Why Barcelona’s midfield is far from certain once Andres Iniesta finally departs
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona prided itself on the ultimate possession game, the midfielder-turned-coach imposing the philosophy he learnt while playing under Johan Cruyff upon taking the reins in 2008. The Manchester City boss maintains that keeping the ball as often as possible remains central to his philosophy, although naturally he's deviated away from it slightly when at Bayern Munich and now at the Etihad.
That's because he knows it’s impossible to recreate that Barca team, with many of its star players having progressed through the ranks of the academy. He's also tried to utilise the strengths of the squads he's found in Munich and Manchester, while simultaneously teaching them his favoured brand of football.
Perhaps the main reason, though, is that Guardiola no longer has midfielders as good as Xavi and Andres Iniesta at his disposal; even Barcelona, now under the guidance of Luis Enrique, are more direct without them.
The plan was to groom Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara as successors to the duo, but both left Barcelona before Xavi joined Al Sadd in 2015
Xavi left the Camp Nou last year, so the injury sustained by Iniesta in October has given Barca supporters the opportunity to peek into the post-Xavi/Iniesta era. So far, they're not particularly liking what they're seeing.
The club have feared this period for many years. The plan was to groom Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara as successors to the duo, but both left Barcelona before Xavi joined Al Sadd in Qatar.
At the Etihad on Tuesday, Luis Enrique chose Andre Gomes as Ivan Rakitic's partner in central midfield, with Sergio Busquets in his customary holding role in front of the back four. The Portuguese all-rounder had missed the weekend’s game with Granada, when Thiago’s brother Rafinha scored the only goal of a difficult encounter for the Spanish champions.
Gomes has very different characteristics to Iniesta, which means he was never going to be a like-for-like replacement in the visitors' line-up. Rakitic, too, is stylistically different to Xavi, even though he was the man who effectively forced the midfield metronome onto the substitutes' bench in his final season in Catalonia.
Barcelona made twice as many passes as City and enjoyed 65 per cent of possession, but this wasn't because of Rakitic or Gomes
Iniesta glides past players with the ball and provides subtle passes with his terrific vision, while Gomes is much stronger and uses his physicality to get past opponents. Gomes completed 36 passes on Tuesday - not a particularly low figure, but almost certainly fewer than Iniesta would have, thus indicating a shift in approach from Luis Enrique's side.
Barcelona made twice as many passes as City and enjoyed 65 per cent of possession, but this wasn't because of Rakitic or Gomes; indeed, Marc-Andre ter Stegen made more passes than either of the midfielders, an illustration of how well City pressed their opponents in central zones.
Barca still dominated the ball, then, but their possession came in much deeper areas of the pitch. This made it more difficult for them to feed Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez between the lines, with the Blaugrana struggling to work the ball out from the back and into forward areas.
Harrying and hassling
Barcelona's frustration began to show just a few seconds later, when Gomes played a long ball over the head of Pablo Zabaleta but Neymar, its intended target, simply pointed to his feet
Guardiola insisted his approach in the 4-0 defeat at the Camp Nou two weeks ago was the right one, arguing that it had worked well until Fernandinho's slip allowed Messi to open the scoring.
The Argentinian helped himself to a hat-trick that night, but City's opener on Tuesday owed in part to his movements infield from the right flank. Messi tends to drift inside onto his stronger left foot as he assumes creative responsibility in the centre of the pitch, which can leave Barca unbalanced in a defensive capacity on that side of the field.
Right-back Sergio Roberto's sloppy square pass fell to Sergio Aguero in the 39th minute, and City worked the ball brilliantly to allow Ilkay Gundogan to equalise after Messi's opener. It was an example of City's pressing paying off, and the hosts duly upped the intensity thereafter.
Barcelona's frustration began to show just a few seconds later, when Gomes played a long ball over the head of Pablo Zabaleta but Neymar, its intended target, simply pointed to his feet.
Gundogan equalises for City
Who fills the void?
City took the lead after the interval thanks to Kevin De Bruyne's free-kick, and Rakitic was replaced by Arda Turan with an hour on the clock. It was John Stones' tackle on the Turk that inadvertently led to a Barca chance on the counter-attack, but Gomes hit the bar after being picked out by Luis Suarez.
It proved to be a turning point in the game: had Gomes finished that chance, Barcelona may have regained the momentum and gone on to win. Instead, City continued to press expertly and picked the Catalans off on the break, with Sergio Busquets overwhelmed in the engine room.
“It's a pleasure to have him as captain for everything that he represents," Luis Enrique said of Iniesta before his 600th Barcelona game in September. "There won't be many Iniestas.”
He's right. The 32-year-old's unlikely to have too many years left in his legs, particularly if he continues to pick up niggling injuries. Barcelona's need for a replacement isn't yet urgent, but they must identify someone who can fill the void sooner rather than later.