After a summer in which many eras have come to a close at the Camp Nou and in Spain, no departure leaves a void as gaping as that of Xavi Hernández. Nearly sixteen years after making a scoring debut away to Real Mallorca, the midfield maestro walks away from FC Barcelona not just as its all-time record appearance maker and its most decorated player but as the club’s most iconic symbol: the La Masia graduate from Terrassa whose refined style revolutionised football and left him with a strong claim to being the sport’s greatest ever player.
It is difficult to explain just how much Xavi has achieved during his career, nor how improbable it seemed at the start. He arrived at a time when football’s tactical norms were rapidly moving away from his style of football. He was small, not particularly fast and never capable of dominating opponents by sheer power alone. He was never going to be seen galloping fifty yards with the ball at his feet, muscling off defenders en route to goal. Despite this, he leaves a legacy perhaps greater than that of any other footballer.
Of course, it would be wrong to say that Xavi invented pass-and-move football. It was around for decades before him and it will not go away now he’s gone. That said, no-one else perfected the art like he did. He is probably the best passer in the game’s history and, as is often overlooked, its greatest mover.
Once Luis Aragonés and Pep Guardiola identified the latter characteristic and moved him forward into his now familiar free-roaming role, he was near unplayable for five years – five years which changed football forever. Nowadays, every young footballer is taught to play like Xavi, regardless of their position. Find space, receive the ball, give it to someone else. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat...
"That's what I do: look for spaces," he told Sid Lowe during an interview for the Guardian in 2011. "All day. I'm always looking. All day, all day. [Xavi starts gesturing as if he is looking around, swinging his head]. Here? No. There? No. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space. It's like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass. That's what I do."
His ability to glide across the pitch for ninety minutes, covering a considerably greater distance than everyone else on it, was the foundation of his skillset. It allowed him the chance to take possession of the ball more often than any other player and to play more intelligent, inventive and incisive passes than they could ever dream of trying.
The simplicity and persistence of his passing game made it unstoppable. All manner of complicated tactical plans were hatched to try and stop him but, until age finally caught up with him, no-one ever could. There would always be space somewhere on the pitch and Xavi would always find it. The best anyone could do was tacitly concede defeat and put a wall of ten men between Xavi and the goal, hoping that by doing so they could at least keep the score respectable.
In a globalised age in which every tiny mistake is not just seen all over the world but magnified, every top-level footballer must be near perfect. They are obliged to maintain Herculean levels of fitness and technique and are subjected to constant and rigorous statistical analysis. Xavi’s individual figures – number of passes attempted, passes completed, distance covered, assists/key passes provided – have consistently ranked him above everyone else. As ever, though, the stats only ever told half the story.
As anyone who saw him play can attest, Xavi’s style of play was as beautiful as it was productive. YouTube is full of ‘Xavi’s Best Passes’ compilations. One could debate which was his best assist all day. The first time I saw him play in person in 2010, he combined with Andrés Iniesta for a double-backheel one-two in the middle of the pitch that received a roar as loud as any of the five goals scored that night. I couldn’t join in with the cheers, though – my breath had been taken away.
It would be a mistake for Barcelona’s new manager, Luis Enrique – as well as whoever takes over from Vicente Del Bosque with the Spanish national team – to try and find someone to replace Xavi. Such a talent comes along once in a lifetime. They must move on and maximise the abilities of the players they now have.
Having said that, it would also be wrong for them to stray too far away from the basic principles of tiki-taka, the style with which his name will always be synonymous. The problem is not that tiki-taka has become outmoded – it is more that Xavi’s advancing age meant that he could not do the pressing required to make it work. While both teams will miss his presence more than words can say, the mouth-watering reserves of talent they possess means that neither is finished now that he is.
Xavi may never have been as gloriously spectacular as the likes of Diego Maradona, Pelé or Lionel Messi, but he leaves Barcelona and Spain every bit as great. He was the most important player in the greatest club side ever assembled; the heartbeat of the most successful international team of all-time; a World Cup winner; a two-time European Championship Winner; a three-time Champions League winner; the standard-bearer for a style of play that re-shaped the global game.
The unprecedented success he enjoyed means that his influence will be felt on almost every game at football’s top-level for as long as the sport is played. No other player can say that.
Adéu, Xavi. Gràcies per tot.
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