Barcelona are a club famed for their midfield, with their slick passing moves and liquid passages of play. Yet, for a few seasons now, the midfield has been in decline. With the departure of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Sergio Busquets has been the only constant in that midfield, holding together a weak pair ahead of him whilst also shielding the backline. With the addition of Arthur and Frenkie de Jong, the Barça midfield has certainly been beefed up, yes, but similar concerns remain. However, De Jong is still somewhat out of position and Arthur’s fitness is still an issue. Neither have been able to break out this season, at least to the extent that was expected.
Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, Barça’s senior midfielders, have also been lukewarm. While Vidal has generally been good and has proved extremely effective on occasion, he has been played in vastly different positions and has, as consequence, not been able to put together a run of strong performances. Rakitic, on the other hand, has rarely impressed, if at all. The Croatian is now 32; this poor form is more than a dip, it is part of a permanent decline.
Barça’s two young midfield prospects, Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig, have largely been pushed aside, with Aleñá being shipped off to Betis on loan and Puig rarely seeing first team action. Instead of 19/20 (or whatever remains of it) being a breakout season for Barça’s younger midfield quartet (average age: 21.7) it has largely been an affirmation of the status quo, with Busquets once again taking center stage.
With that being said, here’s a look at Barça’s five main midfielders and their underlying numbers.
Sergio Busquets has been Barça’s standout midfielder this season. His resurgence under Setien has been especially noteworthy, with the Cantabrian building his team around Sergio. After a lukewarm few seasons with Ernesto Valverde, where he was bypassed in a 4-4-2, Busi has silenced his doubters with a return to form. Questions around Busquets’s fitness were beginning to proliferate, with many fearing ‘a loss of legs’. While those criticisms may be valid, especially in terms of the long run, they have certainly been quelled for the time being.
This season, Busi is averaging a pass accuracy of 91.1% alongside 13.41 deep progressions p90 (deep progressions being the sum total of all passes, carries and dribbles into the final third) while also averaging 3.2 possession adjusted tackles and 2.9 PAdj interceptions per 90 (these numbers are adjusted for possession as players in teams with high ball retention stats often have lower defensive numbers as a by-product). Busquets is Barça’s chief ball-progressor in the middle third, taking over from the two ball playing centre-backs, and is tasked with constructing moves, often in tandem with a deep Messi. He is also an adept defender (as reflected in the defensive numbers) and often leads Barça’s press.
Frenkie de Jong
Barça’s golden boy has had an uneventful start to life, in Catalonia. After impressing heavily in pre-season and in the early part of the campaign, the Frenkie momentum has slowed down. He has looked excellent at times, but has often looked out of place (especially in higher parts of the pitch). This is not all Frenkie’s fault. At Ajax, Frenkie played alongside Schöne in a double pivot, and had an outsized role in starting moves as compared to getting on the end of them. On the other hand, 19/20 has seen Frenkie higher up the pitch, as an advanced interior in a midfield three.
As a result, the Dutchman’s numbers have fallen across the board. Last season, Frenkie was averaging 16.25 deep progressions and 5.9 PAdj. Tackles and interceptions as compared to 12.18 and 4.06 respectively. As a consequence of being employed higher up the field, Frenkie has been unable to do (at least to the same effect) the very things that made him stand out at Ajax.
Nevertheless, a player of De Jong’s calibre is bound to adjust sooner or later, whether that is in a ‘new’ position or not remains to be seen.
Arthur is an enigma. When he plays, he is almost always impressive, yet his fitness remains a concern. Arthur struggles to finish games and is often sidelined due to niggles. Due to that, his growth has been hampered. He started this season very strongly and looked on course to establish himself as one of the leading midfielders in Europe. That momentum has slowed since.
Arthur’s radar very clearly highlights his strengths; he is an adept ball carrier and passer with adept creative numbers. Like Busquets and Frenkie, Arthur’s deep progression numbers are right at the higher end, although he does have lower defensive numbers. If Arthur can become more comfortable in the final third, he could really distinguish himself in a relatively passive midfield. The Brazilian has enormous potential and, apparently, Setién agrees.
If he can bring his fitness up to speed, Arthur will be a force to reckon with.
Alongside Sergi Roberto, Arturo Vidal is Barça’s handyman. Recently, he has been used as a false nine, a left winger and a right winger, filling holes wherever they arise. Therefore, it is unfair to judge Vidal solely as a midfielder as his stats will not be entirely reflective of that. Whenever Vidal has been employed in the middle of the park, he has done very well.
Vidal is far more end-product heavy than the other midfielders and averages 1.29 key passes and 0.23 xA per 90; he has also scored six goals and assisted three. In many ways, Vidal’s profile is unique in the sense that he is (at this stage of his career) less of a progressor and more of a utiliser. Moreover, his ability to link-up and provide cover for Lionel Messi is vital, especially in Luis Suárez’s absence.
Vidal’s future at Barça is uncertain. It is true that he isn’t the player he once was but he is still in possession of an exceptional in-game IQ, and that never fades, even if Barça ‘purists’ don’t approve of Vidal and his on-the ball ability.
Rakitic is not a player that divides opinion. There is almost a unanimous dislike for the Croatian amongst Barça faithful. So, yes, Rakitic is not the player he once was but does he serve a purpose at the club? Well, not really. Rakitic is unable to provide the end-product that once made him indispensable and can no longer cover for wide players (i.e 2014/15 Rakitic). His defensive numbers have also taken a hit, Rakitic only manages 1.6 PAdj tackles and interceptions per 90. While he is still a decent ball progressor, it is tough to see why that matters. Barça already have three adept progressors, their midfield is missing a different kind of profile.
Rakitic is well past his Barça hayday. A summer move looks very likely.
To conclude, Barça have a promising midfield. However, with Vidal aging out, they miss a vertical threat through midfield and could do with a more direct midfielder. It remains to be seen what Bartomeu and Company have in mind.