The Importance of Xavi

David Ramos

Saturday's defeat to Real Sociedad showed just how vital Xavi is to the team's balance.

It's no secret that Xavi is the shining example of a Barcelona midfielder. A small, skilful, technically brilliant player who can effortlessly pick out a pass that lesser players can only dream of. His rise through the Barça ranks from competing for Pep Guardiola's place in the team to being the lynchpin of a team coached by his ex-teammate are testament to the ability and stubbornness he holds.

When Xavi first made the step up from the B-team to the first team, fans did not warm to him. Thanks to an ankle injury to Guardiola, Xavi saw increased minutes in the first team and when Pep announced his decision to leave the club at the end of the 2000-01 season, fans claimed Xavi was the reason the club was losing a legend. But it times of financial hardship which almost forced the club to file for bankruptcy, the need for quality homegrown players became stronger. Xavi alongside Carles Puyol led the way and fans slowly started to warm to the player.

Playing more defensively then he does today, Xavi started to dominate games and help Barcelona dictate the play. Any fans who had yet to warm to the playmaker were soon won over as Xavi scored his first Clásico goal in March 2002.

His progression continued in the upward direction and by the start of the 2004-05 season, Xavi was the vice-captain of the club. Claiming a La Liga title and a Champions League title in his first two seasons in the role. Guardiola arrived as coach, scuppering a near-completed move to Bayern Munich, and Xavi became the hub of Barcelona.

Xavi's best skill is his ability to see in an almost perfect circle around him. "That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking." said the great midfielder. This skill explains how his passing stats usually eclipse any other player on the field. In a similar way to how Messi breaks scoring records, Xavi breaks passing records. The Barça number six currently holds the record for highest number of completed passes in a single game in the European Championships with 127. He also completed 96 out of 96 passes against PSG in last season's Champions League.

With Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, midfield dominance is practically assured. In Guardiola's era, this assurance coupled with Lionel Messi's rise to the top of world football, was a key factor in how they became the best team on the planet. The trend continued through Vilanova's tenure and this season Xavi is averaging 91.2 passes per league game and 110.1 passes per Champions League game.

To explain why Xavi is so important to Barcelona, you have to deconstruct the team into strengths and weaknesses and how this fits with the club's philosophy. The club has a policy that possession is vital. Having possession allows you to dictate the game and reduces the chances of you conceding goals. This is why when Barcelona lose the ball, the players would charge down the unfortunate opponent who happened to be borrowing it at the time. This, as you can imagine, requires a lot of energy from every player. Then imagine doing this ten or fifteen times a game because you keep losing possession.

So if you had a player such as an Mesut Özil or David Silva, good midfield players but not midfielders like Xavi, your whole team would be exhausted by the end of the match because of the sheer amount of running they had to do. Then you put in Xavi, a player who has no problem retaining the ball and finding the right pass. The team conserves energy by letting the ball do the work while not allowing the opposition to attack the defence. Andrés Iniesta is another player who can do this but even he is a more attack-minded player then Xavi, while Cesc Fàbregas is more attacking still.

You can essentially think of Xavi as an accurate trampoline in the Barça midfield. You can fire a ball at him and it will just ping off him to an open player. This is why taking him out of the team has such a big effect on the team's balance. Before we would see games where the ratio of Barcelona chances to opposition chances would be about 5:1. Without Xavi it is much more common to see a 2:1 or even 1:1 ratio.

Then you compare this to the Sociedad game. Sergio Busquets was played further afield and expected to perform as Xavi does. But he looked uncomfortable and Alex Song was unable to produce what Busquets regularly does at pivote. This meant Sociedad could get at the Barcelona defence and it doesn't matter if you have the best defenders in the world, if you keep giving the opposition chances, eventually they will take one.

At the age of 34, Xavi may be past his peak years and while some of his skills may decline, such as his ability to track back, his ability to pick out a pass has certainly not diminished. Barcelona continue to look for a replacement, both Thiago and Sergi Roberto seem more accustomed to the Iniesta role, the Barcelona fans can simply enjoy having Xavi in the team and be grateful that Pep convinced him to stay in Spain and not head for Munich.

"From the first moment I saw him play, I knew he would become the brain behind Barcelona for many years to come." Pep Guardiola, 2008

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