The perfect midfield is as synchronous as an orchestra, with each player acting as both a conductor and instrumentalist, dictating the tempo and creating a beautiful sound. They ebb and flow like the tides; as water moves in and out, players operate in accordance with each other’s movements.
The key to this ideal midfield, may it be a three-player triangle or double pivot, is a mixture of individual brilliance, tactical attributes, and how well they fit together. As they say, it is all about having the right players in the right positions.
Barcelona have long been defined by their world-class midfielders and creators. Whether it be Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, or even Lionel Messi, the Barça way is often the midfielder’s way.
Together from 2008 to 2015, Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets embodied the pinnacle of what it means to be a midfield trio, reaching heights and dominating the sport like we’ve never seen before. Besides their unmatched individual quality and brilliance, what made them so special was how well they fit together tactically and complemented each other’s play styles.
Granted, the blueprint or formula they perfected has since been emulated by other teams like Real Madrid’s own iconic trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric, but no one has reached their heights both at a club level and internationally.
Barcelona themselves have tried to replicate the perfect mixture of attributes and styles that their home-grown trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets had. While they can’t be compared in terms of sheer quality or ability, a Blaugrana midfield trio has since emerged this season with similarities to it in terms of style and tactical fit.
This is the story of the greatest midfield of all time, and how the emergent trio of Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, and Pedri of Barça 2021 compare to them tactically.
Three Kings, One Shared Throne
For years, the footballing world was graced by the iconic and legendary midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. Together, they dominated club football, winning three Champions Leagues, four La Ligas, three Copa del Reys, four Spanish Supercups, two Club World Cups, and two UEFA Supercups. Internationally, they were the engine that propelled Spain to the 2010 World Cup and 2012 European Championship.
The trio were at the heart of iconic teams, whether the dominant Barcelona sides or Spain of 2008-2012, and stood out despite being surrounded by defenders like Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, or forwards like Lionel Messi, David Villa, and Samuel Eto’o.
Excelling in Pep Guardiola’s philosophy of “Tiki-Taka” and positional play, the trio dominated some of the greatest players and teams in the world, from Manchester United to Real Madrid. Their metronomic passing, tactical intelligence, synchronous movement, and unbridled ball control have remained yet unmatched.
A Fit like Pieces in a Puzzle
Tactically, Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets’ roles fit each other perfectly, encapsulating the ideal mix of traits and attributes in a midfield trio. They were each the quintessential versions of particular midfield roles that, when put together, fit like pieces in a puzzle.
Like any player on the pitch, midfielders occupy a variety of positions and can typically fit into certain archetypes or predetermined roles. Much like a “number 9” is considered a prototypical centre forward, a number 6, 8, 10, for example, are all synonymous with the midfield positions. Each role has its own significance and responsibilities. Still, when put together in a trio or duo, they can mesh into a powerful midfield perfect for a possession-based, expansive, and attacking brand of football.
Busquets was (and still is) the archetypal number 6 – the holding/defensive midfielder situated in the bottom of the midfield triangle whose job is to link the defence and offense and who acts as the first line of defence with particularly high anticipation and keen interception. When in attack, he would often slot in between the two centrebacks.
Xavi was generally a deep-lying playmaker, the player in the midfield who would sit deeper, recycle possession, dictate tempo, and make either short quick passes or sweeping long balls to switch the play. But, in his prime, he also took on the role of a box-to-box-midfielder, making runs into the box and “breaking the lines”. In terms of conventional roles, he sat too deep to be considered a number 8 or number 10, but he also was not the single-pivot or “number 6”.
Iniesta was an archetypal 8/10 hybrid, a more advanced playmaker who was given license to dribble the ball forward, operate near and around the box, and make decisive key passes or through balls. He had an aura of unpredictability yet composure.
With Busquets sitting deep and building up from the back, Xavi controlling play, and Iniesta darting forward into the final third, they had everything you need in a midfield trio, complementing each other perfectly. Despite not being the tallest or the strongest, they were unstoppable. Unfortunately, Barcelona have not had that quality in midfield for a while.
Midfielders, In and Out
When Xavi left at the end of the 2014/2015 season, his replacement, Ivan Rakitic, had already spent a season at the club and proved to be a worthy successor. He brought energy, a high work rate, and a box-to-box quality needed in Luis Enrique’s higher tempo side. Alongside Busquets and Iniesta, they formed an admirable trio, as his traits complemented theirs.
Nonetheless, as Iniesta got older, Barça failed to line up his replacement. Under Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien from 2017 to 2020, the team lacked flair and creativity from the middle of the park. Their only central midfielders were Busquets, Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, the misused Frenkie De Jong, and Arthur. All were either deep-lying playmakers unable to make penetrative passes into the box or were defense-oriented. Philippe Coutinho could have been a solution, but that experiment did not work.
Consequently, Messi was asked to do more creative work and dropped deeper more than he probably would have liked.
Koeman’s Thankless Job
Ronald Koeman was brought in to reinvigorate a lacklustre Barça squad, one whose defensive issues were widely-known but whose lack of an impactful midfield was understated. Sergio Busquets looked to be at the end of his career, the emerging Riqui Puig was not counted upon and inconsistent, and Pedri was seen as an emerging prospect. On a positive note, there was an air of optimism around Frenkie De Jong as Koeman coached him previously with the Dutch national team.
Koeman immediately implemented his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, one that was succinctly different from Barça’s long-used 4-3-3. Now, there were two holding midfielders, called pivots, and a number “10”, or a centre attacking midfielder, who is behind the striker. It was a new approach that meant to bring defensive stability and allow De Jong to thrive.
As the season progressed, De Jong was playing well, but it wasn’t quite the astronomical growth people were expecting. Busquets was looking out of place, and the young Pedri was emerging but was not tied down to one role. Furthermore, the squad struggled to thrive with a surplus of number 10s that crowded certain areas of the pitch. Long gone seemed the days of having midfielders that complemented each other…
After poor results, Koeman switched to a 4-3-3 formation at the beginning of 2021, utilizing Busquets in his preferred role as a lone number 6 or holding defensive mid, with Pedri and De Jong in front of him as “interiors.” It was working well, and he switched to a 3-5-2 not long after, which added more defensive stability but still maintained the midfield trio, just with wingbacks to either side of them.
With the change in formation and tactical manoeuvring from Koeman, the trio of Busquets, Pedri, and De Jong emerged and has since taken over Spanish football. Each player has thrived in their role, and their attributes complement each other perfectly.
Sergio Busquets: A Renaissance
Through thick and thin, Busquets has remained a key yet often understated and under-appreciated player for the Blaugrana. Since breaking into the first team in 2008/09, he has made over 600 appearances and won 34 trophies with club and country.
His consistency over the years is astounding, having played in a trio with Xavi, Iniesta, Rakitic and Iniesta, and alongside others like Vidal, Arthur, and now, De Jong and Pedri.
At 32-years old, the veteran has been turning heads over the last few months. As mentioned, he started the season off poorly but since the turn of the New Year with Koeman using him as a single pivot again, he has emerged valiantly and reminded culés why he is one of the best midfielders of all time.
Despite not being the flashiest, he remains a key cog in the Barcelona machine, masterfully recycling possession, absorbing pressure, and making an impact in the final third with through balls, key passes, and long balls. Few are better at distributing the ball than Busquets. Now, with more defensive stability behind him, he can also play higher up the pitch and worry less about the defensive side of things.
Consequently, his impact in the final third is felt more than ever, as he averages 1.12 key passes a game (passes that lead directly to a shot), an outlier compared to his previous values of 0.72 last season and 0.63 the year before. The World Cup winner is also completing more passes in the opposition’s half compared to the last two seasons, 42.8 in 20/21 versus 40.9 and 33.5.
Compared to other midfielders in Europe’s Big 5 Leagues, the Spaniard remains a statistical anomaly. He is in the 99th percentile for passes completed with 87.10 per game; he has a 91.8% pass completion rate (97th percentile); his progressive passing distance is in the 97th percentile (401.90 yards per game); and his 9.68 passes per game into the final third put him in the 99th percentile.
De Jong: Fulfilling his Promise
In the middle of his second season with the Blaugrana, De Jong has started to fulfill on his promise and potential. He was misused for most of his time with Barcelona, but as an interior in a midfield trio, he has absolute thrived. Although, he has thrived in almost any position he has played this season, whether as a holding midfielder, centre back, or libero.
His heat map from this (La Liga) season shows how his impact is felt throughout the pitch. He can sit deep and pick up the ball or make an impact in and around the box; the Dutchman seems as if he has a spare set of lungs and is the perfect box-to-box midfielder.
De Jong is truly an all-around player, offering a little bit of everything to Barça. He is strong on the ball, controls possession, his tactical intelligence is world-class, but perhaps best of all is his ability to carry and progress the ball forward. He averages 9.57 progressive carries per game (97th percentile compared to midfielders in Europe’s big 5 leagues) and has a progressive carrying distance of 231.59 yards per game (99th percentile).
In recent months, he has played higher up the pitch and given the freedom to make late runs into the box. As such, he has scored an impressive seven goals this season. For comparison, he has scored five in his last two seasons as a professional. Furthermore, he has seven assists, averages 1.07 key passes per game, and 6.93 passes into the final third.
Pedri: A Young Gem
Since arriving in late 2020, Pedri has taken the world by storm. At only 18-years old, he has become a crucial player in the squad, playing in 47 matches and starting 36 this season. He has proven himself capable of playing in a double pivot, as a wide-playmaker, or a number 10, but he has found a home as an interior in a midfield trio alongside Busquets and De Jong.
His performances may have dipped over the last few games, but he has been fairly consistent all season long. Pedri operates higher up the pitch as a more advanced playmaker, making decisive passes that lead to goalscoring opportunities. Alternatively, he can drop deep to pick up the ball and is extremely impressive on the defensive end with his pressing and dispossessing of opponents, averaging 24.69 pressures per game (96th percentile) and 2.30 passes blocked (99th percentile).
When the ball is at his feet, it is almost impossible to take it off him, and he has immense vision for such a young player. He averages 3.02 shot-creating actions per game, 1.41 key passes, and 1.65 passes into the penalty area. His progressive passes and passes into the final third are relatively lower than Busquets and De Jong’s, indicating that he operates higher up the pitch.
As evidenced by his heatmap, Pedri is typically placed in the left-hand side of the midfield trio.
Tactical Comparison of the Midfield Trios
It would be unfair to all parties to compare Pedri, De Jong, and the current version of Busquets to Xavi, Iniesta, and a much younger Busquets in terms of quality, but there are striking similarities tactically and in terms of attributes.
Both trios represent a group of players that complement each other’s styles and abilities. What makes them click is that each of their roles are varied and offer something else to the team, giving much-needed balance to the midfield.
In many ways, Busquets is still the same player he once was, but he is noticeably slower and less athletic than before. Although, athleticism was never his strong suit. He remains an integral part of the team and is still responsible for so much in terms of build-up, goal creation, maintaining possession, and providing defensive cover. Whether playing in a more direct style under Luis Enrique or a patient approach with Guardiola, Busquets is a player unlike any other and still provides the same services– albeit, he needs more help on the defensive end now.
Pedri, dubbed by some as the Canarian-Iniesta, operates in a similar role to Iniesta in his midfield trio. As an 8/10 hybrid, Pedri is responsible for threading balls into the penalty area, creating chances, and maintaining possession. Much like Iniesta, Pedri dribbles into spaces in between the opposition midfield and defence and is the outlet for the key final pass. Also, despite playing as an advanced playmaker, Pedri still drops deep to get possession, similarly to Iniesta before him.
De Jong fills a variety of roles and is not as reserved as Xavi was at the tail end of his career in terms of controlling possession. Nevertheless, there are similarities in terms of their roles in buildup play, specifically when keeping the ball under pressure. Furthermore, in his prime, Xavi fulfilled a similar role to De Jong as a hybrid deep-lying playmaker and box-to-box midfielder, dropping back to help initiate buildup and make an impact in the final third.
Together, Pedri, De Jong, and Busquets have emerged as an unlikely trio, yet one that is potent, reliable, and consistent.
The ebb and flow of Pedri and De Jong as interiors is still far from the connection of Iniesta and Xavi. Still, the two are developing a better understanding with each passing match, knowing when to stay back while the other runs into the box, and vice-versa. The tactical similarities between them and the midfield of Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets are eye-opening and reveal the foundations of what makes a well-balanced midfielder trio.
Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets left their mark on the game as the greatest midfield trio of all time. The roles they filled, the attributes they had, and the perfect fit with one another will forever be envied and attempted to replicate.
Fortunately for culés, a consistent midfield has emerged with quality players that compliment each other– a true sight for sore eyes. It is made up of three players at distinct junctures of their careers: one near the end, one rising to the middle, and one just starting off. Hopefully, their impact can remain timeless.
Busquets can likely keep this form up for another season, but he still needs a replacement and finding that player should be a priority for the Blaugrana. De Jong and Pedri, on the other hand, look set to own their positions for the next decade. With only four games left in La Liga, the trio will be key to lifting the trophy that once seemed unattainable.
As Pedri and De Jong’s careers progress and Busquets’ eventual replacement comes in, they will have the perfect blueprint to try and follow as they try to write their own story for the history books.