Barcelona have long been synonymous with their ability to dominate teams in midfield.
At their apex under Pep Guardiola, Barca’s central triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were borderline untouchable. It was one of the greatest midfields ever assembled. Before that, Johan Cruyff’s revolutionary diamond quartet which often had Guardiola himself at its base was able to overwhelm opponents as a result of its idiosyncrasy and dynamism.
While questions over Barca’s midfield proficiency started to surface towards the end of Lionel Messi’s scintillating tenure in Catalonia, the club has continued to churn out majestic maestros to ensure their engine room stays afloat. After Iniesta departed and Busquets moved on, the club turned to the likes of Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong to fill the void.
Each have blossomed into stars at Barcelona, with Xavi’s retrun as head coach particulary aiding Dutchman De Jong. The former Ajax star has developed into a critical figure of the Spaniard’s project, but an ankle injury means he’s set to spend the next few weeks on the sidelines.
While losing De Jong ahead of next month’s Clasico is far from ideal, Barca’s midfield rejuvenation means Xavi has several options.
Here’s how Barcelona could line up as part of a 4-3-3 in De Jong’s absence…
Romeu has been typically efficient at the start of his Barcelona career / Alex Caparros/GettyImages
The versatile De Jong has shown an ability to operate as both a box-to-box eight and a more metronomic six under Xavi. While many regarded the Dutchman as a potential heir to Busquets’ throne, his profiency in a more advanced role means his talent is somewhat wasted in a deeper position where he has less freedom.
As a result, Barca made a move in the summer which perhaps raised a few eyebrows by bringing back former Southampton midfielder Oriol Romeu. The Spaniard enjoyed an excellent season at Girona last time out, and La Blaugrana were able to sign him for a small fee.
While Romeu may be unspectacular in profile, he’s exactly what Barca need and Xavi hasn’t been hesitant to use him at the start of the season. With De Jong out, options at the base of his midfield are limited and Romeu is expected to receive a huge uptick in minutes until the Dutchman returns.
Pedri is expected to return from injury before De Jong / Alex Caparros/GettyImages
With Romeu providing a stable presence in a holding position, Xavi’s more pressing concerns lie with the eight positions. Currently, he has Ilkay Gundogan, Gavi, and Sergi Roberto available to him, while he might fancy experimenting with Joao Cancelo at some point.
Nevertheless, he has three senior options available for two spots. He needs Pedri back.
The young Spaniard is nothing short of a genius in possession. So crafty with his movement, he’s brilliant at outfoxing opponents and working his magic from the left half-space. Injuries, however, have plagued his career since his stellar Euro 2020 campaign with his country, and he’s once again nursing a thigh injury at the start of 2023/24.
However, he is expected to return to the fold before De Jong and in time for the Clasico. Should Pedri return with a swagger, Xavi will have more scope to rotate amid a busy period for the Catalan club.
Gundogan joined Barcelona on a free transfer in the summer / Alex Caparros/GettyImages
While Romeu will likely start at the base of midfield for the next few weeks, Gavi and Gundogan are also both candidates to drop into a deeper position, especially once Pedri returns to the fold.
While Pep Guardiola was criticised for his usage of Gundogan in a deeper midfield role in the 2021 Champions League final, the German’s remarkable evolution saw him excel in a role not too dissimilar at various points of City’s treble-winning campaign.
Gundogan remains a distinct threat in and around the box, but he was often tasked with taking up a deeper position alongside Rodri for Guardiola last season while Kevin De Bruyne operated closer to Erling Haaland. The German captain is a do-it-all midfielder who’ll back himself to excel in any role..
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