With Sergio Busquets lagging and Iniesta injured, Barcelona head into El Clásico in the rare situation of possibly being second best in midfield to their bitter Madrid rivals. Barcelona desperately hope for a return from injury for Andres Iniesta. Without him, they may struggle against arguably the best midfielder in the world in Luka Modric and a reborn Isco under Zinedine Zidane. They are at least safe in the knowledge that Toni Kroos will miss the game through injury.
Luis Enrique’s gradual move from possession football to more conventional football has taken greater shape this season. Ivan Rakitic and Andre Gomes have often lined up together in the old Xavi-Iniesta of Les Culés’ 4-3-3 formation. Both players are technically gifted but neither have a tika-taka instinct. They look to play the ball more vertically than Barcelona ever did under Pep Guardiola.
There is certainly nothing wrong with implementing a fresh approach but despite having one of the best forward lines in history at their disposal, Barcelona have looked lacklustre in the middle of the pitch this season.
In a 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad at the weekend, La Real had 57% possession in the first half and dominated the game. As usual, it was Lionel Messi who saved Barcelona’s blushes. Messi cannot save Barcelona every time and cracks are beginning to show. While the Catalans have tried their best to adapt without him, the signs are there that they miss the puppet-master Xavi more than ever.
The Pass Master
It’s rare that a player is so intrinsically linked with a footballing philosophy and much less so one of the most successful of all-time, but Xavi was one of those players. Tika-taka lived and died with Xavi, who wasone of the best game runners and game tacticians there ever has been and ever will be.
In the six-year period from 2008 to 2013, Spain won three consecutive international tournaments, while Barcelona won four La Ligas and three Champions Leagues. They played with a style that focused on a domination of possession the likes of which football had never seen. It required the most extreme of negative tactics to overcome them in the case of Chelsea and Inter Milan in the Champions League. Teams no longer fear this kind of treatment from Barcelona and games are often played on a more even keel. Barcelona’s defence is then more exposed, which has always been protected by large amounts of possession.
Xavi was at the heart of everything Spain and Barcelona did, along with chief partner in crime Andres Iniesta. At the 2010 World Cup, he had 91% pass accuracy, at Euro 2012 it was 94%. Rarely however, was there a pass without purpose. He earned the nickname ‘Puppetmaster’ for how his passing controlled games. Incisive they were too. In 2009 he had 29 assists to his name, including 4 of 6 goals in a 6-2 win over Real Madrid. He is the only player with assists in two Euro Championship finals.
When Xavi faded from age 33 onwards, so did Tika-Taka. Spain under Del Bosque failed in 2014 and 2016 without peak Xavi pulling the strings.
A return for Iniesta at Camp Nou on Saturday would help to alleviate their problems but the challenge in replacing his old partner in crime remains an elusive task.