Many said it was the best midfield of all time. Some even called this trio of Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets Bermuda triangle because every time an opponent faced them, they had to chase shadows. People claimed these things rightfully as Barcelona midfield back then dictated every time they were on the field. Since that era, years passed, seasons changed, departures and arrivals happened, but Barcelona midfield lost its calibre little by little. And now overcoming, all the rains and sun, Barcelona midfield stands nowhere near the apex but became a liable point behind recent chaos in Camp Nou. Today we try to analyze how Barcelona midfield had a fall from grace in recent years.
The midfield came to stagnation because of the absence of capable and appropriate profiles in the roster. The fact that the likes of Xavi and Iniesta are irreplaceable is legitimate, but Barcelona could not even do well enough to compensate for the gap left by them. After numerous failed attempts to restore past glory, Barcelona gradually sank themselves into great trouble, and getting out from there requires much hardship.
The downfall started in the summer of 2013-14, to be exact after Barcelona did let go of Thiago Alcantara, one of their brightest prospects at that time. The young midfielder did not see himself getting minutes in the first team line up given the presence of Xavi and Iniesta, although Xavi accepted a substitute role after a year. After that, Thiago could come in handy if he stayed.
The following 2013-14 season was rather toneless as Barcelona could not manage to bag any trophies, an incident that happened after a long six years. The management was quick to make changes and appointed a new manager, Luis Enrique. Although he won us a treble, the Barcelona midfield crisis substantially accelerated under him.
Barcelona midfield under Luis Enrique:
Enrique constructed his team around the holy trinity- MSN trio. For this purpose, he intended to carry the ball to the front three as quickly as possible. As a result, the midfield lost its permission to dictate the game and became the linker instead. This transformation was contradictory to Barcelona’s age-old tiki-taka philosophy. Yet it brought success but changed their identity to a great extent. As the Barcelona midfield was going to function as the linker, Enrique did prefer Rakitic instead of Toni Kroos, who had a positive mindset to join Barcelona. This decision came out costly in the coming days when Ivan Rakitic lost his form, and Kroos was engineering Madrid’s European success.
Rakitic was a box to box midfielder with good physicality and stamina, but he was far from being an orchestrator. Iniesta was also ordered by the coach to carry the ball more than being creative. This new role took a toll on his performance. As a result, he was not having convincing stats regarding goals and assists. This supporting role of the Barcelona midfield helped MSN to capitalize their powers, but the solution was not durable. Nevertheless, it changed the identity of Barcelona and seemed to hurt them once the strength of MSN started to diminish.
In the first season, Barcelona won the treble, and things looked very nice for the Catalan side. But the honeymoon did not last long as other European opponents cracked down on Lucho’s tactics and countered it successfully. In the second season, Lucho faced an exit served by Atletico Madrid when Diego Simeone managed to isolate Barcelona front three maximizing the shortcomings of their midfield.
Still, Luis Enrique stayed firm on his tactics and did not have a plan B.
After the end of the 2015-16 season, he brought Andre Gomes to the Camp Nou, another box to box and a physical midfielder. Gomes impressed Lucho with his profile but did not do so with the fans as he was far from being a traditional Barca profile. Later on, the agitations came true because Andre Gomes could not integrate himself into the play.
The following 2016-17 season was even a harder slap on Barcelona’s face. Their inability to control the game got exposed against PSG as they faced a 4-0 defeat against the French side. However, a miracle happened in three weeks, as Barca won 6-1 against Paris to make one of the greatest comebacks in history. Scoring the winning goal, Sergi Roberto made his place fixed as a right-back although being a makeshift one. That transformation also happened under Lucho; a midfield prospect got converted into a fullback.
After the comeback, Rakitic’s contract got renewed to everyone’s surprise. The Croatian was having a dull season and got close to the exit door until the miracle happened. The off-form man received a new deal with a noticeable pay-rise, just another questionable decision from the board.
Anyway, Barcelona seemed to learn something from these incidents and involved themselves in operation to sign Verratti from Paris, which did not happen. The arrival of Verratti could incredibly alleviate the problems in the Barcelona midfield, but Bartomeu board once again bottled the deal. And to get only worse, they landed Paulinho in the Camp Nou, the craziest transfer you will ever see. Although being a profile which is right away contrary to the Barca style, Paulinho thrived well in the team and scored a decent amount of goals. However, the problem remained and even got deeper after all these failed transfers.
Barcelona midfield under Valverde:
The tactics of Valverde were too safe and toneless. The dominance of midfield wasn’t restored under him. Again, it became more ineffective and forceless. So the responsibility of playmaking was bestowed upon Lionel Messi.
Messi had to do playmaking and goalscoring at the same time. Under Valverde, he had a free role, not having any fixed position. That was the time Messi-dependencia started to rise. Though Valverde conveyed the best out of him, which guided the team to domestic success, Barcelona’s infrastructure was broken and the enormous workload was put on Messi.
Barcelona could not play as a team and the consequences were imminent.
Against Laliga sides Messi alone was enough to glide the team to glory although when it came to Europe against tactically sound teams, Barcelona broke down. Due to an unable midfield and other weak departments, blocking Messi was enough to outclass Barca. Against Roma in 2018, Barcelona midfield had little to no control in the game. Maximizing this opportunity Roma pulled out a 3-0 comeback and threw Barcelona out of the Champions League.
Despite winning domestic double, a grey cloud of fear rose in Barcelona’s minds that they are going to fall apart soon. In the following summer, Barca signed Arthur and Vidal to bolster their midfield but the outcome wasn’t even close to the expectations.
Another interesting story was about Rakitic. After the 2018 world cup, Barcelona received an offer of €80M for Rakitic from PSG. But Barcelona turned down the offer imprudently. Two years after that, they had to sell Rakitic for free, in the meantime, the damage was already done. Not only that, but Barcelona also failed to bring back Thiago who was knocking on the doors to join Barca. That was the transfer that could solve all the existing problems in Barcelona’s creative department but the mismanagement again seemed to hurt.
After Iniesta’s departure in the 2018 summer, Barcelona midfield consisted of Vidal, Rakitic, Busquets & Arthur. Taking a close look at their profile, you’ll learn that none of them is an advanced playmaker. Vidal is a box to box midfielder, so is Rakitic, Busquets is naturally a defensive midfielder and Arthur is more like a deep-lying one.
There is a clear absence of an advanced playmaker like Iniesta. Yet Barcelona didn’t seem to bring anyone similar to this profile. Arthur was brought to inherit Xavi’s legacy but a midfield containing him, Rakitic & Busquets didn’t work out as expected. All three of them were reluctant to play through balls and line-breaking passes. That’s why the responsibilities of creating chances were still put on Messi.
Previously in 2018 winter, Coutinho was integrated into the squad with the hope of him being the replacement for Iniesta. Later on, Valverde used him to fill the gap that Neymar left and Coutinho failed to do so. Thus, almost 200 million euros to rebuild the Barcelona midfield went in vain with almost zero positive outcomes.
Messi again had to carry the team on his shoulder and this time he was more deadly. Barcelona looked good until May but once again the same stigma broke out. Barca was only three games away from the treble before they went to Anfield where they faced another humiliating defeat.
Barcelona’s lack of control over the midfield took another toll against the high press of Klopp’s Liverpool. The midfield of Vidal, Rakitic, and Busquets wasn’t built to withstand Liverpool’s press. As a result, their 3-0 lead was outplayed and Barcelona faced another humiliating exit.
They were in deep trouble, but the board didn’t quite act according to the need. Another transfer window came by, but nothing was done to fix the squad.
However, Barca pulled out a no-brainer deal to bring Frenkie De Jong which might be the last sensible move to empower the midfield given the age of Busquets. But Valverde used him in the place of Iniesta where he would not be in his best version. In addition to mismanagement, tactical misconceptions hammered the last nail to Barca’s coffin.
2019-20 was a mess for Barcelona and it makes sense considering their constant erratic planning. Over that, Barcelona often overlooked their young talents from La Masia. Riqui Puig was in the line to make a breakthrough yet he was ignored from time to time. Puig is the profile Barcelona mostly needed, moreover he came from the youth system. Yet he was not given a chance to prove his worth.
Puig is more like Iniesta’s heir and his profile also speaks on behalf of him. Riqui Puig, at the age of 18 was the second-highest progressive run maker in the Segunda B division, with 6.27 runs per 90 min. He also had 9.48 passes per 90 in the final third, with 80% accuracy.
Barcelona also needed someone who would stand between the lines to receive a pass from the deep. Puig does the same thing enabling his teammates by playing a line breaker which would be very crucial to breaking tight defenses. But a matter of great regret is, he is still being ignored.
What can Koeman do with Barcelona midfield?
After a disastrous 2019-20, Koeman came up to save the Catalan side from further downgrade and it is a million-dollar question how Barcelona midfield would feature under him. Koeman introduced 4-2-3-1 to the team and that would place Frenkie in his preferred position. The question is who would be the most competent one to accompany him. From what we have seen so far, Busquets has been the first choice of Koeman, but his age is a matter of concern, with the decline clearly visible. However, Koeman has Pjanic, Alena available in that position, and surely can try other ways out.
Coutinho also found his true self under the Dutch manager and Koeman has depth in this position too. Alena, Puig, Pedri all are emerging talents who can offer great features to Koeman. However, the non-existing position for Puig is another source of anxiety and uncertainty. This actually sums up the current condition in Barcelona midfield. That is – the 4-2-3-1 is no eternal solution. Thus the everlasting dilemmas remained unresolved.