Barcelona’s midfield struggles have been pretty obvious since 2014, when many fans were expecting the eventual retirements of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Now that they have actually left the club for good, the question has arisen time and again on whether the cub has done a good job of replacing the duo.
Robert Fernandez brought in a host of signings in his time with the club and many of them were made to specifically address this issue in the long-term. Denis Suarez, Rafinha Alcantara, and Andre Gomes were either purchased or brought back, while Sergi Samper and Carles Alena received their deserved promotions to the first-team.
Of those five names, Gomes has been sent away, Suarez has become a ghost, Samper remains injury-prone and Rafinha is currently being used as a winger; Alena remains the only player with a tangible shot at becoming a first-team starter in midfield and even he’s currently shuttling between the A team and the B team.
Are any of those players bad options? No. However, most were mismanaged, previously by Luis Enrique, and now by his successor, Ernesto Valverde.
Denis Suarez came to Barcelona with a promising career and has proven himself to be a fantastic performer every time he has gone out on loan. Part of the reason why the Galician is failing to cement his place in Barcelona’s line-up is the competition, lack of minutes and his inability to remain sharp as an unused player (which he can hardly be blamed for). Even when Suarez has received minutes, they have been alternated between the midfield and the wing.
Rafinha’s case is no different from Suarez’s as he has played a number of positions in his time with Barcelona. The Brazilian’s best moments came when Luis Enrique used him as a box-to-box midfielder in his final year. However, injury interrupted his spectacular run of form, which included a man-of-the-match performance; He hasn’t been the same since then. Ernesto Valverde’s insistence on using him as a wide player has limited Rafinha’s influence on the game which led to a horror-performance against Rayo Vallecano. Even Andre Gomes’ case is similar, where he barely got any opportunities in his preferred central midfield role.
There is also the case of Coutinho who was targeted to replace the departing Andres Iniesta. The Brazilian playmaker has become a mainstay on Barcelona’s left-wing, vacated by Neymar. Ousmane Dembele, who was brought in to replace Neymar, found himself on the bench and Iniesta’s position remained vacant.
The recent acquisition of Arthur changed that situation by providing one half of the Xavi-Iniesta dynamic. Arthur is a metronomic controller capable of evading the press which makes him a like-for-like replacement for Xavi, at least on paper. The other half of the equations has remained unanswered and Barcelona’s existing options have been mismanaged to the point where they cannot be considered the primary solution. Despite Arturo Vidal being available of selection, it is unlikely that either he or Rakitic will provide a medium to long-term solution in the position.
The club’s handling of youngsters is becoming a serial problem, which is apparent in the way we have managed our midfield. Players are arriving at the club and leaving it at an alarming rate, which is a cause for concern.
On the one hand, we scare youngsters looking for a greater opportunity with the threat of closing the club’s doors to them forever. Then, we pay millions to replace the current crop of players, never even exploring the option of what we already have. Barcelona General Manager, Pep Segura had famously closed the door on a possible return for Thiago Alcantara, when his contract negotiations with Bayern Munich had stalled last season. However, the same Segura has recently made statements, speaking positively regarding a return for Neymar.
Why are the club’s hierarchy showing such hypocrisy? Considering the departure of both players, it is easy to understand and sympathise with the circumstances of Thiago as opposed to Neymar. While I’m personally not against the return of Neymar, the general contradiction of self when it suits one’s interest is what disappoints and disheartens.
A player who doesn’t receive minutes on the pitch cannot perform. In the same vein, a player who leaves for the same reasons, cannot be disowned or boycotted simply because it hurts the management’s ego. Barcelona had the solution to their midfield problem in their squad but failed to take the situation seriously and are stuck in an uncomfortable situation today where their sporting project and the manager’s interests are at odds with each other. Will Barcelona invest in another midfielder? Probably. Will he be fortunate enough to receive the right kind of conditioning to perform and impress? Probably not.