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Is Barcelona’s Midfield in Trouble?

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For years, Barcelona’s strongest area of the team was the midfield but it has been struggling as of late.

FC Barcelona v Manchester City FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The blueprint of Barça’s tactical plan comes from a midfield domination. Being in the centre of the pitch, this is naturally the area that sees most of the ball so by gaining advantage there, you gain advantage of the game. But recently there has been a shift away from the midfield and more towards the front three.

When you have the talent of Messi, Neymar and Suárez it is natural for you to become reliant upon them. Numerous times this season games have been won by the individual brilliance of the trident but it is possible this has had a negative on other areas in the team.

The key change was the introduction of Suárez and the added physicality that he brings. Suárez has allowed Barça to effectively bypass the midfield on the way up to the forwards. No longer do you have the diminutive strikers of David Villa and Pedro who tend to require balls to feet or along the ground but instead Piqué and her Stegen are able to float a long pass that can be controlled by Suárez and allow him to bring others into the game. This is not to say Barça have switched to a sit deep and then go for route one team but there has been a noticeable drop in the influence of the midfield on games.

The general role of a Barça midfielder has changed under Luis Enrique. You are still expected to keep the ball and play football but you also need to be more combative. Ivan Rakitić is a fine example of this and, especially during his first season at the club, he portrayed a blend of a talented footballer but also a physical one. He and Sergio Busquets win the ball back and then look to find the front three.

The system works against the majority of teams but can struggle when playing the world’s best. Take the PSG game. The French side are naturally more physical than Barça and in previous years the Catalans’ answer to this would be to play round them. That simply didn’t happen and PSG, with players like Verratti who are also very good technically, were able to pick Barcelona apart.

Finding an identical Xavi replacement was never going to happen but Barcelona have yet to find a player who comes close. Perhaps it was not Enrique’s desire to have a player like this or perhaps he believed Andrés Iniesta could do both roles. Either way, Barcelona’s summer midfield recruits haven’t entirely impressed. André Gomes arrived with a heavy transfer fee but has had his critics while Denis Suárez has struggled to nail down a first team spot. Even in the latter weeks, Rakitić appears to have fallen out of favour and has found himself on the bench for some important games.

A consistently fit Iniesta would have gone a long way to solving this problem but at 32 years of age, injuries were always likely. There are also very real claims that Barcelona does not have the best midfielders in the world at the current time, a trait they proudly boasted for a decade. Thiago is still a sore spot for many Barça fans as he starts to fulfil his potential at Bayern Munich.

Another interesting point has been the movement of Messi back into a central spot. He starts on the wing but has often drifted in to play as a 10 behind Suárez. Having an accomplished passer like Messi in the midfield has helped but having a right winger frequently playing centrally is not a long term solution.

The next managerial appointment will be crucial. If the new man wants to revert back to the midfield domination then Barcelona will again need to strengthen their midfield as you debate whether they currently have the personnel for the job.