We are very lucky to be living in the most successful era in Barcelona history. If you’ve been a fan for just a little over a decade, you have watched the greatest players to ever do it for the greatest club in the world, and we are never going to witness something quite as beautiful and successful as the last 12 years of Blaugrana football.
The great thing about this Barça dynasty is its continuity: a select group of all-timers stayed together for almost 10 years to win as many trophies as they could and look really good while doing it. The coaches changed, but the superstars remained, and we’ll always remember them.
But there are a few players throughout the last decade who haven’t quite gotten the credit and recognition for what they did, and this piece will address that. But here’s the twist: we won’t be looking at players and their entire body of work with Barça. Some of them went on to become legends, some left after failing miserably, and others just did they job for a while and left.
Instead of trying to find eleven underrated players from the last decade, we’ll look at eleven individual seasons that went under the radar because either the season as a whole has been forgotten or there were other players who shined a lot brighter than them. So let’s look at a starting XI of underrated Barcelona seasons. This is all for fun, people.
Before we begin, though, a couple of disclaimers: Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves, Victor Valdés, Éric Abidal, Neymar and Luis Suárez don’t belong on this list. Obviously. They’re untouchable.
After three seconds of internal debate, I’ve decided that Sergio Busquets is not on the list of underrated Barcelona players. Plain and simple, Sergio Busquets is one of the greatest midfielders in the history of the sport. If you don’t know that, it’s your fault.
So here we go: time for the Seydou Keita All-Stars! It’s a classic 4-3-3 formation, designed to have players who actually fit together.
Goalkeeper: 2016-17 Jasper Cillessen
Luis Enrique’s last season was largely disappointing and ended with their biggest rivals winning the two big titles while the Blaugrana had to settle for the Cup. But Barça do not win that Copa del Rey without backup goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen making huge saves throughout that campaign. Oh, and there was also his maniacal smile before saving Kévin Gameiro’s penalty against Atlético Madrid, my third favorite moment of that entire season (hold that thought).
It’s still absurd to me that Barça managed to have Ter Stegen and Cillessen on the same team for three whole years. It’s even more absurd to me that Cillessen’s signing was not at all popular with Barça fans at the time.
Right-Back: 2016-17 Sergi Roberto
Because Dani Alves played so well in this position for so long and his replacements haven’t really hit the ground running, this was the toughest choice to make. But I’m going with Roberto from Lucho’s last season here. Dani had just left and Barça for some reason didn’t think about signing a replacement, thinking that Roberto had shown such promising signs during the 2015-16 season that he would be the natural heir to the throne despite having to play out of position.
Sergi didn’t set the world on fire, but he was pretty competent adapting to a new role while replacing a legend. He was also involved in the two most memorable moments of that season: it was his trademark solo run to break the press and move the ball into midfield that started the play that finished with Lionel Messi’s legendary goal (and celebration) at the Bernabéu in one of the great Clásicos ever.
A few months before that, Sergi Roberto scored the winning goal in the unforgettable 6-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain. The Remontada was built by Messi and Neymar, but the finishing touch came from 6ERG1. A legend in my book, I’ll tell ya.
Center-Back: 2008-09 Rafa Márquez
I had to cheat a little bit and go outside of the decade to find our first central defender, but it was worth it: while the 2008-09 season is remembered for the Treble and the start of the Pep Guardiola Era with Xavi, Iniesta and False Nine/Real GOAT Messi ruling the football world, one player who doesn’t get the credit for his role in that season is the Mexican legend Rafa Márquez.
Guardiola bought Gerard Piqué from Manchester United before the start of the season thinking he and Puyol would be the center-back partnership that season and beyond, but there was just no way to keep Márquez out of the team. Rafa’s passing ability from the back blew Pep away, and Piqué had to wait for his turn on the bench. Márquez suffered a knee injury in the Champions League semi-final that ended his season, but the Mexican was as instrumental as anyone that year.
Center-Back: 2011-12 Javier Mascherano
After impressing in his first season as the 12th man in Guardiola’s 2010-11 masterpiece, Mascherano became truly invaluable in Pep’s final campaign in charge. Puyol was starting to slow down and struggled with injuries all year, and Piqué had his worst season in a Barça shirt. Mascherano was the only truly reliable defender in that squad, and although the Blaugrana suffered a lot defensively (thanks in no small part to Pep’s suicidal 3-3-4), El Jefecito was not to blame.
Pep’s last season is pretty much forgotten because he missed out on the two big trophies, but it was very entertaining. Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta continued to dominate midfield, and Cesc Fàbregas was a terror for defenses as Messi’s partner up front. Leo scored over 70 goals that season, and Barça nearly reached 200 as a team. The attack was amazing, the defense not so much, but Mascherano was a monster.
Left-Back: 2011-12 Adriano
The Brazilian was a solid contributor throughout his time in Catalonia, and Pep’s last season was his best. With Abidal missing a large portion of that season due to his liver tumor, Adriano became the starting full-back and could play on both sides with the same consistency. His versatility was hugely important as Pep transitioned into the 3-3-4, with Adriano capable of playing in the back three or as one of the wingers when Guardiola went more conservative in away matches.
His pace was absurd and his ability to track back when Barça lost the ball in bad positions avoided a lot of bad moments when the opponents went on the counter. Just like Mascherano, Adriano was not to blame for the defensive issues that season, and he played an important part in the Copa del Rey title as well.
Midfielder: 2015-16 Ivan Rakitic
Luis Enrique’s second season was the most wildly entertaining 10 months of my life as a Barça fan, even more than the Pep years who were marked by dominance and control but a few slower games with a lot of passing but not a lot of action. In 2015-16, every game was non-stop fun, with a lot of goals and the MSN trio becoming the greatest front three ever. Sergio Busquets was a monster that season, and Dani Alves said goodbye in style.
But Rakitc was truly special. The Croatian embraced the fact he wasn’t Xavi and played exceptional football as the engine in midfield, the guy who wasn’t as poised or smart as Busquets and didn’t have the talent and creativity of Iniesta but could not stop running and defending and scoring great goals from distance. That was the only season Rakitic wasn’t hated for being different or playing too many minutes, and he added the balance the team needed to allow Messi, Suárez and Neymar to play at their best.
I’m not the biggest fan of Rakitic these days, but it kills me that he doesn’t get the credit for what he did in 2015-16.
Midfielder: 2010-11 Seydou Keita
No one in the history of Barcelona embodies the word underrated more than Keita, which is why this piece is called ‘The Seydou Keita All-Stars’. The Mali international joined the club in Pep’s first season and instantly became the guy Guardiola always trusted to do a job. Keita didn’t have Xavi’s vision, Busquets’ positioning or Iniesta’s magical powers, but he never played a bad game for Barcelona.
In the historic 2010-11 season, the best of any team ever, Keita made more appearances than any outfield player and never let the team down. He could play in defense, the center of midfield or the wings, and he always did his job to the best of his capabilities without ever complaining about lack of playing time. He knew exactly who he was, and the club haven’t found his replacement since he left. Great player, great winner, great teammate. Keita had it all.
Midfielder: 2017-18 Paulinho
Ernesto Valverde’s first season was marked by a formation change that is still controversial to this day, but I believe Valverde’s biggest make was actually not using the 4-4-2 in his second season when he signed two players (Malcom and Arturo Vidal) who fit that system perfectly. Anyway, that’s for another piece.
Back to the first season, Valverde’s 4-4-2 was actually good for most of that campaign and it always worked at its best when Paulinho was on the team. A 4-4-2 for a possession-based team only works if one of the two central midfielders is a constant threat to get in the box and score goals, and Paulinho was exactly that.
His signing wasn’t popular and his departure is strange to this day, but Paulinho added a physicality and goal-scoring edge that Barça never had in their midfield. 2017-18 will be remembered by Rome and only Rome, but Messi was special, Suárez had his moments and Iniesta played a beautiful final season. But Paulinho was important too, as crazy as that sounds.
Right Winger: 2014-15 Pedro
Luis Enrique’s debut season ended in a Treble and marked the beginning of MSN’s dominance, but it’s easy to forget how inconsistent Barça were in the first half of that season. Lucho was one loss to Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou away from being fired, but he turned things around and the rest is history.
Speaking of history, it always remembers Messi’s performance against Bayern Munich, Neymar’s spectacular Champions League campaign, Suárez seamless integration into the team, Xavi’s final season, Iniesta’s magic and Ter Stegen becoming an instant legend, but it doesn’t pay its dues to Pedro, who was as crucial as anyone in that Treble-winning squad.
It’s been five years since Pedro left and Barça still haven’t found his replacement: the Spaniard was the perfect “fourth forward”, the attacking player who accepted his role as an understudy to the MSN trio but was good enough to replace them at anytime. Pedro could play in all three positions in attack and was always availabe and reliable, and he’s actually out of contract at the end of this season. Just saying.
Left Winger: 2011-12 Cristian Tello
It was REALLY hard to find a left winger since that position was occupied by David Villa and Neymar and nobody has come even close to replicate their impact since they left, but I believe Tello is a good choice.
Specifically the Tello from Pep’s last season, who added something the team didn’t really have: a lightning quick, true winger who’s only job was two receive the ball near the touchline, beat his defender one-on-one and provide a good cross into the box. Tello exploded out of the gates in his first season doing exactly that, and he was always hungry to score which helped him quickly earn Pep’s trust.
Unfortunately for Barça and for Tello he could never recapture the magic from his debut season and a combination of injuries and the arrival of Neymar stopped him from having a real role, and he eventually left for Real Betis a few years ago. The last time we’ve heard of Tello he scored the game-winner for Betis against Real Madrid that might win Barça La Liga, so he’s still doing a job for us. Top man.
Striker: 2013-14 Alexis Sánchez
The Chilean arrived in Pep’s final season and added a scoring threat from the wings that became even more important when David Villa broke his leg in December 2011 and missed the rest of the season. Alexis became a starter that season but struggled with injuries throughout the 2012 calendar year, which was a blow to both Pep and Tito Vilanova’s teams.
But Alexis finally found a consistent run of health and games during Tata Martino’s lone season in charge, and the Chilean was really, really good that year. With a career-best 21 goals there was just no way to keep Alexis out of the team even with competition from Neymar and Pedro, and Sánchez could have scored the title-winning goal in the final day of the season if not for Diego Godín’s header that won Atlético Madrid La Liga at Camp Nou in 2014.