After months of tinkering around with the line-up and personnel, it finally looked like Barcelona manager Xavi was building the perfect jigsaw puzzle at Catalunya with his team selection.
A slight shift in formation that saw the Spanish tactician use four midfielders has worked wonders for the Catalan club with Barcelona emerging as one of the most in-form teams in Europe right now.
A key part of the jigsaw puzzle has been the return to prominence of the Barcelona captain, Sergio Busquets. With more bodies around him in midfield, Busquets has been a player reborn in recent weeks.
His partnership with Frenkie de Jong at the base of midfield is a joy to watch, and with a much younger, energetic presence right next to him, the 34-year-old can do what he does best: control games from the base of midfield
The Spanish international has been an integral part of the team’s midfield for about a decade and a half now, providing stability, control, and creativity in equal measure. There was a significant drop-off in the first half of this season but as he has always shown, one has to write Busquets off at their own peril.
So, when it was announced that he would be missing the next few games due to an injury, fans and experts alike were left wondering how Barcelona would cope in his absence.
Integral, but not irreplaceable
Busquets is a unique player, with a skill set that is difficult to replace. He has an incredible sense of positioning, reading the game, and intercepting passes.
He is a master of the dark arts, too, always knowing how to disrupt the opposition’s play, and breaking up their attacks before they can cause any real damage.
He is also a visionary on the ball, always looking for a pass that can create an opportunity for his teammates. Xavi Hernandez can look all he wants but it is virtually impossible to find another player with Busquets’ skill set in the whole world, let alone within his squad.
Thus, the manager will have to come up with innovative solutions to fill the void left by Busquets. It is easier said than done, but Xavi has shown that he knows how to deal with ordeals during his time at Barcelona. Trust him to have a trick up his sleeve regarding this.
In recent years, Busquets has become even more important to the team, as he has taken on more of a leadership role, guiding and directing his younger teammates on the field.
His presence on the pitch has a calming effect on the team, allowing them to play with more confidence and freedom, knowing that he is there to cover for them if things go wrong.
Barcelona have a very young squad and Xavi’s starting XI usually has a lot of youngsters. With Gerard Pique retiring, it leaves Busquets and Jordi Alba as the two most experienced players in the squad. Yes, there is Robert Lewandowski but let’s not forget that the Pole is relatively young into his Barcelona career.
So, with Busquets set to miss the next few weeks due to injury, it’s clear that Barcelona will be affected in this regard. Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba are no longer natural starters in big games, and this means that Marc-Andre ter Stegen is likely to take the armband.
It’s time for the German goalie to step up as a leader on the pitch. Ter Stegen is leading by example with his exemplary performances this campaign, and it’s now time to lead the team as a captain.
Another player who will definitely take more responsibility for shepherding the younger lot is Lewandowski. The Pole is always seen talking to his teammates on the pitch telling them what to do and what not to do, and this will become even more important in the coming weeks.
A change in formation?
One of the solutions for Xavi Hernandez to do in the absence of Busquets is to revert back to the classic 4-3-3 formation with two natural wingers and play with just three midfielders on the pitch.
It is a patented Barcelona formation that has brought a lot of success to the club, and we have the players to deploy this tactic. This would mean that Frenkie de Jong is the most likely option to occupy the ‘Busquets role’ at the base of midfield.
The Dutch maestro might not be a natural in that position, but he has been tried there enough under Xavi and showed promising signs. It does come at a cost, though as Barcelona will have to compromise on his box-to-box abilities.
The other option who can play there and has done so under Xavi, albeit very little, is Sergi Roberto. The versatile Spaniard can play as the sole six in a 4-3-3, although it might be too risky to go down this road. After all, Roberto comes with his limitations.
An out-of-the-box option for Xavi to explore could be Franck Kessie, although the Spanish tactician has preferred to use him further forward on the pitch barring one Champions League game. Even last game against Sevilla, Xavi dropped Pedri deeper to accommodate Kessie.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…?
The most obvious solution for Barcelona and Xavi Hernandez is to not tinker with a system that is working so well for them. After all, the club have a perfect record in 2023 and most of those games have been played with the new 3-2-2-3/4-3-3 hybrid system.
This would mean a straight swap for Sergio Busquets in midfield in terms of personnel, but as discussed before, it would be a straight swap in terms of abilities. Barcelona do not have a choice, though.
Kessie came on for Busquets in the game against Sevilla, and in all fairness to the former AC Milan midfielder, he played arguably his best game all season. If it was Kessie’s breakout game in a Barcelona shirt, it could not have come at a better time.
Xavi, in that particular game, dropped Pedri into a double pivot alongside de Jong and gave Kessie the freedom to go forward. This worked wonders, and the Spanish tactician is likely to try this as his first option.
The other option would be to start Roberto in a double pivot alongside de Jong if Xavi decides that he wants Pedri to be playing in his natural position. The 31-year-old Spaniard also offers Xavi the flexibility to switch formations in between games.
The tricky one: The Manchester United game
Whilst Barcelona are expected to cope with Busquets’ absence in the other two games fairly well, it is the first leg of the Europa League clash against Manchester United that is set to pose Xavi & co. with a challenge.
When this draw was made a few months ago for the playoff rounds, the two teams were rather skeletal. Barcelona had just crashed out of the Champions League for the second straight season and dealing with an injury crisis.
On the other hand, Manchester United were still finding their feet under Erik ten Hag. It cannot be more different in terms of fortunes for both teams right now. This might be a Europa League clash on paper, but there is no doubt that the quality of football on display will be top-notch.
This is where Barcelona could really feel the absence of Sergio Busquets. The Spaniard could control the game and bring some calmness to it, considering how high-octane it can get but Xavi will not have the privilege of calling upon our captain for this clash.
Ideally, what Xavi must do is play a similar line-up against Villarreal on Sunday to what he is planning for the Man United clash. It will give the players a fair chance to get accustomed to the system and also give Xavi a chance to tweak it accordingly.
Busquets is expected to be back in three games, but he has left a gaping hole in the Barça midfield across one of the most difficult fixtures of the season. Xavi will be banking on the rest of the team to step up in his absence.