How Barcelona could line up without Lewandowski: Depend on Depay, trust in Torres or play Fati as a centre-forward?

Ansu Fati Memphis Depay Ferran Torres Barcelona
Robert Lewandowski's three-game ban has been upheld, leaving Xavi with something of a selection headache for Sunday's showdown with Atletico.

The Robert Lewandowski saga finally appears to be over.

The striker was handed a three-match ban for making an allegedly lewd gesture towards a match official during a Liga game just before the World Cup but Barcelona have spent the two months since appealing the Spanish Football Federation's ruling (twice!), with a view to getting their star man back on the pitch.

The Catalans did manage to get the suspension delayed for their first post-Qatar 2022 outing, with Lewandowski faltering in a tepid 1-1 draw with Espanyol.

But now, the Spanish Court of Arbitration for Sport, the nation's highest sporting governing body, has upheld the original ruling, meaning he will not be in the squad for this weekend's massive Liga showdown with Atletico Madrid this weekend.

It leaves Xavi with a real selection headache. Lewandowski is the club's leading scorer and second only to Manchester City's Erling Haaland in Europe's Golden Shoe race.

Despite Barcelona's depth in central midfield and out wide, they don't possess much depth at No.9, so how exactly they will attempt to replace their prolific Polish striker remains something of a mystery.

It's pretty much guaranteed that Ousmane Dembele will continue on the right wing, while Ferran Torres seems to be first choice on the left. But who starts in the middle?

GOAL takes a look at a few of Xavi's options below...

  1. Give Memphis Depay his chance
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    Give Memphis Depay his chance

    Perhaps the most obvious choice is to turn to Memphis Depay. The Dutchman certainly has the tactical intelligence and finishing ability to play through the middle.

    He's hit double digits in terms of goals in four of the last five seasons and bagged 12 in only 20 Liga starts last year. Hardly prolific numbers, but he could be a good option to lead the line without Lewandowski.

    The issue is, Depay has rarely played up front. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang often operated as a No.9 following his arrival from Arsenal last January, with the Netherlands international employed more as a left winger.

    Depay is undeniably versatile and could prove a decent stop-gap solution but there is an obvious fear that he will drift wide too much and leave Barca without a reference point up front.

    Possible Barcelona front three: LW: Torres - ST: Depay - RW: Dembele

  2. Shift Ferran Torres across
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    Shift Ferran Torres across

    Xavi has struggled to find a position for Ferran Torres. Although the Spaniard is a left winger by trade, he doesn't necessarily have the same speed or dynamism as Ousmane Dembele on the other flank.

    His crossing and passing skills are sometimes lacking, although his combination play is often impressive. Torres certainly links well with Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, but that usually only happens when Lewandowski drops deep to create space for the 22-year-old.

    When he is in front of goal, Torres tends to be pretty deadly. The former Manchester City forward scored three times in five appearances in the Champions League this season.

    So, with Ansu Fati or Raphinha as options to play on the left, Torres could slot into the central position and conceivably thrive.

    Possible Barcelona front three: LW: Fati - ST: Torres - RW: Dembele

  3. Play Ansu Fati through the middle

    Play Ansu Fati through the middle

    Ansu Fati is not a striker.

    However, in this scenario, he doesn't have to be. Indeed, if Xavi wants Ferran Torres to stay on the left, and doesn't trust Depay to spearhead the attack, Fati could serve as a makeshift No.9.

    Xavi wants Fati to be in the box and get into more goalscoring positions anyway – he said as such to Marca in May.

    Dubbing such a positional switch a 'false nine' would be slightly inaccurate. The Spain international isn't really that kind of player – he's a left winger by trade and doesn't have the passing ability associated with that role.

    Still, Fati's scored three goals and provided three assists – that might be enough to justify his inclusion in a central role while Lewandowski is sitting in the stands.

    Possible Barcelona front three: LW: Torres - CF: Fati - RW: Dembele

  4. Push Pedri up

    Push Pedri up

    Gavi and Pedri will be Barca's midfield pairing for the foreseeable future, with Frenkie de Jong playing in a defensive midfield role behind the talented Spain duo. That said, the Catalans have experimented with Pedri in a more attacking position in the past, and it's possible that he takes on a similar role in the coming weeks.

    So talented is the 20-year-old that he could play on the left wing, or even as a false nine, creating for two of Barca's more direct attacking players.

    It would, admittedly, take some of the goalscoring punch out of the team – Pedri only has 16 career goals to his name – but for link-up play, and allowing Ousmane Dembele and Ferran Torres to get into good areas, it might just work.

    Possible Barcelona front three: LW: Torres - CF: Pedri - RW: Dembele

  5. Three wingers, no striker
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    Three wingers, no striker

    In the last 60 minutes of Barca's 2-1 win over Osasuna, the Catalan side were every bit the fluid, creative force that fans have been clamouring to see. They perhaps lacked bite in front of goal, but their movement in the final third of the pitch was vital in coming back from a 1-0 deficit. And there's a good chance that Xavi could employ a similar set-up.

    Most scenarios in which Torres shifts to the centre see Fati play left wing. It perhaps makes the most sense positionally, and would give Barca a clear attacking structure not too far removed from their usual system. But there is another solution in which Xavi benches Torres, and starts a front three of Fati, Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele.

    None of the trio could be considered a natural centre-forward, and both Dembele and Raphinha prefer to play right wing, but a less-defined, more unpredictable unit could cause opponents all sorts of problems.

    All three players certainly have the tactical intelligence to run off defenders or drop deep to link up play and while it would be an experiment, it could yield surprisingly effective results.

    Possible Barcelona front three: LW: Fati - CF: Raphinha - RW: Dembele