With Cesc Fabregas’s rumored departure from Barcelona and Xavi Hernandez’s probable (and heartbreaking) retirement next season, acquiring a capable central midfielder this summer is absolutely critical to the Blaugrana’s future. While it is absolute folly to think a player equal to Xavi’s absurd level exists, even a passable imitation is more than welcome. Barca is crying out for an individual to organize play, step forward into attack and press when the ball is lost. Importantly, this player must enforce triangulation and correct distances, vital to maintaing possession and developing meaningful attacks while limiting the effectiveness of opposition counters. In this article, I will attempt to analyze realistic midfield targets and their suitability in the "Xavi role" and the team as a whole. In my mind, these are Miralem Pjanic of AS Roma, Ivan Rakitic of Sevilla, Atletico’s Koke and Oliver Torres, and Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gündogan. Juventus’s Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba, Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic, and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey are other players of note.
Oddly enough, Roma’s Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic is rarely mentioned these days despite being linked to the club in the past. This is striking to me, since the 24 year old played for Luis Enrique in the past, and, in current Roma manager Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3, plays a roughly Xavi-like role. He has also nearly offered himself to Barca in the past, and would command a reasonable fee (30-40m) when compared to a player like Koke (60-70m). This aside, Pjanic is also a very good player. A versatile midfielder capable of playing as part of a pivot, on the right of an advanced midfield partnership in a 4-3-3, or out wide in a 4-2-3-1, the Bosnian has superb touch and a great shot from distance. Moreover, he is quick, intelligent, a strong dribbler, and even does decent defensive work. While Pjanic typically played as the most offensive in a midfield trio consisting of the combative pivot Danielle De Rossi and the hardworking box-to-box Kevin Strootman, Pjanic often drops deep into midfield to patiently work the ball forward. However, as evidenced by his world class solo dribble versus Milan, Pjanic is quick to drive forward when the opportunity presents itself. Although he recently signed a new contract, Pjanic, on paper, would make a wonderful addition to the Barca midfield. The biggest risk with Pjanic is simply overall quality. While he is undoubtedly an excellent player, Serie A is a difficult league to determine whether a player has Barca ability. Furthermore, spending 30-40 million is a lot of money on a risk of that kind, although a deal sending Ibrahim Afellay to the Italian capital could potentially pay dividends on both sides.
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MIRALEM PJANIĆ | Goals, Skills, Assists | Roma | 2013/2014 (HD) (via ScoutNationHD)
While Ivan Rakitic has always been an underrated player, the 2013/14 season saw him breakout as a truly world class playmaker. Sevilla’s no. 11 managed 12 goals and 10 assists in 29 La Liga games and carried the Seville-based side to a Europa league title. The 26 year old now seeks a move to a larger club, and with a tempting buyout, slashed from 40m to somewhere between 20-25m, many clubs are lining up to acquire the Croatian’s services. Barca, Atleti and Real Madrid are all linked, but just how suitable is the attacking midfielder for la Blaugrana? Rakitic is powerful and explosive -- much larger than our current group of attacking midfielders at 6-feet tall (1.84m) -- with an excellent defensive work rate. Of the group mentioned, he is one of the better defenders, and although probably not quite as good offensively as say, Cesc Fabregas, he offers good quality set piece delivery and is pinpoint accurate with the long ball. Moreover, Rakitic, while operating as a number 10 for Sevilla, can play as a pivot as well. My biggest question is his ability as an orchestrator. Does he have the patience and "pausa" necessary to exist in a purely possession-based system? Rationally, acquiring Rakitic would be a bit of a tradeoff. We would gain a solid defender and a large presence in midfield, but we would have to evolve away from the level of midfield control that defined Xavi’s reign.
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IVAN RAKITIĆ | Goals, Skills, Assists | Sevilla | 2013/2014 (HD) (via ScoutNationHD)
Atletico Madrid’s Koke seems to command most of the rumors in recent weeks, and given his performance for the capital-based side it is hardly difficult to see why. The 22 year old was magnificent under Diego Simeone, although typically deployed on the right or left of a narrow midfield four. Quick, with plenty of stamina and strength, Koke has an absurd work rate with the technique to match. He delivered 13 assists in La Liga this past season, and his goal versus Barcelona in the Champions League effectively secured passage to the semifinal. Koke is an incredibly versatile player, fully capable of playing right back (which he has done on occasion for the national team), in the pivot, on either flank, or through the center as an attacking midfielder. Statistically, Koke is a superb passer, crosser, and tackler. He contributes on both sides of the ball with regularity and is dangerous from set pieces. He ticks the boxes of necessary "Xavi-like" qualities, and some of his improvisation in tight spaces during big matches was straight out of the Barca maestro’s bag of tricks. However, we still have not seen Koke play consistently in a possession-based side. We know his stamina and work rate allow him to dominate in counter attacking situations, but he struggled imposing himself in the Champions League final over the course of the 90 minutes. To be fair, we are talking about a very young player duking it out with the Madrid Galacticos. In a season or two, under Xavi’s tutelage, Koke very well could dominate matches just as Xavi did in his prime. The biggest barrier, right now, is acquiring the player. Most reports list his buyout clause at around 60 million euros, and with taxes that jumps to nearly 80 million. The sale of Cesc Fabregas could help lessen the out-of-pocket burden, as could a move seeing Ivan Rakitic head to Atleti as Koke’s replacement. At this moment, however, Koke is a considerable financial investment. We must be sure he is actually the level he displayed over the past season, rather than a good player turned world class by Diego Simeone’s system.
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KOKE | Goals, Skills, Assists | Atlético Madrid | 2013/2014 (HD) (via ScoutNationHD)
Another potential option also comes from Atletico in the form of midfield prospect Oliver Torres. Oliver has been on loan at Villarreal since January, but at only 19 years of age is an extremely highly rated prospect. His performance at the U19 Euro championship was nothing short of immaculate, where he played in a deep-lying, controlling role and dominated match after match. In La Liga, Oliver has typically played as a left attacking midfielder due to not playing in a system which can accommodate his unique skill set. It is a pity that Oliver were not three years older. At the moment, he simply does not have enough games under his belt to have really convinced, especially given the boots he would be asked to fill. The young Spaniard could have an immense future ahead of him, and in a season or three have a breakout similar to Isco or Thiago. But with rumored price tags ranging from 25 to 40 million, he would be a significant financial investment without immediate impact. Oli would need plenty of time, instruction and most likely another loan move to develop. However, in two or three seasons, do not be surprised if Oliver is on every club’s shopping list at 40 to 60 million.
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Oliver Torres - The Maestro of La Rojita | HD (via Torres Atletico)
At the moment, nothing angers me more than the predicament of Ilkay Gündogan. Dortmund’s no. 8 has spent the past season on the injury table recovering from a chronic back injury suffered on international duty with Germany. Although recent reports say the 23 year old’s back is fully healed, massive question marks remain. Will he be the same player he was before his injury? The risk that he will not return to the same heights is why Barca most likely will not take a chance on him, which is one hell of a shame, because a fully fit Gündogan is the perfect player to replace Xavi, bar none. The young German’s rise under Jurgen Klopp was, in a word, meteoric. His combination of pace, power, strength, intelligence, technique, and stamina meant Dortmund hardly missed the man he replaced, Nuri Sahin, who ironically returned to the club last season after unsuccessful spells at Real Madrid and Liverpool. Gündogan plays one-touch with the same accuracy most players need three touches to accomplish. He can operate in multiple roles, conducting as a deep-lying playmaking 6, working box-to-box as a classic 8, or scoring and assisting in a no. 10 role. Gündogan is excellent at understanding when to push the tempo and when to play safe. He is adept in tight spaces, and his performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final a year ago showed a level of calmness one would not expect out of such a young player. A healthy Gündogan is the best possible replacement for Xavi. He is superb in the press, he makes intelligent runs of the ball, and he is more than willing to attack defenders on the dribble. The simple fact though, is that his back cannot be ignored. A year off from injury undoubtedly sets players back, and it is very difficult to imagine him entering the start of the season with the same verve and ability he had a year ago.
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ILKAY GÜNDOGAN Goals, Skills, Assists in Borussia Dortmund 2012-2013 (via Sir J)
I suppose the number one thing everyone can learn is that, no matter the signing, there is a huge amount of risk involved. However, the potential benefits of one of these players defying those risks cannot be overstated. The recovery of midfield-centric, positional play with structured counterpressing and possession dominance with incisiveness through direct running is the best chance to return this team to its previous level of quality. Of this group of players, Gundogan is the best fit, but his back is a serious problem. Koke is similarly excellent, but there are doubts of his quality in the Barca system. Rakitic would be affordable and an excellent defender, but is the least natural organizer. Oliver Torres is a great prospect but his young age makes him a huge risk. The answer, unfortunately, is not clear.