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Three midfield solutions Xavi can implement for Barcelona against Mallorca and Napoli

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Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

For the second season in a row, Barcelona have been struck with injuries at the wrong time as Gavi, Pedri, and Frenkie de Jong, all three are unavailable ahead of their clash against Napoli in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16.

Gavi tore his ACL playing for Spain and has been ruled out for the rest of the season. De Jong and Pedri, meanwhile, picked up injuries against Athletic Club in the league, and have been ruled out for a month each, at the very least.

Barcelona were missing several key players last season in the Champions League, as well, and eventually were relegated to the Europa League after being drawn up against Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in the group.

Before Xavi can even start assessing his options for the Napoli game, though, he will have to see off Mallorca in the league today. There are three ways he can shuffle his midfield for both games.

1. The obvious: Fermin in

Barcelona were left without Pedri and Frenkie de Jong earlier on in the season as well, but at least had the services of Gavi at their disposal.

The youngster was inarguably their best player of the season up until that point before eventually succumbing to the hectic schedule and poor man-management.

Xavi opted to give Fermin Lopez regular minutes at the time, and the Spaniard stepped up to the pressure, and put in some inspiring performances against Sevilla, Mallorca, and even Real Madrid.

Fermin is far from the composed midfield presence of de Jong or Pedri, but his energy and ability to play between the lines is second to only Gavi in the midfield roster.

Further, unlike the rest of the options in the centre of the park, Fermin has a keen eye for goal and is a threat from outside the box. He showed this during pre-season vs Madrid, and then again vs Shakhtar Donetsk, binning the ball into the top corner.

Trust Fermin. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

There is one clear disadvantage to playing the 20-year-old, though, and that is Gundogan’s role.

With no de Jong, Pedri, and even Gavi in the side, the German will not have enough opportunities to attack the box as he likes because Fermin cannot be used as a first-receiver from defence.

Fermin will have to be tasked with making third-man runs into the box and play as the furthest midfielder forward, which slightly reduces Gundogan’s impact in the final third.

Thankfully, though, Fermin has proven time and again that he can execute that role brilliantly, and with slightly better finishing, could have had many more goals this season.

2. The experimental: Casado time

One of the ways Xavi can avoid compromising on Gundogan’s in the final third and in the box is to do something he has not done so far — finally giving Marc Casado the chance he has been longing for.

Casado has been called up to the Barcelona senior team for more than half the games in La Liga this season. Xavi has even spoken highly about him in the past, saying, “He is a player that I like a lot because he competes, he is a winner and neat with the ball. And he can play in many positions.”

Today should be the day Casado finally gets his break with the first team. He can be deployed deeper in the team, almost forming a double pivot with Andreas Christensen, and given the responsibility to play as the first midfielder to receive the ball.

He has played this role for the youth teams multiple times, and done rather well, too.

While the pressure of playing against a senior team in the Spanish top-flight can be unnerving, Barcelona have seen young players adapt to authoritative roles in the senior times multiple times this season – including Lamine Yamal, Gavi, and others.

Or is it Casado time? (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

His composure on the ball, playing out from the back will also allow Gundogan to play further forward.

The clear stumbling block of this midfield is the lack of dynamism, though, but that can be addressed by giving Cancelo the license to invert again, compared to his wider role on the left in recent weeks.

3. The daring: Return of the 3-5-2

Xavi surprised everyone earlier this season by changing Barcelona’s formation completely against Real Madrid in Frenkie de Jong and Pedri’s absence, and used a variation of the 3-5-2, with Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, and Inigo Martinez in defence.

Gavi and Ilkay Gundogan formed the double pivot, with Fermin given the license to push forward from midfield. This worked a charm for most of the game, too.

Xavi could, hypothetically, replicate this today and then against Napoli, with some minor changes to the setup.

Firstly, Lamine Yamal and Robert Lewandowski would make for the ideal two-man setup upfront. The former has slowly been shifting to central areas and can be trusted near goal to create and even score.

Jules Kounde, with the form he has been in recently, should continue in defence, alongside Ronald Araujo (vs Napoli), and one of Inigo Martinez or Pau Cubarsi.

With Yamal drifting between central and right-sided zones, Joao Cancelo is the ideal cover as the right wing-back. As an experienced player, he will know when to overlap and when to invert to provide cover for the midfield and potentially attack the box.

This means Hector Fort could get the license to play on the left side. He has done well enough to get the nod in this role, albeit not being his preferred side.

In midfield, though, more importantly, Xavi should rely on Christensen, Gundogan, and Fermin as his go-to trio.

With Cancelo in the side, Gundogan and Fermin can both potentially venture upfield, while the Portuguese provides cover in midfield.

Cancelo could be crucial. (Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

He can form a double pivot with Christensen while Gundogan and Fermin take up pockets between the lines.

This also means that with three centre-backs stretching across the first-line, Christensen’s responsibility on the ball will be reduced.

And also, this setup can easily be moulded into a 4-3-3 whenever required by switching out one of the wing-backs and subbing in an attacker — Raphinha, Joao Felix, and (hopefully for the Napoli clash) Ferran Torres.

The problem is, however, that Kounde will have to play his heart out against Napoli, with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia playing as the left-winger.

But Xavi can always rely on Ronald Araujo as the right-sided centre-back and use Kounde centrally for that game.

Conclusion

Not having three of your best players for a Champions League return leg is of course, not ideal, but Barcelona have enough quality in their squad to just see off this obstacle.

Fermin Lopez’s cameos have been underwhelming, but his quality should not particularly be in doubt, and neither should Xavi hesitate to experiment with some other players.

Sergi Roberto is also an option to play in midfield, but he should not be called upon for a high-intensity game. His performance vs Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey was proof of the same.

The Barcelona captain can do well against teams that do not press intensely, but against Napoli, facing the ‘PnP’ of the Andre Frank Zambo-Anguissa-Stanislav Lobotka-Jens Cajuste midfield will cause him to crumble.

And as far as Raphinha is concerned, using him in midfield could cause an implosion as well. The Brazilian has been given a few chances in that role in the past, but has not done well a single time.

While his athleticism would certainly help, he has very little composure in tight areas and often hero-balls when in central zones near the box.

All said and done, the Mallorca game should act as the basis for what Xavi will eventually put properly into practice against Napoli. And while both of these games will be quite the task, with smart fixes, they can be overcome.

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