FC Barcelona is a club whose name is synonymous with some of the most magisterial football ever played in the history of the sport. This article drives deep into the evolution of the brain of the football formation, the midfield. It will trace Barca’s midfield under the magnificent Pep Guardiola and the newcomer Ronald Koeman by focusing on their teams’ key players.
As been said multiple times before, the mid-field is the brain of a football game. The midfield pulls strings with the attack, organizes the defense, and gives structure to the entire game. Imagine the football team to be an orchestra. The midfield is like the conductor, making the symphony of a beautiful attack come together and crescendo into a goal. It also slows down, as a conductor would, and gets the game’s pace under control.
Since it is such a complicated position, it has been attributed to some of the greatest and most intelligent footballers. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pep Guardiola, Zinedine Zidane, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, the list goes on. Even Leo Messi, arguably the best player this sport has ever seen, drives deep into the midfield to control the game.
While I can continue listing names, that isn’t the aim of this article. This article is an analysis of the midfield of Fútbol Club Barcelona under 2 Barcelona legends, Guardiola and Koeman.
Let’s begin with Guardiola.
Guardiola and the Team that Won It All.
Thierry Henry once said, “If you tell me you love football, and you don’t love Barcelona, you have a problem.” I want to take his words and say, “If you tell me you love football, and you don’t love Guardiola, you have a problem.”
One of the most decorated managers in the history of football, and a man whose brain is as complicated as his head is bald, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola is an intelligent, intuitive manager with an eye for the game unlike anyone else (except Cruyff, of course). And while we all love his goofy interview moments and his love for Leo Messi, we need to give respect where respect is due.
Pep Guardiola made FC Barcelona a machine of success, which won titles left and right, and he did all this while staying true to his roots in proper formation-based, possession football. He created a team that was possibly the best team that the world of football has ever seen.
A team which made up half of Spain’s Invincibles (not used in the Arsenal sense of the term invincible, but in the sense that it was the only national team to win two consecutive Euros and 1 World Cup in between!). A team whose gameplay was so beautiful that it left the entire world in awe. A team that played such astounding football that it led to Camp Nou being called a cathedral of football.
This team won everything with Messi at the helm and a midfield which was defined by the genius of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. Under Guardiola, FC Barcelona made history by winning six titles in one year (La Liga, UCL, Copa Del Rey, Supercopa de Espana, UEFA Super Cup, and Club World Cup).
Guardiola perfected Cruyff’s inverted fullback system and functioned a formation that was essentially a 4-3-3, which would later become the staple for possession style football. He has his two fullbacks (left and right) run forward while having a defensive line of 3 (two centrebacks and one goalkeeper) who kept the ball rotating between them smoothly when faced with attackers.
Sometimes, the defensive midfielder (Busquets) would travel back to help the centrebacks manage the counters. This was achieved by pushing the centrebacks sideways and allowing Busquets to drop in between them while the right and left fullbacks were pushing forward. This enhanced the defense of the team, which was otherwise, like Cruyff’s, very attack-oriented.
The defensive midfielder pushing back allowed a lot of space for the two midfielders (Xavi and Iniesta) and the two fullbacks (right and left) to pass the ball around and create chances. In fact, it was this space that made the likes of Xavi and Iniesta so dangerous. They exploited it perfectly, also making room for Messi to drop in. And with Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta in the midfield, the possession of the ball seldom left Barcelona.
In fact, in 2010-11, the average possession stats of Barcelona were 67.5% (10% higher than the second-highest in La Liga). This strong possession play was equipped with strikers like David Villa and Lionel Messi, who could pull off some of the best finishes in football.
KEY PLAYERS IN THE MIDFIELD OF PEP GUARDIOLA –
In my opinion, Sergio Busquets (or Busi, as he is affectionately called) is one of the most underrated Barcelona players of all time. Busquets is a defensive midfielder (I prefer using deep-lying midfielder) and was one of the most critical players on the field under Guardiola, although going unnoticed more often than not.
He played at the base of the midfield 3 in the formation 4-3-3. He also proceeded to play as a double pivot. During the 2010s, most La Liga sides attacked with two forwards, which allowed the two centrebacks and the goalkeeper to have a 1-man advantage at the back. With Busquets in the midfield along with Xavi and Iniesta, there was another 1-man advantage created at the center of the field (3 being from the Barca midfield and two being from the central midfielders of the 4-4-2 formation).
With Busquets traveling back into the defensive line, allowing one of the wingers to move forward and distribute the ball, another 1-man advantage would be created (without the goalkeeper). This movement gave Xavi and Iniesta enough room to start controlling the ball movement in the midfield. When the opposite side played a 4-3-3, Busquets dropping into the defense would create a the 3 vs 3 situation. To counter this, one of the full-backs would move inwards towards the defense (generally Abidal since Alves was very dominating going forward and needed to be an attacking threat)
Busquets had an incredible eye for the field in his prime. His passes were simple and beautiful. I believe his passes were beautiful because they were simple. Not many noticed how he would thread the ball through 5, even 6 players to land that one perfect pass. An incredible footballer, Busquets in his prime was undeniably one of the most important players of Guardiola’s side.
What can I say about this man that hasn’t been said before? Xavi Hernandez has been hailed as the best Spanish footballer ever by the best footballer ever (Lionel Messi). There is little I can add to that statement, either to its verbosity or its credibility. A master of the game, Xavi had the Cruyff vision and the technical brilliance to pull it off. He remains, by far, the most intelligent footballer to ever play midfield.
Under Guardiola, Xavi was a major playmaker. Whenever Alves moved forward, Xavi usually moved to the right, creating space in the midfield for Messi to drop in and find Pedro in the wide regions or Alves down the wing. If Messi dropped in, Pedro could move into the center, and Messi could get the ball from Xavi to move to the wide areas (or Xavi himself moved to the wide areas) to send low crosses into the center for a straight shot OT.
Xavi, along with Iniesta, made Barcelona’s midfield impeccable and unbeatable. His understanding of where to send which cross/pass/through ball made him a puppeteer in so many of Barcelona’s goals. He had a wonderful vision, as has been well documented. He looked at the field 10-20 times and analyzed the opponents’ positions till he had a map of the field in his mind, and then he could produce passes like a magician pulling rabbits out of his hat.
His positioning and tactical prowess also gave Barcelona an advantage in the conventional 4-3-3. With 3 in the midfield, going 1 vs 1 against the opposition’s midfield/attack wasn’t the toughest, given Xavi’s ability (and Iniesta).
Iniesta, like Xavi, is among the best midfielders ever to grace this sport. He had a simplicity that made football enjoyable, made football special, and made football look easy. In fact, Iniesta’s football drew praise from fans and rivals alike, with Sergio Ramos, the captain of Real Madrid, having nothing but good things to say about him. Andres Iniesta didn’t score a LOT of goals, but he did score important goals (both for club and country; scoring the match-winner against Chelsea and the World Cup winner against the Netherlands).
His position was a little different from Xavi’s on the field. He was just as skilled at dribbling and through balls and at interpreting the space. It was his partnership with Xavi that allowed his role to flourish. Xavi moved to the right flanks, drawing the opposition players towards him. This allowed Iniesta to move forward and go against the central midfielder, and Abidal would move forward to go against the winger.
What happened here was that with the majority of the players on the right, where Xavi and Messi were dominating the possession, space cleared up on the left flank.
This let the striker, David Villa go 1 vs 1 with the only defender left on the left side, and since going 1 vs 1 with a Barcelona player in his prime was a difficult task, when Xavi sent in crosses, a clear opportunity to score opened up. Each of the three midfielders was press-resistant in a way, capable of playing short and quick passes in tight spaces (which gave rise to the tiki-taka era of FC Barcelona). Sometimes, they would move into the center, drawing players towards them and keeping the ball in their possession via short passes.
This opened up the flanks for an attack from the sides. Other times (more often than not), Iniesta and Xavi would stay in position, wider than usual, drawing players away from the center, opening up spaces there, which were managed by Messi.
Pep Guardiola created a monster of a team, which scored goals, won titles, and created history. Defining one of Barcelona’s most glorious era, Pep Guardiola left this team doing justice to the legacy of Johann Cruyff. No one has come close since, and probably no one ever will.
Ronald Koeman and the evolving Barcelona
Ronald Koeman, a legend in the locker room, has come to Barcelona during the most tumultuous period in FCB’s history. With Messi on the verge of leaving and the team reeling from the most humiliating loss in her history (8-2 loss to Bayern Munich), the man has his work cut out for him. He hasn’t had the most spectacular start, with quite a few negatives already showing up. But there have been positives to him as well.
In his previous jobs as a manager, Koeman deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation with a double pivot. With the quality that he has at Barca, there are numerous ways in which this formation can be edited and changed and tailored to fit both, the La Liga’s technical demands and the demands for beautiful football from the fans.
While his tactics can’t be determined by the few matches he has managed for Barcelona till now, the midfield can be. Ronald Koeman has an incredible array of options in his midfield. When FC Barcelona announced their 2020/21 squad list, we could see the sheer talent in the midfield.
To understand how this talent present in the midfield can be utilized to the maximum, we need to analyze the players’ individual strengths. I’ve mostly just stuck to 3 players (Pjanic, De Jong, and Pedri).
KEY PLAYERS IN THE MIDFIELD OF RONALD KOEMAN –
Miralem Pjanic is a talented defensive midfielder with the skills to initiate an attack and cover the defense. He is skilled in long-range passes that break formations and creates chances, and has good ball control. He also has a substantial role to play in building up attacks. Pjanic played as a pivot under Maurizio Sarri. A significant role of his, under Sarri, was to get midfielders to pressurize him, which would open up spaces in the midfield.
Pjanic would then pass this ball to one of his teammates, who could exploit the space left by the pressurizing midfielder.
Pjanic is good with attacks too. He has an eye for long balls, sending in long-range shots into the penalty area, and attempt a long-range goal as well. Normally, Barcelona work with building their goals from the back with short, quick, and successive passes to ensure that they keep possession and create a team goal. But an occasional long ball breaks this formation and catches the opponents off guard, all the while creating a wonderful scoring opportunity.
While we haven’t seen him play for a lot of minutes under Koeman, I’m sure Koeman would utilize these abilities of Pjanic in a good team formation.
Frenkie De Jong
Frenkie de Jong is a wonderful midfielder, playing as a pivot (ideally, Busquets role in the Barca squad) and a double-pivot (depending on the formation). Frenkie has been forced to play defensively in the FC Barcelona squad and along the right flank, which affects his game since he is a predominantly right-footed player.
Yet the sheer talent he possesses is nothing short of an asset to Barca if they play him in his ideal position. Frenkie de Jong brings to the Barca midfield something that they sorely lack nowadays; creativity. His playmaking on the field is incredible, and his calmness and collected presence with the ball at his feet is a much-needed midfield characteristic.
Frenkie has many positives, from his dribbling skills to his passing abilities and his calmness under the opposition’s press. He has an impeccable eye for timing and knows when to dribble past players and pass to a teammate who might be in a better position. This makes him a wonderful playmaker.
Apart from the technicality, Frenkie is a delightful football to watch. His feints, his dribbling skills, and his connection to his team-mates when he sends a perfectly timed pass to a threatening attacking position, adding flavor to Barcelona’s game. It will be interesting to see what Koeman does with Frenkie’s skills and how he monetizes them.
Pedri is the 17-year-old Spanish wonderchild, who is slowly becoming FC Barcelona’s most looked-forward-for young talents. He is a great footballer, with a wide range of abilities. Pedri is physically small and lithe, making him excellent at resisting pressure from the opponents and taking the ball forward. While we have yet to see a Pedri performing consistently in the first team with the same brilliance, he has had a few outstanding moments (against Juventus, for example)
Pedri is also a smart footballer. He keeps possession by his dribbling skills and by analyzing the situation and understanding when to press forward through a strong opposition and when to move back and pass the ball. This type of intelligent play is similar to what midfielders engaged in under Guardiola and Cruyff. He is also constantly working on pressing the opponents. His work rate is a fresh addition to the Barcelona squad.
Ronald Koeman has great potential in his midfield. With the transfer window nearing, it would be interesting to see how he uses his signings (if he decides to sign anyone, that is) and the talent in his midfield to his advantage.
This article aimed to highlight the functioning of the midfield, the most important part of the football formation, under two managers who have created history at the club (Ronald Koeman as a player). It is also interesting to look at these formations and wonder about the changes that will happen to Barcelona under Koeman. While things might be a little rough right now, there is no doubt that FC Barcelona will come back stronger. And I sincerely hope Ronald Koeman will achieve success, as a manager, at this club.
Until then, Visca el Barca i Visca Catalunya!