advanced position that brought his brilliant attacking capabilities to spotlight.

Ruiz had to work most on his ball-carrying abilities while playing in a hybrid 8/10 role, and the graph below is testament to his improvement. His xGBuildup and Deep Progressions nearly doubled while his expected assists had gone from nearly non-existent to an impressive 0.23 per game. His defensive numbers, though, are still quite sharp and playing in a more advanced role has helped him improve his pressing.

While the stats for both players have changed considerably due to new management, Pjanic’s xG over the last 2 seasons (0.04) remain a noteworthy portion less than Ruiz (0.14). Having played in five different positions regularly since joining Napoli, the latter adds an air of unpredictability to his game, which Barcelona have been so desperate for.

The graph below from shows that Ruiz trumps the 30-year-old in almost all aspects except expected assists, because Pjanic is in charge of almost all indirect set-pieces Juventus win.

Screenshot 2020-06-02 at 5.41.05 PM

Ruiz is almost 6ft. 2 inches with a sturdy build. The best use of this strength can be seen when he is dribbling with the ball, where he boasts of sublime footwork, beating players with croquetas or overpowering them by shielding the ball. Barcelona were victims of his ability on the ball when Napoli hosted them in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. Ruiz ended the game with 95.7% passing accuracy, the highest in the game.

The ex-Betis star’s best quality, however, is his ability to progress with the ball and play the killer pass entering the final third. Gli Azzurri do their best to exploit his ability to get the best from the centre of the pitch. Ruiz has played the most number of successful passes in the Serie A this season (1,488) and also boasts of the highest forward passing accuracy of any midfielder (87.1%).

Napoli are well on their way to conduct a huge squad overhaul, a decision that comes from club president Aurelio De Laurentiis after the events of December 2019, when he suggested the players go into a week-long quarantine after poor performances in Serie A.

This ‘suggestion’ was not taken up well by the players with club captain Lorenzo Insigne leading the mutiny against it. The players were punished with severe fines that totaled up to nearly €2,500,000. This decision was criticised massively, but De Laurentiis couldn’t care less.

The Naples-based outfit are willing to get rid of some big names this summer if offers come calling again. This includes the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly, Allan, and Arkadiuzs Milik, who might be on their way to Liverpool, Everton, and Manchester United, respectively. These players were rumoured to leave last season as well but their moves were vetoed by the club board.

There is a good chance that Fabian Ruiz could be a part of this reconstruction, with clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool looming on the horizon to secure his services. Barcelona have the edge over the aforementioned clubs, though, because of their new managerial appointment.

Setien coached Ruiz at Betis, helping him become a regular name in the club’s starting eleven. The Spanish international was at the core of the 61-year-old’s philosophy, helping them become one of the most exhilarating teams in the continent.

Will Ruiz be the latest academy graduate to leave Real Betis? (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)
Fabian Ruiz was at the centre of everything great about Real Betis. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

The Cules will be hoping that the duo reunites at Camp Nou as it would solve the lingering issues for years to come. It is only prudent for them to sign him from Napoli, especially above Pjanic (read: over-glorified Rakitic), although it remains to be seen if they indeed do so.

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