That football lives and dies in midfield has never been more true, even as the game has moved to the flanks in the presence of speedy wingers and overlapping fullbacks. The new(ish) outside-in nature of football was in part a reaction to what Guardiola’s Barcelona teams did to the game. Opponents couldn’t play with them in midfield, so things needed to adapt, on both sides of the ball.
Luis Enrique got away from a midfield-dominant approach to the game because he had three amazing attackers. But once opponents adapted, his attack had no reset button in the center of the pitch. Just when one was developing in Rafinha, that shuttle betweeen the lines that his system needed, the Brazilian was scythed down. The expense of that was felt by both Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde.
In attempting to fix the problem, Andre Gomes was transferred in from Valencia. A tall, rangy, stylish midfielder who played brilliant football at Valencia, Gomes was expected to bring more of the same to Barça. Despite glimpses of his promise, nothing of the sort happened. Gomes instead became a transfer failure that was expensive in tactical flexibility and rotation much more than cost. Lots of adaptation was necessary.
Valverde had the task of returning Barça to a model of play that could get results, as well as maximizing the effect of Messi. To do this he essentially ran a double pivot with Rakitic and Busquets, which allowed the two to switch positions, help each other out and also reduce the times that Busquets was the lone man in the middle, trying to stop multiple leaks. It’s worth noting that both key Barça losses came as opponents were successfully able to isolate Busquets. Against Roma, he still wasn’t 100 percent. Against Levante, their speed and some riduculous turnovers meant Busquets just had too much space to cover. Sergio Busquets is the single most important midfielder for Barça. The better he plays, the better the team plays.
In the clamoring for a return to the midfield-dominant play of the Guardiola era, the best answer for that is, “Forget it.” The game doesn’t allow it, nor does Barça have the personnel for it. Messi’s role is also different. The Valverde solution isn’t an ideal one, which explains the acquisition of Arthur Melo, who will arrive in January. But expect Carles Alena to make a difference almost immediately. And should Oriol Busquets continue his trajectory as the player who sparkled in a Busquets role, Valverde will have more options and possibilities, particularly if the Griezmann rumors have any merit.
But back to this season, and grades for midfielders:
Rakitic: 8: This was his best season in the colors. Selfless and seemingly indefatigable, he was almost always there when needed with key defensive plays or passes, as well as to provide help for Busquets. As with Busquets, when his game lagged, so did the team’s. Valverde gave him the in-match freedom to adapt his role, especially in the absence of Paulinho, when someone was needed to run the channels and provide a presence in or around the box. You sometimes saw the team get caught out, however, if possession turned more quickly than Rakitic could catch up. He was slack at key moments in the defensive shambles that was Levante, but everyone else was, as well. It was often said of him this season that he played as though watching a video replay of the match. That speaks to his ability to read a match. After Messi, Rakitic was the most consistent first-team player.
Iniesta: 6: The cruelty of his season is that when things broke down and Gomes didn’t work out, he had to play more than both he and Valverde planned. The results showed in too many outings and those 34-year-old legs for a player who should have had an emeritus role, as Xavi did in his last with the club. Iniesta left the club at the beginning of June, which was the right decision. He sparkled when he had rest, and against the right opponent. Those caveats didn’t always need to be applied. It was at times sublime to watch him as he seemed to turn back time. Then in matches such as Roma or Levante to name a couple, it was easy to see that it was time in the misplaced passes, dispossessions and inability to affect anything the opponent did when they were on the ball. To be sure, his beauty, and ability to make a difficult game look easy will be missed, even as too often he looked his age as opponents figured out that attacking his space allowed good things to happen amid a slow, slow midfield trio of Iniesta/Busquets/Rakitic.
Busquets: 7: What an astounding player. He incorporates elements of CM and DM to devastating effect, able to break up an opponent attack then turn the ball to offense with a single, slicing pass. He, more than any player any of us has seen in a some time, understands his physical limitations. If the mind is fast, the feet don’t need to be as fast. Busquets is an examplar of this Cruijffian doctrine. For him the game is logical, a series of angles and spaces. Rakitic freed him to be more decisive than at any time in his Barça career. His forward passes gained in frequency and effect. The only thing keeping him from perfect marks is the form dip that he underwent. As with Iniesta, some of that is due to lack of quality rest, but not all. In more than a few matches, Busquets was off of his customary brilliance. The struggles of the team when he isn’t at his best is clear. A solution will have to be found to get him some quality rest in season. When he is just a little off, it’s enough to make him error prone, and we notice because he so rarely makes errors.
Gomes: 3: He never assimilated to the mental and physical pace of the Barça system. Ramzi, who is @footballmood on Twitter, said that Gomes’ ability in a body the size of Iniesta would have yielded a truly great midfielder. Instead he is a midfielder in a CB-sized body, and it showed. But even beyond that, he never demonstrated the aggression or confidence necessary to play for Barça, except in small doses. Unlike Luis Enrique who persisted with him, Valverde gave him chances then said enough of that. His failure was key because it meant that all of the mids had to play more minutes than was ideal. When Gomes came to play, you could see the touch, the vision, the ability. Those times were rare. Usually he was tentative and clunky on the ball, easily dispossessed and incapable of thinking quickly enough to play in the Barça midfield. As noted above, this failure was so, so expensive. Had he worked, he could have gotten rest for Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic. As it was, he was an albatross.
Paulinho: 7: Paulinho things. When thinking about the Brazilian midfielder, one of the club’s most controversial signings in recent memory, the mind turns to that simple phrase: “Paulinho things.” Barça built its Liga lead employing a system that used Paulinho at the base of the midfield, a mobile wall, in effect. Messi played wall passes off him, then ran to reset. Busquets and Iniesta used him for the same purpose. He ran the channels, popping up in the box in a way that even Luis Suarez proved deficient at. And he scored goals because of that. He’s often clunky and painful to watch, and nobdody can say that he has the footballing skill and grace of a typical Barça midfielder. But when he does Paulinho things, he is effective to a degree that makes people who still insist on slagging him clear in their worldview. He is effective. Results over style? Absolutely. His form dip due to fatigue and a fractured toe cost the club, as Valverde had to adapt, but with limited options from which to work. He had moments of defensive lassitude, or would forget his station, and try some rumbling, stumbling thing that vaguely resenbled a run. But all in all, when doing Paulinho Things, stand back.
Denis Suarez: 5: He spent too much of the season playing like a punk. The Suarez Hesitation was easy to see, and damning as he took the ball and dithered, allowing defenders to regain position. He banged more passes off defender shins than anyone, a clear example of that hesitancy in making the correct decision. Valverde was dragged for not giving Suarez more playing time, but he didn’t deserve it. From when he was subbed on against Sevilla in that amazing late draw, he seemed to take off, improving in outing after outing until he was suddenly a decisive bench player, who could be relied upon for excellent attacking midfielder play. He is decisive on the ball in a significant way that makes the defense and defenders have to make choices, and it’s brilliant to watch. If he can play like that all the time, he will be assured of a spot in the team, very useful for Copa, group stage Champions League and softer Liga opponents. He is still deficient on the defensive side of the ball, too often caught chasing play. He has some work to do this summer, but went form “Sell him,” to “Man, will he be useful next season.”
Coutinho: 7: To the manor born, and he only arrived in January. Had his transfer been completed in summer, Barça would have done another treble. His ability to move with the ball, dribble and create space, as well as unleashing a monster shot from distance, are the exact reasons the club bought him. He arrived and slotted in right away, even if he still shows signs of an indiscipline that he will need to improve to work well within the Barça system. You can’t just run. You have to understand where you are running to, where your teammates are and where they will need you to be as they want to play a pass. Coutinho doesn’t have a handle on that yet. But in doing exactly what he was brought in to do, he was excellent. Expect him to be even better next season, with a full summer (absent World Cup duty) with the team and its systems. That there is a debate about his suitability for the Iniesta midfield slot just shows that people don’t pay as much attention as they should. He will be fine there.
Sergi Roberto will be under defenders, as he spent the vast majority of his time at RB rather than in midfield.