Leading the line of a Barcelona attack is what dreams are made of. The chaos surrounding Leo Messi and the uncertainty around the futures of many other players has distracted from the fact that replacing Luís Suarez is also one of many priorities facing the Barcelona board.
This article aims to suggest a cheaper alternative to Lautaro Martínez who is simply too expensive and appears to no longer be a viable option.
Replacing Luís Suarez is no easy task, but after hours of research, watching games, clips and weighing up all options, we have found some great profiles. The shortlist was gradually reduced until we had 6 names left. Those 6 players have been ranked and a brief analysis has been written about 5 of those and why they were considered. Ultimately, there was a standout player who has been analysed in great detail. You will have to read through to see who that one man is!
It is vital that there is a plan and a criteria of this new number 9 profile.
- Koeman will adopt the principles of juego de posición with an added essence of verticality, speed and 1v1 specialists. This Barça team needs an injection of pace, energy and a number 9 who can stretch defences via runs in behind, but has the capacity and experience to link play, make intelligent movements both laterally and vertically. This includes dropping deeper to create opportunities for the likes of Fati, Dembélé and Trincão to have space in behind to exploit as well.
- The number 9 should be versatile and a well-rounded forward. Being able to put the ball in the net is the end goal and what number 9’s usually make their money from. However, the ability to be a chance creator, play in half spaces and wide areas to allow positional and tactical fluidity and rotations will also be a necessary attribute.
- Player should be able to adapt to different opposition defensive structures, quick to interchange positions but ultimately they must be able to lead their line. Busy, intense, proactive.
- The profile in mind is ideally capable of operating as a left winger or have a liking to also occupy wide left hand areas. This will allow for greater versatility and squad depth with Ousmane Dembélé being injury prone and Ansu Fati still being a young raw talent.
- Barça will also want a player who can develop over the next few years. It is important to understand that there needs to be immediate quality in the signing, however, that they still have room to grow even further.
- Koeman will want a player who he knows well and has experience working with before to allow an easier transition for the player.
- The signing is affordable.
Recruiting a player takes immense amount of time and resources, a club usually may spend months if not years monitoring the progress and games of their long-term targets.
With the help of colleagues at Barça Times including Hagrid and Sahil Dani as well as our friends at Statified Football, we have been able to come up with some targets, through a combination of stats, research and the watching of multiple games and clips. Thanks to the guys mentioned for their input and help.
I set about in the first stage to write down a list of names who from the top of my head would fit some or if not most of the aforementioned criteria.
These names included: Gabriel Jesus, Donyell Malen, Richarlison, Patson Daka, Marcus Thuram, Rafael Leao, Memphis Depay, Federico Chiesa, Cody Gakpo, Milot Rashica, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial.
This list, after consideration of the goals of the article, mainly affordablity and realistic signings, was wittled down to: Donyell Malen, Marcus Thuram, Memphis Depay, Rafael Leao, Cody Gakpo, Richarlison.
While the likes of Jesus and Rashford would make excellent signings, they would be of the higher price and wage bracket which this article is attempting to avoid, and it appears unlikely that either will be leaving their respective clubs soon.
Our friend at Statified Football went to work to see what the data could tell us about these profiles, so that the 6 names may be reduced to a more manageable amount to scout visually.
In addition to that, by looking at the data, Statified Football were able to come up with some additional names of players who could make interesting options.
These included, Mo Ihattaren, Alexey Miranchuk, Breel Embolo, Abdulkadir Omur, Christopher Nkunku, and Raphinha.
Having watched Ihattaren, Nkunku and Raphinha a fair amount already, I could discount them as players who don’t match the profile we want in the number 9 role.
After some research of Abdulkadir Omur and Miranchuk (who has now signed for Atalanta), I could also see that they too did not match the profile.
Now, I will rank the remaining players (Marcus Thuram, Memphis Depay, Rafael Leao, Donyell Malen, Cody Gakpo, Richarlison) in terms of who I consider to be the best profile.
#6 Cody Gakpo (21) – PSV Eindhoven – LW – Netherlands – 21 Years Old
Gakpo was first made into a potential candidate because he is a player I have observed and grown to really admire. He is a very tall winger, though he certainly has the speed, accerleration and dribbling to match this physicality. He has shone for PSV since the departure of Steven Bergwijn and I predict a great career can come his way. He is direct and a very efficient striker of the ball, his clean finishing, and already mature decision making has led to him achieving 0.71 goals and assists per 30.
The Statified Football visualisation shows us that Gakpo is performing to a very high standard when compared to his peers around Europe. We can see that he is a player who can combine creativity, high quality value in possession, and goalscoring. It is also positive that while he is performing below the median in some areas, that it is not to a serious extent that should be considered worrying.
Ultimately, Gakpo is still very inexperienced and, as mentioned before, only started to gain proper starts when Bergwijn had departed. He has operated almost exclusively on the left wing, and while there is potential for him to be a second striker, he is not the profile that Barça need to lead the line as a number 9 right now. Interestingly, in a recent friendly against Hertha Berlin, Gakpo was utilised as the number 9, it appears as if it is a role that will take time for him to get used to and perfect. Should Barça desire another left-wing option to Fati and Dembélé then Gakpo should certainly be considered. However, for the time being, Gakpo should continue to develop at PSV. One day, I would love to see Gakpo in the Barcelona colours.
#5 Rafael Leão – AC Milan – Portugal – LW/ST – 21 Years Old
Rafa Leão fits into the kind of profile we desire. The Portuguese frontman has experience in leading the line, which he did at Lille successfully, ultimately leading to his transfer to AC Milan for the 2019/20 season.
Since at Milan, a series of changes in managers has led to instability and a less than ideal situation for a new player who has had to try and adapt and prove his worth in systems that do not necessarily suit him. This has led to a somewhat disappointing first season at the Rossoneri, however, his talent and skillset is still evident every time he steps onto the pitch.
Immediately, we can see why some have been left underwhelmed by Leão’s first season. The data indicates that Leão has not been a threat in front of goal evidenced by his goals + assists, xG per shot and box touches which all suggest that Leão is not getting in quality goal scoring positions nor being an influence inside the area. This may be because he has been operated largely on the left-hand side for Milan, rather than upfront.
It is no surprise to see that Leão has great carrying and dribbling stats, operating on that Milan left hand side has seen him provide verticality to drive the team up the pitch. He has outstanding feet, explosive acceleration, he is direct, strong and very comfortable in 1v1 duels. He has excellent control, and when at his best he is unstoppable. He certainly can make an outstanding CF in the future, his finishing is very assured and instinctive, he can get his shots off quickly and they are crisp and powerful.
Nevertheless, it would be hard to justify a transfer move to Barcelona based on how he performed overall last season. He has lots to improve on in his decision making, passing and attitude. Barça should be signing the best talents in the world but these should be earned through performances and hard work. Unfortunately, although he is a profile that fits the criteria, he is simply not ready for this move in his career.
#4 Richarlison – Everton – Brazil – ST/SS/LW – 23 years old
When Everton signed Richarlison in the Summer 2018 for £40 million it had raised one or two eyebrows. Fast forward one year and reports and rumours suggested that Barcelona had bid £85 million for the Brazilian international.
The data profile here looks underwhelming when compared to some of the other players, though we should consider the fact that Richarlison is playing in a considerably harder league.
Nevertheless, the data suggests that Richarlison has not been a creative outlet for Everton, and with this in mind it would have been more encouraging to see better metrics in the shooting department, especially xG per shot which gives us an indication of the quality of the shots taken.
Richarlison fits the criteria of a potential number 9 who likes to play in the wider areas. At Everton he has played on the left of a 4-2-3-1 or as a second striker with Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the 4-4-2.
He possesses good physical qualities, great defensive work rate and could provide the energy and intensity that Koeman desires. He is deceptively good in the air as well which can make him a threat from set pieces, crosses and an out ball in transitions.
Despite his positive attributes of which there are many, the price tag that Everton will demand is likely to be too steep and therefore does not match one of the main criteria’s of this article, to find a cheaper alternative to Lautaro Martínez. In addition, Richarlison is a liability in possession and his passing and link up play could be improved, it is important that Barça adapt and have players that are direct, physical and quick but the value of possession will always remain, and this isn’t the style that suits the Brazilian.
#3 Memphis Depay – Olympique Lyonnais – Netherlands – LW/SS – 26 years old
From our list of players, Memphis Depay is the 3rd pick for Barça to sign. The Dutchman is an outstanding footballer, he is box office and has undeniable ability and skill.
Depay’s ability is evidenced in this visualisation which highlights the excellent output the Dutchman posted at Lyon last season averaging 0.93 per 30 minutes of in play possession. Again, Depay fits the criteria of a forward who is comfortable in wide left-hand areas, an excellent dribbler where he uses his skill, co-ordination, and technical ability to win his 1v1 duels. He likes to drop deep, where he can carry the ball up the pitch and is not the kind of forward to threaten too much with runs in behind or intensity in pressing.
Depay is looking for a move away and for a player in his prime would be good value for money as he’s on the last year of his contract. Koeman will be attracted to Memphis owing to his stint as the Netherlands national team boss where Depay shone on a consistent basis.
However, personally, Depay is not the best option for Barcelona for a few reasons. The signing has to be a leader of the attack, a well-rounded complete number 9 who can run the channels in behind, and provide energy and intensity to the attack, Depay is not this. Depay can play as a more central striker but not on his own, I fear there would be redundancy over his positioning, and he won’t provide the attacking dynamic that Barça are in need of.
Secondly, there is a degree of risk given his ACL injury which kept him out for over 6 months just this year. Thirdly, there has always been question marks over Depay’s attitude and work ethic/off the ball contribution, it is important that Barça have players that want to fight for the team rather than themselves and unfortunately this is a concern with Depay.
At Lyon he felt he had something to prove following his unsuccessful transfer to Manchester United, will he still have the same drive for success at Barça? You would like to think so, but it is true that Memphis is not always the best team player. Lastly, as Memphis’ xG per shot shows, he is not the type of player to get into high quality shooting areas in the 6 yard box or centrally, his preference is to shoot having cut in onto his right foot from wider left hand areas and outside the area. He is an excellent player, but there are most likely better profiles.
#2 Marcus Thuram – Borussia Monchengladbach – France – LW/SS – 23 years old
Since his move from Guingamp to Gladbach, Marcus Thuram has come on leaps and bounds and has improved considerably under the tenure of Marco Rose.
Like many of the candidates, Thuram is an excellent dribbler of the ball, he possesses immense speed and uses it very intelligently. Operating in both a left wing and second striker position, Thuram fits this aspect of what we want, he plays with lots of tactical intelligence both on and off the ball and has linked up well with Alassane Pléa and Breel Embolo not only to create chances as evidenced by his key passing numbers and NSxG but also to get on the end of chances in the six yard box.
Thuram would be able to stretch defences vertically, be a very effective outlet in transition, and an energetic physical presence that Barça lack and which this article wishes to implement.
The Frenchman is also very tall (6 ft 3), adding an extra dynamic from set pieces and an option should the game require a more direct approach. Under Rose, Thuram has proven himself to be both very useful in fast transitions and importantly tactically capable of playing in a more possession based system, where rather than being a constant on the ball threat, he can create and exploit spaces for both himself and his teammates.
Under Rose, Thuram has proven he can play under the principles of positional football. Thuram is a constant threat, and certainly shown he has the attacking and tactical instincts to be an exceptionally good number 9, while also being an excellent left-wing option. The potential dynamic between himself and Griezmann in a two up-front is extremely exciting.
Barça must adapt and become more versatile and dynamic in their chance creation, interplay and the movements of the front line. Thuram is a highly rated forward who could seriously add something new and different to the Barça side, much like how Guardiola has more and more seeked to have 1v1 specialists who are devastating following a period of overloads switching to isolated attacks.
Thuram has the capabilities and profile to be a number 9, however, it feels for the time being that the Frenchman is still primarily a winger rather than a leader of the Barcelona frontline.
Finally, if you’ve made it this far then firstly congratulations and secondly, Thank You! Now is the best part and moment where I outline who my number 1 choice is as I analyse in depth with visual aids and images of why this man is the best cheaper alternative to Lautaro Martínez and capable of replacing Luís Suarez.
#1 Donyell Malen – PSV Eindhoven – Netherlands – ST – 21 years old
Donyell Malen and Barcelona is a match made in heaven. A dream move for the Dutch International, and a profile that could truly galvanise the Barcelona attack, bringing it a new lease of life and energy.
Despite picking up an unfortunate knee injury in the winter of 2019, Malen still managed to rack up 11 goals and 2 assists totalling 0.93 goals and assists per 30 minutes in play possession. Malen’s data profile is hugely impressive, he is ticking all of the boxes that we want to see, in particular his xG + xA which demonstrates the quality of chances he is creating and receiving himself.
It is also positive to see that Malen is receiving plenty of touches in the box as it demonstrates that he is getting into the danger area and having an influence on attack both in a link up/hold up play and in terms of shots, which he is also doing at a very high volume.
Moreover, Malen though below the average on dribbles, is ranking extremely high for carries, which suggests he gets into the positions where he has space to drive into in order to create verticality and propel the team up the pitch.
Nevertheless, we cannot solely rely on the data in front of us, and this is where further scouting and watching of games is vital to see whether Malen can fulfil our desired criteria of verticality, energy, speed, off the ball movement, versatility, rotations and tactical awareness in a positional sense.
What areas does Malen occupy?
Malen is a well-rounded forward who has experience and skill to play in multiple positions in the forward line. He is primarily tasked with leading the line as the number 9 in order to get into goalscoring positions, however, he has a strong tendency and liking to the wide left hand areas of the pitch where the team can enact rotations and fluidity to unsettle opposition defences.
The best way of thinking about Malen’s areas of involvement could be to liken them to Karim Benzema, who also enjoys picking up the ball in wider areas where he can be a creative outlet for the team. This is a huge positive as the criteria we stated desired a number 9 who is wily in the box, but capable of positional fluidity.
Above, we see the clear 4-3-3 formation that PSV are set up in, Malen is in the number 9 role.
Following a rotation with Ritsu Doan, Malen is able to isolate the left back in a 1v1 opportunity. He delays until Gakpo is in the prime position to blind side the right back at which point Malen uses a burst of speed to hit the bar line, win his 1v1 and lay Gakpo up for a tap in at the back post. The defending is poor, however, this is just one example of how Malen’s positional fluidity and versatility can be a benefit to the team, as well as highlighting his ability to create dynamics.
Here while representing the Netherlands, Malen finds himself again in the 1v1 opportunity against an isolated Right Back. What is impressive here is that he saw the pass on for Depay in the area and did not hesitate to make it. Many wide players would have kept their heads down and headed for the bar line to win the 1v1 outright. Through intelligence, vision, and great execution, Malen was able to grab an excellent assist, again highlighting how he can be effective in the wide areas.
One of my favourite plays of Malen’s this season can be seen below.
Here, we can see how rather than operating in the middle of the pitch, which has been taken up by Bergwijn on this occasion, Malen recognises the position of strength he is in the underloaded left hand side where he can isolate the opponents right back. Fortuna tilt their defence to surround the ball however a simple switch of play to Malen gives PSV a huge advantage.
This example encapsulates why I feel that Barça must have a player who can have the positional fluidity to rotate, create different dynamics and when receiving the ball, can drive at the heart of the defence. This is seen below…
Malen dribbles at speed penetrating the gaps between the defenders as they retreat following the switch of play. Sadilek makes a decoy run as Malen bursts into the penalty area attracts the tackles of all three players before using his excellent quick feet to cut inside of Martin Angha and winning a penalty.
As the Statified Football graphic shows us, Malen is ranking extremely highly for both shots and goals and assists. But what kinds of goals has he scored, and in what areas?
This is an interesting area for Malen and one that ultimately, he will be judged a lot on.
This shot map from Statified Football (Data from 29th November 2019), reveals a lot about Malen’s preferred areas to take shots. There are a few in central areas, nevertheless, there is a considerable concentration on the left-hand side. Malen is not the same profile of striker as his compatriot Myron Boadu, who is more of a demon in the 6-yard box, his positioning in the left-hand half space is reflected in this shot map. The shot map suggests that Malen could get into better goalscoring positions, certainly his high volume shooting outside the area is not ideal either.
Some examples of Malen’s goals and shots are below:
Malen after a great feint creates half a yard to get his shot off, an excellent finish outside the area. Could he have created a situation where he was more likely to score though?
Malen finds himself in space in the left half space, he is composed, opens his shoulders and slots the ball into the far corner.
Again, Malen finishes calmly having found the space for himself on that left-hand side. These are still high-quality chances and his positional movement wider has allowed him the freedom and space as the centre back’s do not want to be moved wider and leave huge holes centrally. We can equate some of these chances to what Mo Salah has successfully been able to achieve over the last three seasons.
What I would like to see Malen improve on is his decision making to eradicate some of the very low-quality shots he takes. These are highlighted on the Statified Football visualisation by the frequent dark red. By this I do not necessarily mean to pass more regularly to his teammates, for example . . .
Here, Malen opts to take a shot off balance in a low-quality position. He had the time, space and plenty of options to take advantage of. He could have hit the bar line and picked out a cross or taken an extra touch to improve the position of his shot.
On this occasion, Malen makes the run in behind and has an excellent first touch to take the ball away from him yet still under control. Making runs in behind to give you 1v1 opportunities is one of the best ways to improve your goal tally and xG per shot. Nevertheless, Malen is quick but not rapid enough that he is not pressurised by the defender in the area.
The resulting play is this. From here, you would say that this is a good shooting position, however, Malen as a centre forward should always be trying to improve the position and circumstances in which you take the shot. He is slightly off balance, under pressure from a block, and on his weak foot. By having the composure and skill to feint, jink inside to bait the defender out of the game he would have been in a position where he could slot it in the far corner.
It may be more easily said than done, but these are the decisions that the world class strikers make. We have seen how Raheem Sterling frequently cuts inside in these positions to give him the best possible chance of scoring. Barça need Malen to not only be the complete forward that he is, but also score 20+ goals.
Malen does also offer a slight aerial threat, he has scored a few headed goals owing to his athleticism and jumping ability.
One of the key areas in the criteria was the ability to have vertical movement to a) to test the defence via runs in behind and b) the ability to play with back to goal, bring teammates into play via link up play and the creation of space for the likes of Fati and Dembélé to exploit.
Playing in the Eredivisie where high defensive lines are common, Malen has had to test the opposition with runs in behind. This is an area I believe he can still perfect and improve on, nevertheless he has shown he can do it.
Malen takes advantage of this poor defensive structure and high line by making a blindsided run on the far side. Again, this is another example where Malen operating on an underloaded side can be very useful. Malen gets the run on the right back by operating on his shoulder where he spots the run too late to keep up. Malen would have been through on goal for a great scoring opportunity had the pass not been poorly executed.
Gakpo does excellently here to spot the run of Malen who is operating right on the line of the defence. He times his run to perfection and has control and burst of pace to give him the time to pick his spot and score.
Again, Malen makes a great blindsided run into space. These images go to show that when there is space to be attacked, Malen will do it.
There are some doubts and questions about the efficiency of his runs, sometimes he is not best placed or starts them from too deep that they are easily tracked without any other decoys or teammate support.
For example, Malen was well placed to make a run into the channel here where provided the pass was well weighted, he could have provided a cross for both onrushing runners into the area.
Alternatively, making the highlighted run would have caused the centre backs to make a decision and follow him, creating space in the middle for Bergwijn to attack, or open the passing line for Ritsu Doan in the middle.
Malen instead received the ball to feet and the attack came to very little despite having plenty of promise.
Malen loves to drop deeper and be involved in play, which is highlighted by his NSxG of 0.22 (A value assigned to non-shot actions and their value in getting the ball into dangerous areas (Statified Football)).
Malen picks the ball up with his back to goal and surrounded on all angles. He has the awareness and skill to maintain possession of the ball owing to his strength while demonstrating his technical aptitude with a sublime scoop into the path of Doan. Doan was inches offside, however, this should not detract from Malen’s skill.
In a central position, Malen comes short of the Sporting centre backs and receives a ball with his back to goal where he plays a perfectly weighted pass to Ihattaren, who in turn plays an equally exquisite first time pass which sets Bruma free. Luis Neto pushes up after Malen’s pass, losing Bruma in the process. This is an example of where Malen has created space for a runner in behind because of his movement and clever, fast paced link up play with Ihattaren.
Malen has the speed and desire to score goals which allows him to turn and accelerate at speed to catch up with Bruma and get into the danger area. Bruma plays the ball perfectly across the face of goal and Coates has no choice but to try and intercept which leads to an own goal.
What is useful about Malen’s ability to play with both back to goal and run in behind is not only the opportunity to combine with his teammates, but it gives Barça an option to be more direct in transition. Barça need to add more strings to their bow, Malen can provide this different dynamic at a cheaper price than Lautaro Martínez.
Overall, Malen could improve the burst of speed he has in the 6-yard box to get away from markers and create the space to get his shots off from pull backs and crosses, this is certainly an area he can develop.
Replacing Luís Suarez: Conclusion
Malen fits nearly all the criteria that was outlined at the beginning of the article. The price that PSV would demand is unclear at this moment, his contract does not expire till 2024, though it is a notable point of interest that his agent is Mino Raiola. I would estimate £35-40 million.
Multiple players were researched with both data and video and game analysis for the making of this article, yet Malen stood out the most. He can add verticality, impressive off the ball movement to create different dynamics for the team, he allows Koeman to have more tactical and positional fluidity and variety, and although the sample size is slightly small it shows strong signs that Malen will score plenty of goals.
However, he can offer more than goals; he gives Barça an option in transition, he knows how to isolate players 1v1 on underloaded sides of the pitch, he can pick a man out with a pass and importantly is comfortable in many zones of the pitch. Koeman will know Malen well, he gave him his debut off the bench against Germany in which the Dutchman scored the game winning goal.
This does not mean that the signing of Malen brings no risks. There is always a sense of anxiety about the signing of Eredivisie players especially forwards whose data and goal scoring figures can be inflated because of the poor quality of defending.
As already stated in the article, Malen should try and improve the quality of chances he gets to have a more sustainable output and he will have to be clinical with his chances especially in and around the 6 yard spot. Improving his decisions of where and when to shoot will be very beneficial to his development.
Malen has also just come off a long-term knee injury. He is back in training for PSV and in the friendly games he has looked sharp and energetic, this will still be a concern for Barça who have had a fair share of injury frustrations with Ousmane Dembélé.
Is Malen ready for this move? In an ideal world, Barça would likely have rather seen Malen have a full season with more minutes to get a wider picture of how consistent he can be for a prolonged period of time. There are areas he is still weak in and he could improve his defensive contributions, however, with Luis Suarez leaving, Barça need to sign a striker and Malen is the correct profile perhaps just one year too early. This will be the main risk.
Here are some of the ways that the Barça forward and midfield line could look for the season if Malen signs and Messi departs…
Of course, these formations are equally dependent on the full backs and the midfield personnel on the pitch. There are still plenty of other areas Barça need to recruit, notably another midfielder, full backs and a centre back.
Hopefully, we have shown one way that Barça can deal with replacing Luís Suarez, there are risks and to a degree we cannot know for sure what Koeman specifically wants. Nevertheless, time is running out and the season starts again soon, the board must have a plan and we hope that plan involves Donyell Malen.