In case you hadn’t heard, Barcelona are back.
At least that’s according to Gerard Piqué, who tweeted as much after Xavi’s side thrashed Real Madrid 0-4 at the Santiago Bernabeu in a monumental Clásico. The result doesn’t massively impact the destination of La Liga, but in terms of a statement of intent it was about as big as you can get from the Blaugrana, especially considering four goals was a low total for how many chances they had (18 shots, 10 on target).
29' – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ⚽️
38' – Ronald Araujo ⚽️
47' – Ferran Torres ⚽️
53' – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ⚽️
Real Madrid 0-4 Barcelona
Being dismantled at the Santiago Bernabéu
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) March 20, 2022
And as much as forwards Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stole headlines with their goals, and even with Ronald Araujo scoring and pocketing Vinicius Jr., the core of the Barcelona win came from midfield.
Barcelona’s midfield has always been their most important unit, even when they had the mighty M-S-N. That attacking trio only worked because the midfield behind it did. When the demands of the system became too much and Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets began to struggle physically, Barcelona won only the Copa del Rey in 2016/17.
Then for years under Ernesto Valverde, the midfield was pragmatic. Iniesta and Busquets played better as the team focused more on control but this came at the expense of goal threat and ultimately the outcome was the same: defeat.
Part of the problem was chemistry. Iniesta was ageing, then gone. Busquets was asked to cover too much ground and, following Iniesta’s departure, Ivan Rakitic, previously an energy man, was asked to be more of a playmaker and couldn’t handle it. No midfield, no joy.
Barcelona 2021/22 odds from William Hill
- Spanish La Liga outright winner 2021/22: Real Madrid 1/25 | Barcelona 12/1 | Sevilla 33/1 | Atletico Madrid 50/1
- Europa League 2021/22 outright winner: Barcelona 6/4 | Leipzig 3/1 | Atalanta 6/1 | West Ham 6/1
All odds correct at time of publication. You must be 18+ to gamble. For more information, visit begambleaware.org
But soon change came. Frenkie de Jong arrived from Ajax; a year later, Pedri from Las Palmas. There were hopes they could thrive together eventually, but Pedri settled in straight away. Still the Busquets problem persisted, as he could not cover the massive spaces being left by a 4-3-3 and the Blaugrana would get gouged on the break by basically everyone.
A switch to 3-5-2 allowed for half a season of great form in 2021, and the Blaugrana captured their first trophy since the 2019 Liga with a Copa del Rey win. But Ronald Koeman abandoned that idea and after being run into the ground by club and country, Pedri began the season injured. Things looked bad.
Then Xavi came in as manager, and instantly things changed. The lines drew closer together, the spacing in the team got more compact and the midfield suddenly began to dominate games (and in a 4-3-3, too!). Suddenly Sergio Busquets didn’t look so past it, and even though Frenkie de Jong took a while to find his rhythm under Xavi, Gavi filled in while he did.
Since their Copa del Rey elimination to Athletic Club at the end of January, Barcelona have played 12 games, winning nine of them (and two of those draws were the first of two legs). They have scored four goals on six separate occasions and have climbed up La Liga to the point where, if they win their game in hand, they will go second in the table, albeit still nine points behind Real Madrid.
This all culminated in the Clásico win, of course. That match, much like the whole run of games, was powered by midfield dominance. Busquets, De Jong and Pedri took on the much-vaunted trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro and tore them apart.
What makes this Barcelona midfield so potent is the blend of skill sets. Where the Iniesta-Rakitic-Busquets midfield was three players covering each other’s flaws in a system designed for the forwards and not them, Busquets-Frenkie-Pedri is three men maximising each other’s strengths in a system that puts them first.
Sergio Busquets: Mr. Everything
Busquets was considered a spent force before Xavi showed up, a player living on his past reputation. But the 3-5-2 shape and now Xavi’s coaching have revitalised him to the fullest extent.
Since the start of last season, no one in La Liga has had more touches than Busquets (5,381) and what’s more, no one has attempted or completed more passes than him (4,240/4,729 for an 89.66% completion) as he has consistently recycled possession.
Moreover, Busquets’ 132 tackles places him sixth and his 86 interceptions has him seventh among players in La Liga. For someone considered an aesthete, a playmaker, Busquets is actually a defensive workhorse. He is Barcelona’s Mr. Everything, winning the ball back and moving it forward at a remarkable speed to keep the Blaugrana on the front foot.
Frenkie de Jong: Vertical Thrust
When De Jong first joined Barcelona, many assumed he would replace Busquets in the team. However, De Jong only played double pivot for Ajax and the Netherlands, not single pivot like at Barcelona, and whenever he has played at the base by himself, he’s struggled.
Where De Jong has looked at home, where he has thrived, has been playing central midfield as a box-to-box midfielder. A player who has the freedom and responsibility to move up the field, whether that’s with the ball or without it, to cause havoc.
Look at the sitter he missed against Galatasaray in midweek, a run that scythed the Gala defence in two (he missed the shot, but he was in position). Or look at the nature of Barcelona’s third goal against Real Madrid, where De Jong pressed to win the ball back and then lofting a gorgeously precise pass over the Madrid defence, putting Aubameyang clean through and presenting him and Torres with a 2-v-1 situation that they duly exploited to put Los Blancos in the mud.
Frenkie’s forward runs, direct passing and physical style give Barcelona a dynamism that they would ordinarily need a specialist for (Koeman wanted to sign Gini Wijnaldum, remember). But with De Jong, Barcelona have a rugged midfielder who is not only safe and secure with the ball (95% pass completion in the 0-4 Clásico win) but capable of cutting creative passes as well.
Pedri: Pure Barcelonismo
The final midfielder is the most La Masia kid to have never come from La Masia. Pedri was signed for a dirt-cheap fee and has been performing miracles ever since. He gave Koeman’s midfields a sense of control and serenity the coach couldn’t transmit himself, which is why he played Pedri damn-near every second he could.
Under Xavi it’s not quite so urgent, but when Pedri is on the field then Barcelona are invariably good. He is confident and composed in possession, nearly always in the right place and nearly always makes the right decision.
Watching him makes you think of the days of Xavi and Iniesta, the way he glides around the pitch so effortlessly, finding the ball between the lines and then doing what he has to do; whether that’s pass the ball back to retain possession (or set up the direct pass over his head into the space he just vacated) or turn and thread a through-ball between opponents, or just run into the box dropping defenders like Bambi on ice without ever even touching the ball like he did when he scored against Galatasaray.
“It’s how he understands the game,” said Xavi of his young charge, adding: “How he goes between the lines and goes behind the midfield pivots.”
Xavi then made a bold statement about his youngster’s quality: “If we’re talking about pure talent, Pedri is the best in the world.” But, honestly, when you watch Pedri play you can sort of see where he’s coming from. There is pure football flowing through Pedri’s veins. His is a game of precision, poise and peace. A joy to watch and the perfect link between Busquets’ systemic structure and De Jong’s dynamic anarchy.
Gavi, Riqui Puig & Nico: Classy Chaos and Control
What makes Barcelona’s midfield so potent is that it’s not just the starting trio that is world-class, but the fact that they actually have strength in depth. Should one of the starters have to drop out, Xavi has options.
There’s Riqui Puig, the accelerant beloved by social media who definitely takes the pace of the game up a notch when he comes on, albeit a player who is not quite as safe with the ball as the others which is why he plays the least.
Nico Gonzalez is the son of Super Depor icon Fran, but he plays with a pure Premier League energy. Nico is a big body mid who likes to put himself about, and this makes him useful when Barcelona want to beef things up.
Gavi is another miracle in the making. Here is a midfielder who loves to drive at defenders with the ball, play neat little passes around the corner and most of all: he loves to tackle.
So far this season no Barcelona player has committed more fouls than Gavi’s 42 (Nico is third with 36). This boy absolutely loves to put the boot in; he has a warrior’s mentality and it’s already gotten him into yellow card trouble this season. But he’s no hatchet man. He is a player full of quality and confidence and watching him grow into a starting spot in this supreme midfield is going to be a real treat.
The top five midfield trios in the world right now
Obviously ranking every single midfield is tricky because some teams play 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-2-1 which has just two central midfielders compared to the trios three. So with apologies to N’Golo Kanté, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka, who are all just brilliant, here are the top five midfield trios in the world right now. Do Barcelona place in it?
5. Marcelo Brozovic, Nico Barella & Hakan Calhanoglu
The hipster’s choice, but a valid choice all the same. Inter’s midfield has it all: defensive strength, tempo control, goals and chance creation. Perhaps it’s a bit of a cheat as they’re backed up by three centre-backs, but they dominate all the same.
4. Casemiro, Toni Kroos & Luka Modric
The old-stagers nowadays can still turn it on for certain games but keeping them all fit at the same time is a serious problem that has to knock them down the rankings. They can still ooze quality but there are more weaknesses than before.
3. Fabinho, Thiago & Jordan Henderson
Thiago has turned Liverpool’s midfield from a pure workhorse unit to one that, yes, is still a workhorse unit but also one that can hurt opponents with the pass. Plus Jordan Henderson’s leadership is a genuine intangible factor that makes this midfield so deadly.
2. Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong & Pedri
It’s going to be superb watching the Barcelona midfield evolve over time. The youth of Frenkie and Pedri means there is so much more room for them to grow and throw in 17-year-old Gavi and the sky’s the limit.
1. Rodrigo, Kevin De Bruyne & Bernardo Silva
The top don of midfield trios has to be Manchester City’s men, however. They’ve delivered countless titles over the last few games and under Pep Guardiola’s leadership control games to a frankly superhuman degree.
Kevin De Bruyne for Manchester City this season:
👕 31 appearances
⚽️ 11 goals
🅰️ 8 assists
— William Hill (@WilliamHill) March 23, 2022
The way in which these three (well, four really, as Ilkay Gundogan is a regular rotation option) run the show and make Manchester City a competitive, world-class team says it all. Although an interesting wrinkle is Joao Cancelo, nominally a full-back, very often playing “in midfield” for City to allow Guardiola’s men to overload opponents in the middle.
However this is not a unique quirk on this list. Dani Alves (or whoever is rotating in for his 38-year-old) performs this role for Barcelona, Trent Alexander-Arnold is basically a midfielder at full-back for Liverpool, and the Inter trio have one of the wide centre-backs pushing forward to join them. Even Real Madrid had Marcelo do this for them when they were at their peak.
Using full-backs in a narrow manner to help control midfield is one of Guardiola’s biggest contributions to midfield play, an area where he is still the master as you can see by the dominance Rodrigo, De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva display weekly.
The best midfield trio in the world, for now.