"I see the space and pass. That's what I do"
- Xavi Hernandez
Every so often, as you experience something truly special, in the back of your mind you know that this will be a moment you replay over and over again in your head as long as you live. It's a strange feeling, struggling to grasp that what is currently unfolding will be in your brain indelibly. I'm not yet 18 years old, but I've been watching the game of football for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid recollection of watching on in stunned silence as Zinedine Zidane swung a boot higher than I'd ever seen one swung to win the 2002 European Cup. I remember trying (and failing) to replicate Robbie Keane's celebration inside a screaming school hall after he had heroically hammered a late equaliser past Oliver Kahn at Japan/Korea 2002. And crying a couple of years later as Henrik Larsson kicked his last ball for Celtic.
These are moments that every fan has, each unique and special to them with their own personal significance. These moments are why tens of millions of people from all walks of life will spend far more money than they can afford to watch men chase a ball almost every weekend. These agonies and ecstasies can make football unifying; art in one of its purest forms.
It is with that art that brings me onto the most recent unforgettable football moment that I can replay in my brain at will, as its protagonist is the greatest artist of the modern game – a man who can showcase the precision of Da Vinci and the creativity of Picasso when leather kisses leather on his canvas of Catalan grass. Xavi. More specifically, his performance during a game which provided a microcosm of last season in European football - Catalan dominance.
I watched him as closely as I possibly could; following his metronomic actions intently – pass, move, pass, move, pass, move. Late Spanish broadcaster Andrés Montes is said to have coined the phrase 'tiki-taka' from the musical regularity of passing showcased by the Spanish side he was commentating on, and you could almost tap your foot to the rhythm Xavi played the game that evening as his side famously drubbed their Madrid rivals 5-0 in an historic clasico.
I am not a Barcelona fan, but such quality transcends the colour of the shirt or the badge it carries; a fact perhaps no more strongly evident than after that performance which footballing followers in bars and living rooms the world over (including Wayne Rooney) could not but applaud. As well as opening the scoring and bombing forward when he could, Xavi orchestrated the midfield; pulling the strings and making life easier for every single one of his teammates. It was a masterclass in how the central midfield position and indeed football itself should be played.
Over the course of the season, the stats told an even more impressive story. In last year's campaign, Xavi averaged the most touches per game in both the Champions League and all of the top European Leagues (Spain, Germany, England, France and Italy) combined. In the Champions League, the only non Barca player to come close to his 122 passes per game was Bayern's Schweinsteiger, with a mere 88.
He appeared on the pitch for 4076 minutes in all competitions over the course of the season, yet committed just 7 fouls – an amazing rate when you consider that he plays in a position where most players average an offence or two per match.
In another now famous performance, the Champions League final, not only did Xavi complete the most passes at the highest rate of completion; he also ran 7.42 miles, further than any other player on the pitch, emphasising that at 31 his body is far from letting him down.
Another remarkable statistic is that over the course of the entire year of 2010, only 24 occasions were documented on the planet where one football player completed over 100 passes in a game. Xavi alone was responsible for 12 of them. There is little doubt in my mind as to who will be topping those charts again come the end of 2011.
The Terrassa-born maestro then followed his special World Cup winning year by opening 2011 with a spectacular two a minute, 175 pass effort against Levante, completing 12 more passes on his own than all of the opposition players combined and the most passes in a single game ever recorded by Opta Statistics. That kind of astronomical production has been kept up with consummate consistency, week in, week out.
The standout number for me, though, is that during that clasico demolition , he executed 114 successful passes from 117 attempts (a rate of 97.4%). That is made all the more impressive by how much he got forward in that game, making incisive movements into the danger zones of the opposition half rather than playing stat-padding keep ball with the back four. Furthermore, in the first twenty minutes of the game, Xavi played perfectly by not relinquishing a single ball from his possession, laying the groundwork for one of the most impressive team performances in the history of the game. Truly, a performance to remember.
Between the World Cup, Confederations Cup, and European Championships, this is his first summer off in four years; yet his play has not shown even the faintest hint of deterioration, and nearly every football fan will hope it never does. If he takes full advantage of that much needed rest, I don't envy any one faced with the mammoth task of marking him and attempting to quell his influence when the new season starts in a couple of weeks.
Combining artistry and ingenuity with mechanical efficiency, you almost run out of superlatives when it comes to Barcelona's number 6, and it is a real injustice that he is yet to pick up a well-deserved Balon D'Or. They might be talking about Ronaldo and Messi for decades to come; but if I could pick one player who has defined this era in football, Xavier Hernandez Creus, the modest core element of the two greatest club and international sides seen in years, would be it.
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