Football Features

Why Barcelona are about to form Europe’s best midfield for the next decade

By Chris Smith

Published: 13:41, 18 April 2019

From Iniesta to Deco and Xavi to Busquets, Barcelona have always had the best midfielders.

Built in Johan Cruyff’s image, the Blaugrana are the perennial gods of possession, capable of scything through the opposition with lightening fast exchanges or simply giving them a slow death with stifling, dizzying passing patterns.

Manchester United were their latest victims, failing to lay a glove on Barca as the Catalan machine motored on – and steamrolled the Red Devils.

But while Lionel Messi was quite rightly claiming all the headlines against United on Wednesday, Arthur Melo put in yet another quietly confident, dominant display alongside Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in midfield.

The Brazilian made a total of 80 successful passes during the Nou Camp clash, double that of Scott McTominay and 38 more than Paul Pogba in the United midfield. This is no fluke, however. Arthur (75.61) ranks third behind only the royalty of Toni Kroos (80.11) and Rakitic (78.98) when it comes to successful passes per 90 minutes among La Liga midfielders this season, while his 93.31% passing accuracy in Spain’s top flight is unmatched by Barca’s men in the middle.

With his ghost-like movement and ice cool passing, Arthur brings the same sort of composed, ninja-esque control to the midfield that Xavi did back in his prime, a comparison even Messi has eluded to.

“If I have to mention one of [the new signings], I’d say Arthur, who has surprised me because I didn’t know much about him,” Messi said in the summer, shortly after Arthur arrived. “There are differences, but he has a style very like Xavi’s: he always wants the ball, he doesn’t lose it, he plays it short, he’s very reliable, very secure.”

The Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta trident in midfield was the stuff of legend at the Nou Camp. So, if Arthur is the ‘new Xavi’, who will take the reins from Busquets when his giant legs finally give way?

Well, while Barca and Arthur were busy dismantling Man Utd, their so-called ‘sister club’ were making very, very loud noises in Turin. Ajax are everyone’s favourite pastime at the moment, and with good reason. The Amsterdam giants sailed through a Champions League group containing Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK Athens, before unceremoniously dumping out Real Madrid in the round-of-16. You know, that juggernaut that had won four of the previous five editions?

That wasn’t enough, though. Not for this vibrant, young Ajax side. No, they had to go and knock out Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in their own back yard, battling from a goal down to win 2-1 away from home, sealing a 3-2 aggregate win.

And who, you ask, has been central to this incredible return to the footballing elite from a side that has for years been a shadow of itself? Frenkie de Jong.

Midfield maestro, precision passer. Call him what you want, the guy has the makings of a genius. And best of all, he’s already Barcelona-bound this summer.

At just 21 years of age, De Jong already has that freakish drop of the shoulder a la Busquets, luring in an opposition midfielder before turning the other way and disappearing into the floodlights. Moreover, he exerts yet more of that domineering control over the ball which any top class Barca midfielder must, behind only Busquets (761) and Rakitic (737) in successful passes from midfielders in this season’s Champions League, with 618. Except he isn’t doing this for the Spanish champions, he’s doing it for a Dutch club that, prior to this run, last experienced Champions League knockout football in 2006.

However, De Jong isn’t simply passing for the sake of it, or taking the easy option. The Holland international has made 73 passes into the final third during this season’s Champions League, the fifth-highest of any midfielder in the competition. It’s also worth noting that, once again, Rakitic and Busquets rank joint-second with 84. The comparison couldn’t be any more obvious.

The difference with De Jong comes in his ability to ghost through the press as if it wasn’t there, likening pressure to walking his dog around Vondelpark on a Sunday morning. Busquets (5), Arthur (4) and Rakitic (1) have completed a combined 10 dribbles in the Champions League so far this term, while Ajax’s young dynamo has completed 12 on his own.

De Jong could honestly fit into any midfield role with consummate ease, giving Barca a plethora of options next season.

However, while they’ve found their new Xavi and have secured the heir to Busquets’ throne, Barca still need the final piece to their midfield jigsaw. They still have to find the replacement to Iniesta if they are to recreate that all-conquering midfield and once again take full control of European football for years to come.

Of course, Philippe Coutinho was supposed fill that very role. However, the odd thunderbolt into the top corner aside, the former Inter man has been a disappointment since swapping Anfield for the Nou Camp, especially considering his £142m fee.

A return to La Masia?

Despite signing permanently for Real Betis on Tuesday, speculation persists around a potential move to Barca or Real Madrid for Giovani Lo Celso, who has scored 15 goals and provided four assists for the Andalusians this season while on loan from PSG.

However, before they go dipping into any other markets, one can’t help but feel Barca would be doing themselves a disservice if they didn’t trust in their esteemed La Masia academy. From Pep Guardiola to Pedro, as well as Messi, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, no youth system on the planet has produced a higher volume of truly world-class talent on such a consistent basis.

Things have gone a little quiet on the production front in recent years, but one youngster making real noises is 19-year-old, Riqui Puig.

Standing at just 1.69m tall, Puig has the ultimate low centre of gravity, giving him that same ability to shimmy and squirm beyond incoming challenges and absolutely frustrate the life out of the opposition.

His size gives him that Iniesta-like feel and it’s a comparison that has already been made.

“He plays with real personality, always with his head up. We could be looking at the new Iniesta,” said former AC Milan forward, Daniele Massaro, after a pre-season friendly between the two sides.

While Milan manager, Gennaro Gattuso, added: “Riqui is spectacular. Even though they [Barca] have players that look like kids, the way they handle the ball amazes me. It’s the beauty of football. It’s like poetry.

“I heard about him a while ago, and about some of the other kids at the club. It’s the kind of thing you can’t really copy and paste. It’s something that takes years to do. It’s how they feel the game.”

These two know a thing or two about world-class footballers and Puig is showing all the right signs, notching 10 assists in 43 games at youth level and providing his very first assist on his first-team debut during a 4-1 Copa del Rey win over Cultural Leonesa back in December.

Puig is the front-runner but behind him, you have the likes of Carles Alena – who has a keen eye for goal and can dribble himself out of the tightest of presses – and Oriol Busquets (no relation), who has all the makings of a solid, reliable defensive midfielder.

With a combination of smart buys, big money arrivals and academy graduates, Barcelona are on the verge of having the ultimate midfield that could see them dominate Europe once again for the next decade, as well as the depth to allow them an attack on all domestic fronts.