Even at 33 years of age, Andrés Iniesta is still one of the first names on Spain’s team sheet. A new generation of world class midfield talents hasn’t seen him drop to the bench but instead Julen Lopetegui has used his wealth of options to get the best of Barça’s captain.
For his club, Iniesta plays as the left interior of a midfield three. Sharing the creative responsibilities with the right interior, usually Ivan Rakitić, while Sergio Busquets operates as the pivot. Whereas with his country, Iniesta plays as part of a midfield six. The formations will both lineup as 4-3-3 but with Spain, Iniesta plays much further back allowing Asensio, Silva and Isco to roam in the final third. While this eases the running load on Iniesta, it does not hamper his effectiveness. In the Italy game, he made the third highest amount of passes despite being substituted in the 71st minute and was effective at nullifying the Italian two man midfield.
With a roaming front three that will routinely drop deep to collect the ball, Iniesta does not have to sprint forward as much and thus will save energy as the game and also the season goes on. Of course, this is easily done when Spain play with no recognised striker as all three of Asensio, Isco and David Silva are used to playing deep when representing their club side. It was the intelligence of the front three and rotation between which one was playing as the false nine that allowed Iniesta to be at his most effective.
At Barça it is naturally different as the front three are comprised of three forwards rather than three attacking midfielders. Even Lionel Messi, who drops deepest, is not considered a midfielder and this will create a gap between the midfield and forwards, one that Iniesta has to fill either by dribbling or playing accurate, risky passes. The problem with this is you wonder if Iniesta has it in his legs anymore, he will rarely complete 90 minutes and will struggle to burst forward and back with the same frequency that he used to. This can create an over reliance on Messi as the Argentine falls deeper, more into a number ten role, in order to bridge the gap between the midfield and the attack.
Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé both play high up the field but when Barcelona play against an organised defence, such as Juventus in a week’s time, it can become easy to nullify the forwards by simply marking them out of the game.
Whether Ernesto Valverde thinks Iniesta’s ability is worth a formation change in order to get the best out of him will remain to be seen as the season goes on but do not be surprised if Iniesta’s best performances this campaign come in the red of La Roja.