Are Barcelona's midfield woes a thing of the past?
Over the last decade, Barcelona's identity lay in their midfield strength. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets helped the team win two Champions League titles under Pep Guardiola and remained together until Xavi's departure in 2014, just after they won a third European crown together.
Without Xavi, Barca's midfield became more functional than technically supreme. Tiki-taka faded. The Cules became known for their three world-class forwards, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. The midfield adopted a more direct approach to give MSN the ball as much as possible. With Paulinho stepping in for Neymar, new boss Ernesto Valverde stuck with the more direct method.
Following last season's Liga/Copa double, Iniesta staged a late-night sit-in at the Camp Nou then departed for Vissle Kobe in the J.League. Despite two-thirds of the game's greatest midfield riding into the sunset, Barca are poised to revive a possession-based style.
Busquets remains. While slightly less reliable, he's still performing at an elite level. When the big games come, he'll anchor the midfield.
Arthur arrived this summer. He possesses attributes missing since 2014. Very good on the ball, he can deputise for Busquets or play alongside him in Xavi's role.
Ivan Rakitic might be the world's most underrated midfielder at both club and international level. He was sublime in the World Cup, every bit as good as Luka Modric even though the captain made all the headlines. At club level, some take issue with him. Foolishly. Beyond Lionel Messi, the Croat was Barcelona's best player in 2017/18. He'll fill any role Ernesto Valverde requires.
With faith in Ousmane Dembele restored and Malcom arriving from Bordeaux, Philippe Coutinho's greatest opportunities exist in midfield. He'll inherit Iniesta's minutes. Barca's no.8 was a one-off but if anyone can adequately replace him, it's Coutinho. The Brazilian can also play further forward, freeing up a slot when needed in an advanced role.
Sergi Roberto's another versatile option. He's been first-choice right back for the past few seasons before starting the season opener against Alaves in midfield. That was one match against a lightweight opponent. The coming weeks will reveal whether that's a long-term plan. Fans have been crying for it but the team's more balanced with the Catalan at right back.
Then there's the most intriguing transfer to date in the summer window, Arturo Vidal. On his day, the Chilean can do a bit of everything. He can play deep, get forward, dictate the tempo and hassle the opposition's ball carriers. He's 31 now. That isn't a frequent problem in the modern game. However, with his physical style and injury history, the deal's a bit of a gamble. If he can stay out of the treatment room, his €20 million fee becomes a bargain.
When new signings arrive, someone must make room. There's always a fall guy. This time, it's Rafinha. His brother, Thiago Alcantara, left Barca long ago in search of first-team football. Barcelona reportedly toyed with the idea of a family reunion this summer. Their thinking appears to be all or nothing. Little brother is now touted for a loan to Real Betis. A talented player, he tends to play well when given the opportunity. For some reason, Luis Enrique and now Valverde keep those opportunities to a minimum. Unsurprisingly, he's had enough. Allowing him to leave could be a decision Barca lives to regret.
Should injuries or suspensions hit Barcelona, Valverde can call on a few talented youngsters to come in and do a job. Sergi Samper and Carles Alena are highly-rated. Riqui Puig emerged as a sublime young player during the summer tour through the US. Although if Rafinha can't get a regular game, young talents will find it extremely difficult breaking into the first team. For the first time since Xavi left, Barcelona have options in midfield.
While winning La Liga with regularity, the Blaugrana keep falling short in the Champions League. Squad depth was a reason. Now that he has it, Valverde must find the balance that delivers the best from his roster. He's equipped to compete on all fronts. The board left him no excuses. If he holds up his end, this could be a truly special season at the Camp Nou.