Real Madrid capturing their third straight Champions League title in dramatic fashion last season brought out feelings of envy and resentment among Barca fans. Real’s success did not devalue Barca’s domestic double achievement with an almost perfect La Liga season but rather overshadowed the feats. While Real has benefitted from questionable calls in their favor and major injuries to their opponents, there is no denying that winning three straight Champions League titles is a historic achievement on its own.
The one underlying factor in their success has undoubtedly been the dominant play of their midfield, primarily Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. As seen in numerous occasions over the past three seasons, the Modric and Kroos tandem duo have delivered countless top-quality performances.
Meanwhile, the same cannot be said for Barca’s midfield over the past three seasons in the Champions League. Under Luis Enrique, Barca’s midfield could not breakthrough and became stagnant in the Champions League quarter-final ties against Atletico Madrid and Juventus. Just this past season in one of the most shocking defeats in recent Barca history, the midfield in the 4-4-2 formation were outplayed, outhustled and could not respond to Roma’s high press throughout the second leg.
This is why Barca’s European dominance has halted and why this summer transfer window will arguably be one of the most important ones in years. The board must respond to the recent European underachievements and revamp the midfield. Now credit to the board for their late but successful move in bringing in Philippe Coutinho, who hopes to become the long-term successor to Andres Iniesta, but the job is evidently not done.
The board’s top priority this summer is to bring in a controller, possession-heavy type midfielder.
What Barca have missed over the past three seasons is a player who can dictate play in the midfield while being able to create chances and build-up play from anywhere on the pitch, something Xavi Hernandez made a career of doing.
Now while Ivan Rakitic has to an extent lived up to the expectations that were placed on him when he arrived in the 2014-2015 season, his play has not been on the caliber of controlling all phases of play in the midfield. His play as of the last two seasons has been in large part, possession without a purpose where the passes and off-ball movement does not amount to much in the attacking third. Nowadays, Lionel Messi is tasked with the responsibilities of dropping deep to play as a central midfielder and attacking midfielder to build-up play and exploit passing lines at the expense of disorganizing opposing defenses. Had it not been for the heroic adaptability of Messi to alternate into a midfield role, the team would not have had relative success in La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
What Barca must look for is a player who can ease the pressure on Messi.
Mess’s heat map of the 2017-2018 La Liga season illustrates just how heavy a workload he has on the pitch.
Over the past couple of seasons, Messi has remarkably done it all on the pitch as he has played multiple positions: False 9, winger, center-forward, attacking midfielder and central midfielder.
Barca need a controlling midfielder who can help Messi on the pitch while taking on the heavy duties of a midfielder from building up play, combatting opposing defensive high presses and making impactful runs up the pitch.
As seen in this sequence from a La Liga game during the 2010-2011 season against Villarreal, Xavi is front and center in the build-up of play. His movements in tight space fends off a defender while he accelerates play in the attacking third and skillfully creates space when he has the ball.
Now while there is not an available player at the level of Xavi Hernandez, there are a few players who slot in and play at a prominent level for Barca.
One player who fits the profile is Thiago Alcantara, a La Masia graduate and former Barca player. While he has faced his fair share of ups and downs with Bayern Munich since his arrival there, his playstyle would fit into Barca like a puzzle piece. His eloquent passing production exhausts opposing defenses. Through balls that move the ball upfield and maintaining possession for moderate periods of time are two of his biggest strengths, which are two areas of improvement for Barca’s midfield. For Barca, Thiago would take over Rakitic’s role and play alongside Philippe Coutinho and Sergio Busquets.
Christian Eriksen is another player who has been linked with Barca. The Danish international plays the central midfield and attacking midfield positions. Just this past season for Tottenham, Eriksen recorded 10 goals and 11 assists in 37 Premier League games. He is lethal on the counter and quick build-up sequences where he is looking to create chances in the box. For Barca, Eriksen would excel in a 4--3-3 with occupying a significant amount of space on the pitch or in a 4-3-2-1 as an attacking midfielder.
From Eriksen and Thiago to Pjanic, Jorginho and possibly even Rabiot, Bartomeu and the board have a multitude of options for improvement to turn the tide on an ineffective midfield.
Another area of focus should be on the overall midfield depth of the team, something that has been a lacking aspect of the team. When comparing Barca to some of the other top teams in Europe, both the quality and quantity does not compare. Bayern has the luxury of bringing on talents such as Corentin Tolisso off the bench while Real can choose among the likes of Mateo Kovacic and Isco. In contrast, Barca have spent a combined €128 million on Gomes, Vidal, Paulinho and Turan over the past three seasons -- not ideal.
As seen last season, depth can derail Barca’s quality in a long season where they are involved in three competitions. Valverde at times could not trust his bench so rather than giving Iniesta, Rakitic and Busquets much-needed rest during weeks where the team played two games, the trio were forced to play instead. Bolstering a midfield with potential next generational talents such as Arthur and Frenkie de Jong can not only strengthen the midfield depth but would be crucial for the future of the team. Neither of the two will receive major starting minutes next season but will gain valuable experience throughout.
Now with Antoine Griezmann deciding to stay at Atletico Madrid, it could very well end up being a fortunate blessing as the focus would now shift on the midfield. Rather than using €100m for one player in Griezmann, the board can now use that money and the funds from what will come in from sold players to add a starting midfielder and a couple of young midfielders for depth. After last year’s transfer debacle where the board failed to sign PSG midfielder Marco Verratti and eventually sold Neymar, the board are under heavy pressure to deliver on the promise of making this transfer window a landmark successful one. If all goes well and the team is improved in all three phases, the upcoming season will be an exciting and intriguing one.