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Why Barcelona look clueless without Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, and Ousmane Dembele



Photo by CESAR MANSO/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona’s luck off the pitch has been quite horrible over the course of the 2022/23 season. They have been dealing with several off-the-pitch dramas, including the Negreira case, registration issues with Gavi’s new contracts, and of course, injuries.

While Xavi and co. have not let the refereeing and financial controversy get in the way of their pursuit of trophies, injuries have massively hampered their season.

Barcelona were relegated from the Champions League again this season as Andreas Christensen, Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo missed out on the games due to injury.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele were missing from the Europa League games against Manchester United in the first-round knockouts. Both of them, along with Andreas Christensen and Frenkie de Jong were sidelined due to injury for the second leg Copa del Rey clash against Real Madrid.

A terrible run of luck with injuries. (Photo by Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

While these are all unlucky situations to be for Barcelona, it reeks of over-dependence. In more ways than not, it looks eerily similar to the time when Lionel Messi was at the club. Messidependencia, as culers often referred to it.

But there is a case to be made for the tactical balance of the team, and how Xavi has carved each of their roles perfectly for their profile. It suits them, and in turn, brings out the best in Barcelona.

Frenkie de Jong: First phase master

Speaking about his profile and the role he prefers as a midfielder, Frenkie de Jong said a year ago, “I like to be the first player to receive the ball from the defenders.”

While not a defensive midfielder, de Jong is a master of the first phase of buildup. At Ajax, playing in a double pivot, he was often the first player to receive the ball closest to the defensive line during the initial stages of circulation.

Excellent receiving with the ball with his back to the defenders, the Dutchman does an exceptional job of turning under pressure and carrying the ball between lines.

While de Jong had an excellent 2020/21, he was playing largely in a different role under Ronald Koeman. The Dutch manager had given him a ton of responsibility in the final third, and he ended up scoring three goals and assisting four.

However, he has returned to his ideal role under Xavi this season, who has deployed a 4-3-3 that changes into a 3-2-2-3 in possession.

De Jong forms the double pivot with Sergio Busquets in possession, with the latter given the license to rove upstream and the former taking up the responsibility of being the first player to receive the ball in the buildup.

Nobody better in the first-phase. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

While there are players, like Busquets and Franck Kessie, who can replicate some part of de Jong’s role in possession, the mobility aspect – or the lack thereof – halts Barcelona’s buildup a lot.

De Jong’s absence was best noted against Getafe yesterday, when Barcelona were unable to find any way through the Madrid outfit’s mid-block. Kessie and Gavi were deployed in midfield, but completed a total of 22 passes between them.

Not only does that limit Barcelona’s buildup, but it also does not bring the best out of Barcelona’s other midfielders. Gavi, for example, best between the lines, mostly in the middle and final third, received almost no service.

This is where the potential signing of Ilkay Gundogan could come in handy for Barcelona. The German is one of the best-rounded midfielders in the world, and a true veteran of the craft at 32.

The Manchester City midfielder, while not as mobile as de Jong on the ball, is more than comfortable acting as the first receiver in possession before moving up the pitch to join the second phase of the buildup.

Pedri: The creator

Starting on the right side of the midfield three on paper, Pedri’s role is largely creation dependent in the middle and final third. He often moves into join the attack line, playing just behind the striker.

The Spaniard has an excellent eye in the final third and is able to break lines easily, even when asked to drop deeper to help circulation. His incredible ball control also means he has been given the license to dribble past opponents, even in high-pressure situations.

Pedri makes things happen. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Often like Andres Iniesta, Pedri moves towards the touchline a fair bit which gives the wingers more space and time inside and near the edge of the box to finish moves.

Pedri also adapts his role according to his teammates. When deployed on the right side of the midfield while Jules Kounde is on the pitch, Pedri often drops in the channels ahead of Kounde to help in the build-up from that side and transition the ball onto the wing.

He has spoken about wanting to score more goals in the past, too, which is evidently something Xavi has worked on in the last year. Pedri has the license to enter the box to latch on to loose balls and crosses, which has resulted in him scoring a few winners, too.

The graphs below show Pedri productivity from inside the box this season. The Spaniard has taken 11 shots out of a total of 17 this season. That is nearly double his box shots from last season, where he only took a total of six (as many goals as he has scored in 2022/23).


While this helps the team’s overall productivity, it massively works in favour of Robert Lewandowski as he has someone to play off just behind him. The Pole boasts of impressive anchor play, but that then leaves ample of space behind him that is unoccupied.

Xavi has tried to replicate that a couple of times using Ferran Torres as a second striker, including vs Getafe in the second half, but with little to no success.

Ousmane Dembele: The progressor

Ousmane Dembele’s role, especially, has been very particularly carved out by Xavi. As a two-footed two-way dribbler, Dembele’s starting positions are often near the touchline on the wing.

He has been asked to function as the main progressor of the ball into the final third from the wings. His speed and footwork are rivaled by very few in the world, and his dominance on the flank means Xavi can keep the defence steady with a hybrid fullback like Kounde.

Dembele often starts in the middle third, receiving the ball not very high up the pitch before making use of the space ahead of him.

Near the edge of the box, Dembele is allowed to either cut in or sprint upwards before whipping the ball inside the box for Lewandowski – who is excellent in the air – and others.

Left in the dust. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

With Dembele stretching the pitch, it makes central midfielder’s job easier with less markers on them.

While Raphinha can replicate a fair few aspects of this role, he is not as adept a dribbler as the Frenchman. Further, he is also heavily one-footed, and does not like to stretch the flank as it would limit his chance-creation ability.

Raphinha does, however, progress the ball better than Dembele thorugh his passing. The 26-year-old is excellent at finding passes between the lines of pressure, centrally and on the wing, and has more creative range in the final third.

The absence of Pedri also hurts Raphinha, though, as the two would often engage in quick-fire one-twos near the box, giving the latter more time and space to attack the ball toward the goal.

That said, Dembele’s ability to transition from defence to attack single-handedly is a cheatcode that Xavi has exploited to the near-best of its abilities. And his absence also handicaps Lewandowski as the ball is often played into the final third centrally while he is completely isolated.

The former Bayern Munich man is superb in the box, but often depends on service from the wings (Dembele) or having a supporting figure (Pedri) alongside him to bring the best out of him.

It is especially unlucky that Barcelona have missed three of their best, and arguably most important players during crucial moments in knockout competitions and in the final run-up to the league title, but the best way moving forward for Xavi is to find left-field tactical solutions.

While their roles can be replicated by other players with similar abilities, like Gundogan or Ez Abde and Yannick Carrasco – on the other wing -, these ideas would become predictable if the Catalans do not end up constantly tweaking their solutions.

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