While Barcelona’s season mostly ended in vain, individuals worthy of better outcomes still provided a new lease of life for a team that faced many hurdles in their supposed transitional campaign. As the Catalans officially bid farewell to the 20/21 season, Barça Universal ranks the three best players of the term.
3. Sergio Busquets
Over the last few seasons, one question has always seemed to linger on most Culés‘ mind, particularly during the introductory stages of the campaign: Is Sergio Busquets capable of keeping pace in the “modern game?” Fortunately for the Catalans, no matter how much the game evolves or age creeps up on Busquets, the famous saying, “old is gold,” invariably embodies the Spaniard.
The season old question was once again brought up early in the campaign, with the veteran struggling to dictate games like he normally used to. The first half of the term consequently was a patch filled with complications, amplified by several tactical tweaks, which felt uncustomary at a club like Barcelona. Starting in a double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 was certainly unfamiliar territory for Busquets.
In order to cater to the various free-roaming central attackers in the line-up, Koeman seemed desperate to suit specific individuals such as Phillipe Coutinho or Antoine Griezmann, rather than creating the right context for his most crucial player, who would actually be responsible for the end result upfront, even if his contributions in goals may be swept under the rug.
This was most notably highlighted in the first Clásico of the season, where voids would be left in midfield and Busquets would be exposed brutally.
Squeezing in similar profiles like Pedri and Coutinho proved to be costly. The youngster’s natural tendency to drift inwards from the left flank left a gaping hole between the double pivot and the front line. With Barça extremely exposed in transition, it was easy to find a weak link in Busquets, who could not match the flair of opponents as well as struggled to find options in possession. Isolated and vulnerable, the 32-year-old was a deer caught in the headlights for much of the first half of the season.
However, after a rough spell where Pjanic would frequently challenge Busi’s spot, at the turn of the year, the Spanish orchestrator was enabled to feature in the single-pivot role consistently, where he had made a name for himself for years.
Unsurprisingly, Busquets did not waste much time in getting back into his groove, standing out most recognizably against Granada at the Los Carmenes in January. The Busquets fans had loved and adored had burst back into life, with this performance proving to be the start to a strong string of masterclasses.
Albeit some occasional setbacks halted his flow against PSG or in the Spanish Supercup, the epitome of a holding midfielder was quintessential during Barcelona’s first phase of play and had certainly started recreating glimpses from the past. In the second leg against PSG, he was quick to put doubts regarding his form to bed.
Sergio Busquets’ performances were frequently a subject of great concern on big European nights. The frist leg against PSG was, in all fairness, a subpar performance from him, who seemed out of sorts defending against the nifty Kylian Mbappe.
However, Barça attempting to stray away from their philosophy and preaching pragmatism in these encounters is usually what led to Busi struggling to showcase his best level. That lack of coherence in departments and poor occupation of spaces disjointed the Blaugranas‘ structure, subsequently leading to Busquets being put in situations he usually does not find himself in.
One of the major reasons for this upturn in attitude from his supporting cast and increased support, though, was the introduction of the 3-5-2 formation against Sevilla in the league. Despite it proving to be unpopular in the closing stages of the season, the 3 at the back was unequivocally a great set-up to aid Busquets. Instead of focusing on building the right environment for Koeman’s more attack-minded players, fulfilling Busquets’ needs turned out to be far more fruitful.
When the context is right for Busquets, when he has the slightest bit of support, dominant displays from him will inevitably follow, which always correlate to Barça’s success on the field. Since he had the liberty to situate himself higher up the field, Busquets had a multitude of options available at his disposal. Furthermore, the 32-year-old became considerably aggressive in his pressing ever since the three-at-the-back formation had been established. Not only did this provide cover for him in transition, but it also allowed him to make recoveries to further add to the possessional dominance.
With Busquets’ creative essence flourishing, his line-breaking passes and connection with Messi proved to be vital. On top of dictating the tempo of the game, he would pick out players with his balls over the top seamlessly. The last spell of the season was a testament to his newfound form as he continued to be a backbone in the side. Even losses against the likes of Granada or other close calls were not enough to mask the 32-year-old’s sheer brilliance.
The whimsical, willowy Busquets may not be a treat for the eyes, but he undoubtedly carries himself gracefully, caressing the ball with his prodigious pair of feet as if the ball is speaking to him, returning to its rightful owner. Although he did not enjoy the ideal start to the season or be his consistent self, Busquets’ presence remained unrivalled over the course of the campaign, especially in the last few months. Without the puppet master conducting his side from deep, this season could have potentially ended much worse.
2. Frenkie de Jong
From a deep-lying playmaker to an interior, to a box-to-box midfielder, to a libero – all that is left for de Jong to complete his CV was replacing ter Stegen between the sticks. The former Ajax sensation clearly had his flaws when he arrived, but one thing he must fully be given credit for is never throwing the towel in and adapting to various situations, where his expressive talents would be put on display.
The fact that Ronald Koeman was willing to place that extra bit of authority in de Jong’s hands certainly bore the pair bruit.
It would be fair to claim the 19/20 season was by no means an accurate reflection of the talent the Dutchman possessed. Struggling to find his niche and adapting to new surroundings was bound to be a lengthy process. Even with Koeman’s arrival, the his problems were not immediately resolved. In fact, his start to the season was rather underwhelming, similar to Busquets’ case.
However, while entailing a rigid double pivot system on paper felt reminiscent of his days at Ajax, de Jong finally began expressing himself again by the month of December, with a major reason for his escalation in performances proving to be his subtle tweak in positioning. Instead of executing a more supportive role alongside Sergio Busquets, the 22-year-old now had the freedom to express himself between the lines, operate with more freedom and highlight his outstanding spatial awareness.
Under his new manager’s more mobile and direct system, de Jong found himself considerably liberated to dictate plays and influence different phases of play. Unlike Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién’s stiff systems, Koeman’s direct approach enabled the prodigy to saunter freely, bringing the best out of his positional prowess.
Eventually, when Koeman shifted to the 4-3-3 policy, de Jong’s role as an interior saw him look even more unbound, where he began to transform into a player that contrasted his style at Ajax or the Dutch national team. Earlier in the campaign, one of Ronald Koeman’s biggest issues seemed to be finding the right context for Frenkie de Jong, a fixed position capable of yielding the most significant results. With constant tinkering from him and various experiments, it was clear to observe that the former Ajax sensation was struggling to unlock his full potential.
Nonetheless, placing de Jong in restricted roles and confining his expressive nature deprived the club of an immensely gifted player. As the season gradually progressed and de Jong found himself making a name as a box-to-box midfielder, the Dutch prodigy’s transformation into a positionless player that did not need the right environment to thrive anymore, but simply liberation and the ball at his feet opened up several doors for Barça.
Making piercing late runs inside the box, coupled with the terrific ball-carrying ability, he truly appeared to be a wild card for the Catalans. Even so, with the shortages of centre-backs at times and the introduction of the 4-3-3 formation, the Dutch maestro did not fail to impress even at the back.
With notable displays against PSG in the second leg and in the 6-1 thrashing of Real Sociedad, the centre-back role gave him more freedom to build plays and formulate them to his own preference as de Jong constantly surged forward to break the opposition’s lines. His ball carrying ability was a major contributor to Barça’s high voltage football, which especially equated to the team’s pressing in the final third.
Having enjoyed an incredibly consistent 2021, de Jong certainly seemed to hit his peak in the game of the season against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final. Everything he touched turned to gold. In the early phases of play, the beaming blonde boy from Ajax seemed remarkably unfazed by Athletic Bilbao’s pressing triggers. With velvety touches on the ball, excellent body orientation and ability to glide past opponents in midfield, he was as smooth as silk in possession. The two assists he bagged were simply a testament to his innate abilities, too.
It was a pity that Barça’s end of the season antics blemished what could have been a breakthrough season for de Jong, but, despite the team’s shortcomings, he enjoyed a remarkable campaign, which certainly paid homage to his unequalled understanding of the game. Performances in big games, while a sudden increase in his output in front of goal highlighted how far he has come.
1. Lionel Messi
Was there ever any doubt? As has been the norm for years now, seeing Messi top charts like these should really not be a bolt from the blue. The greatest to have ever graced a football pitch continued to be the engine in his side, the fulcrum that connected Barcelona in yet another turbulent season as his genius remained unparalleled.
However, similar to the two aforementioned players, not even Leo had the best of starts to the season. Truth be told, entering the term, there was simply no telling how his season would fare. After arguably the most chaotic summer of his life, it was clear to interpret that Messi looked broken from the inside. A man who had dedicated his heart to Barça looked like a captive in his own kingdom, and the departure of his friend, Luis Suarez, certainly did not help.
The start to the season was thus slow. Messi looked rather rusty in front of goal, albeit his overall play was still a cut above the rest. Still, open play goals were almost non-existent as his only source of goals remained penalties in the first few gameweeks. It wasn’t until the 6th matchday against Real Betis that Leo scored from open play. However, once the floodgates were open, Leo simply refused to look back.
In a season full of ups and downs, uncertainty and instabilities, the one thing that remained constant was Messi’s thirst for success. The first half of the season was by no means his best, his stats only began to improve by the end of the year, but as Messi grew more comfortable wearing the Blaugrana jersey and saw the upcoming talent surrounding him, he undeniably felt a sense of relief, which gradually translated on the pitch.
Entering 2021, Leo had evidently turned over a new leaf, recreating glimpses of a more youthful and energetic version of himself, with his eye for goal elevating too. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner went on a 12 game run in league with continuous goal contributions, being at the heart of everything in the attack. His prominent performances against Deportivo Alavés, Granada, and Athletic Bilbao were a joy to witness. However, even in the Copa del Rey and Champions League, the menacing man was a force to reckon with.
The goals he scored over the two legs against PSG saw him operate as a one-man army, especially in the second leg, where he scored one of the greatest goals of his career and created chance after chance for his teammates, only to be squandered.
In the Copa del Rey, his contributions against Rayo Vallecano and Granada were key in the club’s road to the final. Once they had reached the final, Messi relished the big occasion like none other, scoring a beautiful brace with yet another scintillating goal as he dribbled past heaps of defender from the halfway line to eventually find the back of the net.
His exceptionally consistent run allowed him to not only bear the creative burden of the team; but also evolve into a lethal goalscorer. In La Liga, the 33-year-old scored against every team in the league except the two Madrid sides, albeit he still had applaudable exhibitions against them and was let down by minimal support.
As the campaign advanced, fans started seeing a happier version of Leo, who smiled often, pampered his teammates with hugs and looked desperate to fight for his cavalry. Messi may not have been able to share a pint of beer with the youngsters around him or discuss his journey of fatherhood, but he saw potential in this team, and more importantly, himself, as a boy who similarly came up the ranks. Surrounded by the likes of Ilaix Moriba, Pedri, Oscar Mingueza etc., he seemed eager to lead them to glory.
Players from the academy understood him better than all the record-breaking signings, and this clearly brought back a smile on Leo, which directly impacted his performances on the field.
In the end, despite such valiant efforts from the Barcelona captain, he was repaid with feelings of despair as Barcelona blew the chances of winning the league title embarrassingly. Even so, masking Messi’s miraculous season by an underwhelming Barça side would not do justice to the man who was the instigator in Barça’s search for supremacy in La Liga.
Ending the league with 30 goals and topping various other statistic charts such as completing the most dribbles or having the most entries inside the penalty area, it was clear as daylight that he was more than just a goalscorer for his side, and once again, Barcelona’s best performer by a landslide.