It feels like deja vu.
Barcelona, under Xavi, is on fire. They can’t lose.
Then Pedri goes down, and all of a sudden, the team forgets how to play the game.
A year ago, Barcelona rescued their season with a monstrous month of February. Pedri was finally healthy, and Ousmane Dembele was the rocket fuel sending the team up the table and into the top four safety zone.
It culminated with a thrashing of Real Madrid that had fans asking whether Barcelona had finally turned a corner with their new manager’s system starting to click.
Then Pedri picked up an injury, and Barcelona were lackluster the rest of the way.
The stats don’t lie. Over his career with the Blaugrana, the team regresses without the young Spaniard, and have struggled to pick up results.
73% - Barcelona have won 73% of their games with Pedri González in LaLiga since his first season at the club in 2020/21 (G70 W51 D11 L8), compared to just 45% without him (G29 W13 D8 L8). Relevance. pic.twitter.com/qd9kD9wnyV— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 27, 2023
Without Pedri, it’s a sink or swim moment for several characters.
None more than Xavi. How good has the manager been at developing a system that is bigger than any one player? Ultimately, that’s what the best coaches do.
Pep Guardiola notoriously, and ruthlessly, rotates his top players out of the lineup for long stretches to put pressure on everyone to keep the standards high and compete internally for playing time. Phil Foden and Joao Cancelo have been the most recent victims.
Erik ten Hag has transformed a group of players who were starving for form and confidence under his predecessor.
One of the worst things that can happen to this Barcelona team is to become Pedri dependent, the same way they were on Lionel Messi for years after the golden era of tiki taka came to an end.
From a players’ perspective, Gavi has a big opportunity to step out of Pedri’s shadow, and prove he can lead the midfield in his absence.
Gavi is a great player, but we’re all still waiting to see if he has what it takes to be a leading man, or if he’s better suited as a supporting character who depends on Pedri’s creativity to play off.
It was encouraging to see Pablo Torre given a chance on Sunday. We don’t know how good Torre can be, but we can see that his playmaking ability makes him a logical substitute for Pedri.
Gavi is a different type of midfielder, who is most effective without the ball at his feet. Players like Pedri, Pablo Torre, and even Riqui Puig before them, are needed for Barca’s midfield system to work.
But Pedri isn’t the only one Barca is missing at the moment.
The team also hasn’t been the same without Ousmane Dembele, who has been the most dangerous forward on the team for the last twelve months.
Losing both of them, not to mention the recent news about Robert Lewandowski, puts Barca at the knife’s edge.
With the forwards in particular, it asks serious questions about Xavi and the club’s judgment of letting players like Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Memphis, and Ez Abde leave so easily.
Do the remaining players have the character and ability to do the gritty work to keep this team afloat?
Real Madrid will smell blood in the water on Thursday.
And when that happens, the presence of players like Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto, and Marcos Alonso won’t inspire confidence that the team can dig deep, fight hard, and suffer for a result.
No, right now, Barcelona is going to lean heavily on their defense more than ever.
Until the cavalry arrives, Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde, and Marc Andre ter Stegen will have to lead the way and be ready to have their best games, free of mistakes, and full of fighting spirit.
But they’ll need the help of the midfield and the forwards to keep the pressure off, and show they can hold onto the ball, and score goals, to keep the opponents honest and away from goal for large stretches of the game.
In the cup and the league, it’s three games against Real Madrid, that will determine whether the team lifts trophies this season.
During that time, Pedri and Dembele will be bonuses if they can return for the last two Clasicos.
But Xavi can’t depend on that.
He’ll need to think hard about how to set up his team in their absence. This is what he gets paid to do, and at a club like Barca, there won’t be room for excuses.
For many players, like Gavi and Raphinha, it’s a chance to prove they can be leaders and difference makers.
Raphinha did it for Leeds United a year ago, and consequently, he may do his best work if the game starts to flow through him more now more directly.
Gavi can show he’s more than just a workhorse. This team needs him to organize the game, and create chances going forward.
Barca needs to stand tall and show they are a team, and not a collection of talented individuals.
This Thursday, at the Santiago Bernabeu, will be the challenge of a lifetime, but one all Barca players should live for.
Much will be revealed with so much at stake.