Same old midfield issues cast their shadow on Barça’s exquisite attacking talent

In its recent history, Barcelona have been a team to count on their midfield dominance. Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets were for long the closest thing to a holy trinity and their impact on Barcelona’s successes was largely considered vital. Of course, having a Messi helped, too.

Xavi, however, is not what he used to be, Iniesta is oddly off-form (or simply past his best?) and even Busquets has been plagued by hip-injuries that have seen his form sink. At latest, the 2012/13 season showed that the holy trinity wasn’t quite what it used to be: Bayern Munich practically ran over the midfield trio, as did Real Madrid.

El Clasico

The problem was recognized by Tata Martino last season. Xavi didn’t have the physique he used to, and to compensate for the aging club icon’s lacking fitness, the Argentine manager opted with four midfielders in each of last season’s Clásicos, as well as the Champions League matches against Atlético Madrid. If the holy trinity could no longer bring stability, it needed an extra man. That extra man was Cesc Fàbregas, now at Chelsea.

It was never really a permanent solution, mind you. Towards the end of the season Messi was more alone than José Manuel Pinto at his goal, and Cesc’s midfield runs were easily shut down. Pressing was disorganized and the lack of shape at the back was exposed.

This season, Luis Enrique is tackling the same issue with new, shiny weapons. The shiniest of them all is Luis Suárez.

If Barcelona used to rely on their midfield to create chances, things are different now. The midfielders are asked to play out wide – Rakitic has even made several crosses from Dani Alves’ wing – and their threat down the middle is lesser. The middle of the park is often static until Messi drops deep enough to collect the ball and create an opening.

Rakitic heatmap Athletic
Rakitic heatmap vs Athletic Bilbao. Image via Squawka.

The strategy in question has its pros and cons. Rakitic has helped Alves tremendously in defensive transition, but at the same time, the center of the field is wide open. In attack, the system is heavily reliant on Messi and Neymar – and from now on, Luis Suárez – to create danger

This being the case, one could say that Luis Enrique has tackled the issue regarding Barcelona’s midfield by decreasing the importance of the midfield. Barcelona – the team of midfielders – is now a team of forwards. With no real wingers, with midfielders and wingbacks being the only ones providing width to the side, Barcelona does somewhat break the rules of total football – the philosophy they’ve become known for.

Saturday’s El Clásico was further proof of why the midfield in its current form is a problem. Xavi inserted rhythm to the game early on, but as Real Madrid found their groove, the Maestro was overrun. In defensive proceedings, both his and Andrés Iniesta’s limited movement meant that Real Madrid continuously found numerical superiority out wide. The problem might not have been as evident had Luis Enrique opted with Ivan Rakitic instead of Xavi – like he often has this season – but for whatever reason, the Barcelona boss counted on the veteran, contrary to what has been seen before.

And the old problems couldn’t have been any more obvious.

Of course, nothing is all good or all bad. The forwards have been more or less freed from following the opposition’s fullbacks out wide – leaving the task to the midfielders – and playing closer to each other has seen the connection between Messi and Neymar blossom. Barcelona’s attack relies less on width, and more on quick combination play through the middle. Neymar, Messi, and Luis Suárez too, are all suited to this type of game.

Neymar heatmap vs Eibar. More touches in the box, less hugging the touchline. Image via Squawka.
Neymar heatmap vs Eibar. More touches in the box, less hugging the touchline. Image via Squawka.

Saturday’s Clásico was the first glimpse of what the trio can offer. Neymar played as the left-sided forward, Suárez drifted towards the right flank. Messi operated behind them, with the two making runs behind the defense when Messi was on the ball. When the movement and understanding between the three players grows to its outrageous potential – or if it does – it’s no exaggeration to say that the trio can win matches on their own. In fact, each one of the individuals have the quality to win matches all by themselves. Thus, it’s hard to blame Luis Enrique for doing what he can to build his team around its three forwards.

But although the front three shines bright, the persistent issues in the midfield still cast their shadow above the Camp Nou. Barcelona’s midfield’s ability to press or defend is limited with Xavi and Iniesta on the pitch, whereas Rakitic adds physical strength, but lacks the ability to install the tempo into the game.

The issues haven’t been exploited by the more humble La Liga sides. Chances are that Barcelona’s attacking force will see them cover up for those issues week in, week out, in domestic action. But the fact that causes concern is that Barcelona have now faced two oppositions of European top-level: PSG and Real Madrid. Both scored 3, both dominated the center of the park. And when Barcelona doesn’t have any control of the midfield, it becomes increasingly difficult to use the shiny weapons they have in the frontline.

The issue in the midfield has yet to be really addressed: Tata Martino simply added a man to compensate for the shortcomings, Luis Enrique is building his team to suit his three forwards. Meanwhile, we’re at the exact same situation we were a year ago. Xavi is the only orchestrating midfielder in the squad, but not up to the physical requirements of highly intense matches.

Certainly, Luis Suárez is an important piece in Luis Enrique’s puzzle and if the ex-Liverpool man lives up to the expectation, he can work wonders. But Luis Enrique’s honeymoon period is now over, and after two defeats to top-rivals, he’s got more questions to answer than ever before.