Hansi Flick’s first day at Barcelona: nine senior players, youngsters and absentees
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Hansi Flick’s first day at Barcelona: nine senior players, youngsters and absentees

When Barcelona coach Hansi Flick welcomes his players back for pre-season training today, the German will have some idea of ​​the surreal situation he finds himself in.

The early stages of pre-season are important for any coach coming into a new club, a new league and a new language. It’s an opportunity for them to communicate how they want their team to play, prepare them physically for a long campaign and implement the behaviours and processes that can be key to any success.

However, given the circumstances, it will be difficult – if not impossible – for Flick to return to action as he would have liked after replacing Xavi in ​​May.

Most of Barcelona’s key first-team players are still playing in the European Championships in Germany or the Copa America in the United States, or have simply been on holiday after representing their country this summer. Other key members of the squad are injured or recovering from a long absence.

Barca have a €100m ($108m; £85m) hole in their accounts for the 2023-24 season, meaning they cannot sign anyone or even register some of their current players, and many of the team’s players are well aware that club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco are doing everything they can to force them to leave.

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All of which means Flick will likely start with nine experienced players – none of whom will feature in his starting XI, and most of whom are unlikely to feature for the club when the transfer window closes on August 30.

The only four members of last season’s squad expected to be present for this morning’s medical are defender Inigo Martinez, goalkeeper Inaki Pena, midfielder Oriol Romeu and forward Vitor Roque.

Only reserve goalkeeper Pena is guaranteed a role in the 2024-25 plans as Barcelona try to offload Romeu, while neither Martinez nor Roque can currently be registered because the club exceeded La Liga’s salary cap.

From the outset, Flick has been able to count on the return of players loaned out from last season, but none of them have played a significant role for Xavi and it is unlikely that Flick would think otherwise.

They include playmaker Pablo Torre (21), US-born Mexican right-back Julian Araujo (22), homegrown left-back Alex Valle (20), striker Ansu Fati (21) and almost forgotten French defender Clement Lenglet (29).

Flick’s first team players on their first day in Barcelona

Player Barcelona appearances last season

25

17

37

16

0 (on loan to Girona)

0 (on loan to Las Palmas)

0 (on loan to Levante)

3 (on loan to Brighton)

0 (on loan to Aston Villa)

Also on the training pitch this week will be players recovering from injury. Of these, left-back Alejandro Balde is the closest to returning to full training after having a hamstring operation in January. Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong missed the Euros with a knee injury that will need to be treated carefully. Gavi is still several months away from returning from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury he sustained in November.


De Jong injured ahead of Euro 2019 clash with Netherlands (ANP via Getty Images)

Nine experienced players is not enough for Flick to afford to work with, but top clubs often have to cope with staggered player returns, supplementing their numbers with promising youngsters who are given the chance to take part in first-team training and pre-season tours.

There are several rising talents from Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy who are tipped for the experience this summer, with the Blaugrana once again heading to the US for pre-season. 18-year-old US youth team goalkeeper Diego Kochen, defender Hector Fort (17), midfielders Marc Bernal (17), Marc Casado (20) and Aleix Garrido (20), German playmaker Noah Darvich (17) and forward Angel Alarcon (20) are all part of that group.

Most of those players were with Barcelona Atlétic last season, the club’s reserve team full of young players. That team, led by Mexican and Barcelona legend Rafael Marquez, reached the third-tier promotion play-offs this summer, losing to Cordoba in the second leg on June 23. They would normally have a longer summer break, but they are needed to fill gaps in the senior squad.

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It wasn’t all positive for the Barcelona players who played away to their home countries, with Pedri and Ronald Araujo picking up injuries in Spain and Uruguay respectively, meaning they could miss the start of the club’s season.

The early exits of Poland and Denmark from the European Championships mean Robert Lewandowski and Andreas Christensen are expected to be back in time for Barca’s July 28 flight to the US — along with several other players who were at the national team training camp.

Other players may need more rest. Ilkay Gundogan’s 66-game season finally ended with Germany’s Euro quarter-final defeat to Spain last Friday. Lamine Yamal, 16, will certainly need a long holiday to recover mentally and physically from his fantastic performances against Barca last season and against Spain at the Euros.


Yamal will need some rest after his match against Spain (Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images/DeFodi via Getty Images)

And another international tournament is ahead. Defenders Pau Cubarsi and Eric Garcia are with the Spanish national team preparing for the Paris Olympics, which begin on July 24. Fermin Lopez has also been named in the squad, despite being a senior player under Luis de la Fuente in Germany. Spain are among the favourites for the final on August 9 at the Parc des Princes.

Lenglet, Fati, Romeu, Torre and others may feel they have a chance to impress Flick and prove themselves as important players in 2023-24, but they know they could leave. Martinez and Roque know some team-mates will have to go if they are to stay. Barca are open to offers from others who will join them in the next few weeks, including De Jong, Ferran Torres and Raphinha.

Then there is the strange situation of Portuguese duo Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo, who are being treated by Barca as if they were still their players despite their loans from Atletico Madrid and Manchester City ending last month.

Regardless of whether they join us later in the transfer window, Flick will not be able to count on either of them in the first weeks of pre-season. Atletico said Athletic that Joao Felix should return to the club for the pre-season in the Spanish capital at the end of July.

One of Flick’s advantages is that this is not a new situation for many of these players: Barcelona’s financial problems have meant that the club has struggled to find players for the past three years.

The players returned knowing their future was uncertain and simply had to get on with it. A new coach could mean new opportunities, and for most of those reporting for duty this week, staying at Barcelona is the preferred option. Those earning big money won’t want to make it easy for Deco to negotiate their departures.


Deco will be looking to get rid of several Barcelona players (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

Barca’s first match of the US tour will be against Manchester City in Orlando, Florida, on July 30. They will then travel to New Jersey for a Clasico against Real Madrid on August 3, before heading to Baltimore to play AC Milan on August 6.

Flick’s first match in Catalonia could be the traditional Joan Gamper Trophy season opener at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Company on August 11, the stadium they have been playing at while the Camp Nou was being rebuilt. However, no opponent has been confirmed for that match.

One reason Xavi was sacked at the end of last season was that the team was not well prepared physically. “The team’s level dropped after an hour of play, but Flick will improve the physicality,” Laporta said. That will be made more difficult by the gradual arrival of players.

Barca have typically played a 4-3-3 during Xavi’s time as coach, but Flick has most often used a 4-2-3-1, including at Bayern Munich and Germany. Any tactical innovations that require significant training ground work will be difficult to implement immediately.

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Flick will be keeping an eye on the opening day of the La Liga season when Barca travel to Valencia on August 17. For various reasons, he may not be able to use four midfielders for that match – Gavi, Pedri, Fermin and De Jong will potentially be joined by last year’s club captain Sergi Roberto, whose contract has expired but who could sign a new one by then.

Meanwhile, Cubarsi and Garcia could still be on post-Olympic leave and Araujo is expected to be recovering from injury, so Martinez could be included in the Valencia game even if he is later allowed to miss the transfer window.

Given the experience of recent years, Barcelona’s final squad will not be decided before the transfer window closes.

Flick was aware of Barca’s problems before joining but was still keen to take advantage of the opportunity. The size of the challenge will seem more real once he gets to work on the training pitch.

(Top photo: Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images)