This is part 2 of the Barca “report card” series, an evaluation of the performance of the Barcelona players and staff.
The plan is to first grade the players individually. From there an overall grade will be given to the team at that position, in this case the midfield. Finally, an overall score will be assigned to the club as a whole with consideration given to the performance of the coaching staff and administration as well.
The motivation here is not to condemn players for a bad season, or to praise others for individual accomplishments. Rather, the final judgement will be one where everyone shares responsibility since at the end of the season the team trophies are the only ones that matter.
Instead of using an arbitrary system of assigning letter grades, performance will be evaluated using the following criteria.
Exceeds Expectations: At Barca exceeding expectations is the only way to get a passing grade and this category shows you are in good standing.
Room for Improvement: Everyone at the club is here because they have at the very least shown great potential. If you fall in this category it’s because you aren’t quite realizing it, and yet you are still finding ways to contribute. Going forward though, more is expected.
Not Good Enough: This category implies that the performance was below the high standards of the club. It does not mean that there is no hope. Given the financial instability at the club, even players who fall here will need to be given chances to redeem themselves.
Let’s take a look at the midfield.
What position didn’t he play? Like Paulinho and Javier Mascherano before him, Vidal has become a Swiss Army knife. Every team needs a utility player, someone who will do whatever is needed, whenever and wherever you need it. Nothing was guaranteed for Vidal, especially under Ernesto Valverde. He was rightfully frustrated until his number was finally called and he proved that his contributions were indispensable.
Vidal’s challenge was overcoming the assumption that he was just an aggressive bulldog you play at the end of games to shut things down. Towards the end of the season Setien had him playing as a forward when Griezmann’s form dropped, and even as a defender when there was no other choice. In all the roles he excelled and restored his reputation as a world class player.
My biggest critique of the Barca midfield is one that I’ve had for years. It’s what happens when the team becomes complacent in their ability to maintain possession that they forget to take shots up the field. Riqui was the one who stepped in and showed the way forward. Other midfielders, and Arthur was scapegoated for it, were so afraid of losing the ball that the only direction they could go was back.
From the beginning Riqui did two important things that Pep Guardiola preaches. First, he put intense pressure on opponents when they tried to play the ball from the back. Second, when the ball was won, or even if his side was possessing, he would check whether a penetrating ball was possible. More times than not it was possible, and against Alaves he showed that this type of decision making pays dividends.
Room for Improvement:
Frenkie de Jong
Maybe this is a bit harsh, but expectations are through the roof with Frenkie. Therefore it’s only fair that we state he must keep improving until he becomes the Barca icon we all anticipate him being. Ultimately there is some romance around the idea that the Dutchman could bring the Cruyff DNA back to the team. In his first season we saw a highly confident young player whose maturity earned him a regular spot in this starting lineup. We learned that his skill and size made him equally capable of playing as an attacking or holding midfielder.
His natural inclination to present himself as an option at all times in the middle of the field was the closest thing to Xavi we’ve seen. It would be interesting to see how he’d develop under his guidance as a coach. I’d love to see Frenkie take risks by playing the ball forward the way Riqui does. They could be a killer tandem together.
Sergio has become a lightening rod for debate among cules. He is the last remnant of a time when Barcelona revolutionized the way the midfield is played. Without Xavi and Iniesta he has taken on the responsibility of continuing the legacy. But the lack of tactical intention from the coaching staff in the past three years has only hurt him.
Quique Setien is supposedly the perfect coach for him and no one has more to gain than Busquets if he keeps the job. If that were to happen then Setien needs to do what he said he was going to do when he was announced as the manager and described as a disciple of Johan Cruyff. If with Frankie and Riqui the team is able to dominate games with possession then Busquets will once again become the best holding midfielder in the world. If Setien, or another coach, decide to not adopt this tactic Busquets will become less relevant to the future of the club quickly.
Like Vidal he was another player who had to earn his minutes this year. It was a rough start to the season when every news headline relating to him was about how the club was desperate to sell him. This was especially bad when you consider the significant role he’s played in the team’s success since his arrival in 2014.
Although he was kept out of the lineup in the beginning, he accepted a new role as the backup pivot when Busquets wasn’t playing, and was more than competent. He also was a steady presence in his normal attacking midfield position. In the end we were all glad to have him around throughout the grind of the season.
Not Good Enough:
Do we agree that Arthur was not given a fair shot? There were times when I could have sworn he was the perfect player for the Barca system. But then games would pass and he would be spending most the time on the bench. Makes you wonder if there were problems on the training ground.
Still given all the hype, and the fact that most people agree that Barca were losers in the swap for Miralem Pjanic, Arthur’s time at the club was not good enough. There were things he could have done better, but I also think he suffered by not having a better coach to help him develop. All we can do now is wish him the best at Juventus and hope the club learns from the experience.
Cumulative Grade for the Midfield: Room for Improvement
The midfield has a lot of potential, and the club has invested major resources to make it the best in the world again. If there are no big signings this offseason then the best approach forward is to reconceptualize the tactics so we can better utilize the talent that’s already there. Busquets, Frenkie, and Riqui are in the driver seat, but they will have plenty of competition from Vidal, Rakitic, Pjanic, and Sergi Roberto. The midfield of tomorrow doesn’t have to be the same as the one from the tiki taka generation, but they should figure out a way of combining the best of the old with the unique talents that are right in front of us. I don’t think a high bar was set this season so it will be interesting to see what they experiment with as the new year begins.