Deconstructing the under-performance of the Barcelona team this season is one of the intriguing teachable moments in recent football history. The answer is widely accepted, yet it remains a topic of study because of the confirmation of the intricacies of football beyond glamour statistics. You know, goals and assists.
When Barcelona fielded a consistent partnership of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, many knew they were witnessing something special. Now that the partnership is no more, there can be full appreciation of just how poetic the poetry in motion was, even Manchester United and Italy supporters.
The volume and quality of passing those two were compiling is almost unrivalled in recent history. Xavi regularly averaged upwards of 90 completed passes per 90 minutes while his Spanish compatriot sent down more than 80. Such was the control exerted on games that it would often be a game of attack versus a defensive barricade and little more, excepting the odd counter attack.
Skate across time to the 2017 reiteration of Barcelona and a few developments have led to an inevitable tactical switch to less midfield involvement in favour of more wide play; not that players such as Dani Alves weren’t a frequent outlet when the opposition had all been draw into the centre of the park. Barcelona’s overwhelming focus on passing teams into submission has lessened over time as the players’ strengths have evolved, the best talent has switched from midfield to an attacking trident, and the manager’s own tactics have increasingly bypassed the midfield.
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Slides illustrate increasing ‘midfield bypass’…more focus on flanks, high volume passes between defenders, links often weak between Busquets and other midfielders, midfielders in half-space very close to high fullbacks, and forward often isolated. It’s also almost without fail better linked with Iniesta.
INIESTA IS OLDER AND THERE’S NO STYLISTIC XAVI REPLACEMENT AT BARCELONA
This is not for lack of trying. Two successors were trialled with neither ultimately acing the audition, for different reasons. Thiago Alcântara suffered injury after injury, in the process triggering a condition in his €90m release clause that saw it drop to €18m. In hindsight, it will be seen as the wrong decision but hopes of Cesc Fàbregas being the Xavi replacement made it not look like a criminal decision at the time. Cesc ultimately proved not to be the man and was often played further forward. His years in Arsenal meant he had diverged somewhat from the player taught at La Masia and his play, although similar, was more direct and less patient. This meant more attempts at through balls and more losses of possession. Blasphemy at Barcelona. That Cesc would feel more at home in this Barcelona. Thiago’s situation may change but Barcelona may also look at Italian Marco Verratti who, on the surface, looks very loyal to PSG. In football, who knows?
Iniesta himself is just not as young. He is still one of the very best, but he’s played a total of 52 times in two seasons and nine this season. His passing hasn’t waned, and he’s still very involved, albeit about 20 passes per match less than in his heyday. He’s started 50 out of Barcelona’s last 98 games, roughly half. Therefore, the time for transition is past due.
Whilst Xavi and Iniesta used to combine for close to 200 passes per match, André Gomes, Arda Turan, Ivan Rakitić and Thiago’s younger brother, Rafinha, complete significantly less, roughly between 40 and 55. Another talent, Denis Suárez, fancies himself to be an Iniesta replacement after good performances this season as cover and he is the closest stylistic match for the World Cup, and multiple time European Champs and Champions league winner. His passing volume is more like his counterparts in this Barcelona team so the style still looks poised to remain more direct. The focus is on getting the ball from defense to Busquets to the wide midfielders who circulate it less amongst themselves and rather, more, between themselves and the fullbacks from the half space (the two spaces between the flank and central midfield on the right or left side). This also serves to help to protect fullbacks that are not as good as those in past years but it also serves as a collection point for the flank positioned players of MSN at the time.
THE RELIANCE ON THE FRONT THREE HAS INCREASED
Going back four seasons, Barcelona have had four players sharing the load of three in their front three. Pedro, Alexis Sánchez and Cesc have all had varying periods partnering the likes of Messi and Neymar. A simple analysis shows that even when using the combined goals of the four, it is less than the goal output of the three. Even more, there is an increasing trend barring this season (and the reason behind the shortfall is Neymar). Omitting the contributions of other players that have played in the front three in the MSN era shows just how much the reliance has been on them in terms of goal scoring (and creating).
THE TWO WIDE CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS ARE NOW OPERATING MORE IN THE HALF-SPACE
This also means that the play is less concentrated on midfield control, but on allowing the three magicians to wield their wands. This reliance has also even seen Messi drop deeper more often to act as another midfield outlet as large spaces build up with the wide central midfielders operating more in the half space, often isolating Busquets.
With the wide central midfielders operating more in the half space, there is more disconnect between Busquets and Iniesta, Gomes or Rakitić. As a result, Busquets has seen less of the ball than usual, with his passes per game declining from mid 80s in 2012/13 to just over 60 this term.
Not Necessarily Bad
Blaming Barcelona’s failure to make more of a dent on Real Madrid in the title race solely on the midfield would be unfair. Below expected returns from one-third of MSN has played its part as has lesser quality on the flanks. It will, however, take time to adjust to the what was always coming without midfielders with the capability of exerting midfield control at the level of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Marco Verratti or Thiago himself.
All great things end. What we are witnessing is a team searching for an identity after a great era. The transfer ban also hurt when it meant signings couldn’t play until January 2016. Iniesta is the only remnant of the midfield style of the recent past. This summer will pose and answer questions as to whether that era might continue, or whether the shift becomes permanent. Barcelona is still possessive, make no mistake, but they’re undoubtedly more direct and it’s because the manager is working with different strengths.