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How is Xavi doing at Barcelona?
Is he righting the ship?
“Barça’s strength, at their best, was the congruence of their political and tactical identities. They had a Catalan core and that core had been brought up at La Masia to play the Barça way; that had been one of Cruyff’s first lessons. It was an ecosystem that often found it difficult to accommodate outsiders but it also meant basic familiarity with the system from those who had grown up within it. There was always another young player who could slot in. He might not reach the heights of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets or Piqué, but he knew what he was doing.”
— Jonathan Wilson, The Barcelona Legacy (2018).
Xavi didn’t exactly inherit prime 2000s Barcelona when he took over late last year.
This, as everyone knows, has been a club in shambles. They’re trying to rebuild under Joan Laporta, and we could be here all day debating how well that will go. But in the here and now, this football team needs coaching, and Xavi Hernández is the man put in charge to do it.
It’s been hard to figure out exactly what the expectations are. As I wrote in November, the job will be more about putting the correct principles back in place and developing young talents than winning big trophies. They obviously have all but no chance of winning La Liga this season. Add Kylian Mbappé to Real Madrid and it’s hard to look past Carlo Ancelotti’s side next year. Even if Xavi really is the next Pep Guardiola, and La Masia really did produce a group of youngsters as good as any previous vintage, this is a long and hard road back to the top.
Xavi, for his part, seems to understand the brief. He’s given plenty of minutes to youngsters, most prominently Gavi and Nico González but also a whole host of less famous names. Some of these inevitably will not become top players. Some will inevitably have careers like Isaac Cuenca or Cristian Tello. But when they play Barcelona football, like Cuenca and Tello before them, they know what they’re doing. Xavi has used experienced players as well, but generally those who understand the style of football and have played in it before.
We all know the kind of football I’m talking about here. Since Xavi took over, Barça have averaged 62% possession in all competitions, but that’s a means to an end. As Guardiola famously once said, “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiquitaca.” You want to have the ball, getting it back by pressing high and keeping it by passing it well, but the point of having it is to manipulate space and score goals. You have to, as Guardiola put it, “overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch.”1
That is positional play.
Xavi’s guiding principle in picking his teams is whether or not players understand this. The goalkeeper is a pretty straightforward call and Marc-André ter Stegen is still number one. He’s liked experience at the back, with Gerard Piqué the first-choice central defender next to either Ronald Araújo or Eric García. Jordi Alba is still the starting left-back for the millionth season in a row, while 57-year-old Dani Alves has come straight in on the right since his return to the club.
In midfield, things get a little more interesting. Sergio Busquets is still the pivote, which some people probably aren’t thrilled about but, again, he understands what Xavi wants. Frenkie de Jong has started regularly but, with rumours abound about his future in the summer, that probably won’t last forever. As Pedri returns from injury, he presumably slots in there. Gavi and Nico González have clocked in minutes here looking the part, and Gavi can also slot in wide.
New boy Ferran Torres will obviously now start regularly and is comfortable on either flank. Ousmane Dembélé has been playing a fair bit recently and it’s clear Xavi would like him to sign a new contract on the right terms, but it’s very possible he leaves in the summer, so Gavi might end up playing in this role more often than central midfield. Ansu Fati also offers a superb option if he can get back to full speed after injury troubles. Memphis Depay and Luuk de Jong have competed for the centre forward role. Apart from right-back, it feels like Xavi does have options he likes across the pitch.
In Xavi’s eight La Liga matches so far, Barcelona have an expected goal difference per game of +0.74. Weirdly, Barca have been strong in xG all season, so no change there, but Xavi has certainly maintained this trend while significantly overhauling the side. This should dispel concerns that these players couldn’t play a better brand of football than Ronald Koeman’s sufferball. This is most notably driven by a strong defence, keeping it at or under one xG conceded in five of the eight league matches. It often doesn’t look great, but this is actually an effective defensive unit, and Xavi should concentrate more on getting the attack to click.
12 goals in eight league matches probably haven’t wowed many people, and it’s very much in line with the xG. Obviously, they’ve just added an exciting new attacker who should be expected to help here. But I really think the answer will be more time on the training ground and a better understanding of tactical ideas. Xavi says that many players don’t understand the positional play he wants. If that’s the case then that might actually be good news, as more can be got out of this squad through time spent coaching.
No one really knew what to expect from Xavi in terms of managerial ability. At the very least, he’s shown over the last two months that he’s not incompetent and he can set a team out playing the way he wants. I don’t know how good he is yet, but I think we can at least say that he isn’t bad. He will produce a side that can play Barcelona football to the best of its ability.
And right now, I think this is it. I don’t expect them to spend much in the summer transfer window. I think whatever team Xavi builds will have to be from the pieces he has already. I’m more optimistic about this today than I was in October, but I’m still not sure it will get the club to where they want to be going. These might be some lean years in terms of trophies, but at least the footballing idea is clear again for all to see.
Perarnau, Martí (2014). Pep Confidential.