While Barcelona have been sweeping all before them in recent seasons, picking up 13 of the 16 trophies available to them under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola, the small stocky figure of Xavi Hernández has been at the heart of it all. The playmaker’s control of the tempo of games – his management of the shape of his side – serves as the stable platform which allows Lionel Messi to wreak havoc up front, keeping the pressure off the occasionally error-prone defenders behind.
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Xavi turned 32 last month. He has played more than 500 games in 13 professional seasons. He is not about to retire any time soon, but neither can he go on forever. Given Barcelona coach Guardiola’s famed attention to detail, it is no surprise that succession planning has already begun at the Camp Nou.
Since the winter break, with Barcelona playing two games a week and Xavi troubled with a tricky calf-muscle problem, the planning process has sped up. Of Barca’s last six matches, Xavi has only played in two. These games, and particularly Tuesday’s Champions League match at Bayer Leverkusen, have given us a peek at what a post-Xavi Barcelona might look like. The initial view will have concerned Barcelona fans.
In Leverkusen, Barca’s midfield trio were all World Cup winners – Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fábregas – but particularly in the first half, they struggled to move the ball quickly and accurately enough to get through the well-organized Bayer defense. There were complicating factors – both Iniesta and Busquets were returning from injury – but it was a sign that without their principle conductor, the European champions struggle to impose their trademark tiki-taka style.
The game was both an opportunity and a test for Fábregas, and while he set up his side’s vital second goal with a superb assist for Alexis Sánchez, he will not have been totally content. The official UEFA statistics gave him 90 successful passes at an 86 per cent completion rate. Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Carles Puyol and Dani Alves all made more passes, while Iniesta’s completion rate was much higher at 93 per cent. For some context, Xavi’s stats in last year’s Champions League final victory over Manchester United showed 148 passes made and a completion rate of 95 per cent. Fábregas’ Tuesday contribution in a less difficult game did not approach that level of influence.
Even before he returned from his eight-year spell at Arsenal, many in Catalonia saw ‘Cesc’ as the eventual heir to Xavi. On his summer arrival, he seemed to settle quickly, scoring bagfuls of goals and linking particularly well with boyhood friend Messi. The goals and attacking contributions have, however, hidden a struggle to re-adapt, particularly in games when he has been asked to play in Xavi’s ‘interior’ role.
The player admitted this himself after the 2-2 Copa del Rey second leg draw with Real Madrid last month. Barca had been over-run in midfield in the second half of the game and were slightly fortunate to progress. The following day, Fábregas gave an unusually reflective press conference during which he discussed the challenges of re-adapting to life as a Barcelona midfielder, saying he was finding it easier to play further forward as a ‘false nine’ or at the top of a midfield diamond.
“Further forward you have more freedom of movement, you feel freer and can play quicker,” he said. “I always want to get forward, as I was used to at Arsenal, where the football is more ‘nervous’. Playing as an interior, by contrast, means you have to be more disciplined, to keep your position, and sometimes I lack the patience of Busquets and Xavi. It is not easy. You have to learn the movements within the ‘software’ that the coach has created. Although I played here as a boy and picked up all these things, it is not easy to catch it all now. I am the first to demand that of myself.”
As Fábregas – who is still only 24 – works to rid himself of the bad habits picked up in London, his side has struggled to retain their customary dominance. This has been most pronounced since Christmas when Xavi has often been absent (and below 100 per cent physically when he has played). As well as the 2-2 draw with Madrid, the Catalans have been less convincing than usual while valuable La Liga points were dropped against Espanyol, Villarreal and Osasuna.
After the loss in Pamplona, which left Barcelona 10 points behind rivals Real Madrid in the Primera División title race, Guardiola said his side were allowing a “random factor” into games which in other seasons they had controlled.
“We have a problem,” the Catalan coach said. “We have dominated games for a lot of years. In the past the random factor did not figure into our play. We did not give it any room. We must return to that level and not let randomness feature in our games. We have to control it by playing better.”
The figure responsible for eliminating this randomness from games is Xavi. When he has not been available, Guardiola has increasingly turned to an even younger player to bring the required control to games. In recent months, 20-year-old Thiago Alcántara has been introduced from the bench when the tempo needs to be managed or a lead needs to be protected.
Thiago has appeared in all 11 of Barca’s most recent games, even replacing Xavi late in the Copa del Rey first leg at the Santiago Bernabéu with Barcelona holding a narrow 2-1 advantage. When Busquets was missing for the Copa semifinal second leg against Valencia, Thiago impressed in his deep midfield ‘pivote’ role. On Tuesday in Germany, he replaced the tiring Iniesta for the last half hour and helped gain the result which should ensure Barca progress to the quarterfinals.
It remains to be seen how Thiago, whose natural swagger and confidence can sometimes lead him to take unnecessary risks with possession, will develop as he matures. After the Valencia Copa victory, Guardiola praised the youngster while adding he still had plenty to learn.
“Xavi is unique and cannot be compared to anyone,” the coach said. “Thiago does not need to have that pressure. He has played everywhere and he has a terrific physical force. At times he made us suffer, but he played an extraordinary game.” So another work in progress there.
Perhaps the main thing Barca fans will have taken from the recent glimpses of a Xavi-less future is a hope that those days do not arrive too soon. The Barcelona mechanism is so finely calibrated that nobody but the man who has been tweaking it for over a decade can reasonably be expected to know exactly how it works. Whoever plays in Barcelona’s future midfield will need to bring their own qualities and strengths to bear. Also, as their careers develop, Busquets (now 23) may take on a more creative role, and Iniesta (27) could play deeper and instigate moves more often, as he did at times in Leverkusen.
In the meantime, the better news for Barca fans is that their schedule eases in the coming weeks, which should help Xavi play a more regular part. It does look that his muscle injury is not the kind to heal quickly. He will need to be carefully managed through to the end of the season. With Barcelona now very unlikely to win a fourth consecutive La Liga title, this management may involve him often sitting out league games in preparation for bigger European occasions.
Xavi is still a few years away from handing over to the next generation, but the education of Cesc and Thiago will continue apace.