With the season on the brink, Xavi needed a quick path to get through the storm of a challenging list of fixtures.
Gavi went down with a season-ending injury, and both the Champions League and La Liga campaigns were called into question after a big dip in form.
Luckily, Xavi had Frenkie de Jong and Pedri coming back from injury. These two are stalwarts of the midfield, and would always be first choice under normal circumstances.
Ilkay Gundogan has already been more than Barcelona could have hoped for. His importance to the team has less to do with the stat sheet, and more to do with the leadership he has provided. The captain for the German national team has become the de facto captain of Barcelona as well.
But tactically, he has also shown how versatile he is. And he has been called upon to take on a variety of roles from game to game, as the turbulent season has played out.
With Gavi out, Xavi once again was tasked with finding a way to make the most out of the midfielders coming and going.
Like Gundogan, Frenkie de Jong is also a utility player, who can play deep or high, or from box to box.
But just because you can use these players in a variety of ways, doesn’t mean it will work just because you ask them to try something new.
Frankly, to start the season, Frenkie, Pedri, and Gundogan were always the top three midfielders at the top of the depth chart. Gavi was right there, but looking like the odd man out, unless the decision was made to use four midfielders at the same time.
The biggest question was who would play as the defensive midfielder in the wake of Sergio Busquets’ departure from the club.
Oriol Romeu was the safe choice, but as the season went on, we saw that he was also the wrong choice.
At Barcelona, quality in the midfield is the most important element of the system.
The midfield that Xavi has rolled out the last two games provides that. And that’s why it has a good chance of working on a permanent basis if they are given a consistent run of games together.
Against Atletico Madrid, they covered a lot of ground.
As you can see from this graphic, Frenkie played the deepest, which is where he is comfortable, but Gundogan was right there with him, naturally knowing when to provide cover to allow the Dutchman to push up.
Pedri was your classic attacking midfielder, and for the first time since coming back from injury, you could see him cooking and making an impact in the small pockets of space of the attacking third.
Early on, Barcelona was in control of the game. Atleti really only came alive offensively after going down a goal, and making a few changes in the second half.
Joao Felix had a great game, and Inaki Pena made big saves to secure the victory. But credit also should go to the unsung heroes of the week.
| Frenkie de Jong, İlkay Gündoğan and Pedri had a combined total of 290 touches and completed 231/254 passes (91%) vs Atlético Madrid.— Barça Buzz (@Barca_Buzz) December 4, 2023
de Jong: 104 Touches, 84/89 Passes.
Gündoğan: 113 Touches, 89/100 Passes.
Pedri: 73 Touches, 58/65 Passes.
Barcelona are on stable footing for now.
They have a starting eleven that not only works, but may be good enough to make a run in both the European and Spanish competitions.
Xavi would do well to continue keeping things simple.
The defense looks much stronger with an extra center back playing out on the right side. And the midfield will continue to shine with the experience and quality of the trio we’ve seen the past week.
The biggest benefit of all may be giving Frenkie the chance to formally seize the role of Barca’s future pivot. Like Busquets before him, he will reinvent the position, and the Barca team that surrounds him.
At 33, Gundogan may not have a long-term future at the club, but in the meantime, he is exactly what the club needed.
Calm on and off the field. Knows the game inside and out, and makes his team better no matter the circumstances.
This season was always going to be one of transition for Barca.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t win.
To the contrary, they may surprise a lot of people.
If, and it’s a big if, their midfield stars can stay healthy, and grow into the campaign together.