I was a Xavi skeptic. I’ll admit it right off the bat. I wanted to wait to actually see his team in action before buying into the hype and hope that his arrival at Barcelona brought over the last three weeks. Erik Ten Hag was always the name for me, and it some ways it still is. The guy is just a brilliant coach.
But Xavi is already starting to win me over.
Just two games into the job, the legendary player is absolutely proving his worth as a coach. I was a firm believer that the problem with this Barcelona team was never only about talent; despite some clear holes in key areas, there are some damn good footballers all over the squad who were simply not taught how to play the game well by the previous three managers over the four years since Luis Enrique’s departure.
After three weeks and just 180 minutes of football, Xavi has proved my point. Yes, the team only scored once in two games. Yes, they wasted a giant opportunity at home against Benfica that will probably send them to the Europa League unless they pull off a miracle in Munich. But anyone who has watched Barça over those 180 minutes and still thinks that their issues had nothing to do with coaching is either blind or purposely ignorant.
Xavi’s Barça is already very, very well coached. They already know what to do with and without the ball, and they play football the way a Barcelona team should: attacking is the priority, intensity and desire drive the team, and there is a passion and pride for the shirt that hasn’t been seen in a long time.
Oh, and the tactics are pretty good too.
Rather than analyzing the matches themselves and what happened tactically in each game, I wanted to find out the patterns from the games against Espanyol and Benfica. What are the pilars of Xavi’s system? What does he want from his team and how well has he communicated that? Let’s take a look.
Here’s a tip about Xavi’s team: whenever the teamsheet comes out for the next few matches, don’t try to guess the exact formation and just assume that the team will attack with a back three, two wingers, and five players in the middle.
That was made perfectly clear in the Espanyol game, when we all thought Barça would play in a 4-3-3. They actually lined up that way to start the match:
But even in what clearly looks like a 4-3-3 shape you can already see the clues about what Xavi really wants: Gavi, who was supposed to be the left winger, is closer to the middle than Ilias Akhomach on the right wing. Left-back Jordi Alba is already higher up the pitch than right-back Óscar Mingueza, and Frenkie De Jong is in a slightly deeper position than Nico González in the midfield trio.
As they progress the ball through the middle, Barça eventually settle into their real shape: a back three of Mingueza, Gerard Piqué and Eric García, Alba and Akhomach as wingers (not wingbacks), and five players in the middle: Sergio Busquets, De Jong, Nico, Gavi and Memphis Depay.
Against Benfica, a game in which Barça came out in a 3-4-2-1 formation, we see the same thing with different players: Ronald Araujo in place of Mingueza, Clément Lenglet instead of García, and Yusuf Demir replacing Akhomach. The structure is the same, though: back three, two wingers, five players in the middle.
Ronald Koeman had a similar idea for much of his 15 months in charge: a 3-5-2 formation with a back three, two wingbacks, three central midfielders and two strikers. Quique Setién tried the same and quickly gave up on it during his disastrous coaching tenure. But the difference between those two coaches and Xavi is that you can never guess where Xavi’s men will be: the five central players are never in the same position or performing the same role, a welcome change to the stagnant and predictable systems of Koeman, Setién and even Ernesto Valverde.
Against Espanyol, Busquets played deeper than everyone else, and De Jong and Nico played as two number 8’s while Gavi and Memphis acted as false nines. Against Benfica, Busquets and De Jong were a double pivot with Gavi and Nico as number 10’s and Depay playing as a classic nine to occupy the Benfica center-backs.
The same five players in both games, and all five playing completely different roles in both. That’s coaching.
And because the coaching is good, you see excellent individual performances: Nico and De Jong played absolutely out of their minds against Benfica, and Gavi was the star of the show against Espanyol. Busquets was very good in both, proving that he is still about as good a holding midfielder as there is in this sport as long as he has a good system around him.
Memphis... is a bit of a problem. His selfishness cost Barça in both games, and especially against Benfica. Perhaps the months of Koeman completely destroying everything around him made Depay think that he is the savior, the guy that needs to solve all problems and do some sort of Lionel Messi impression.
But Xavi’s team needs all 11 players to play for each other for it to work, and Memphis hasn’t played for anyone other than himself. He doesn’t need to completely change who he is as a player; his constant desire to score is what makes him great. But ignoring teammates in better positions and complaining about not getting the ball when someone else should have gotten it won’t help. Think of Memphis as Season 2 Jamie Tartt: the perfect balance between being a prick and a team player. Maybe he needs a signal from the sideline.
(Sidebar: Roy Kent is the best.)
One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of Xavi’s coaching over the first two games is just how often the rhythm of the passing changes. While Xavi clearly wants his team to dominate possession, he doesn’t want a boring, sideways passing style, which was the mark of Barça’s teams over the last four years.
Xavi doesn’t want defensive possession; it’s all about progressing from back to front with a compact team to arrive in the box with as many players as possible. If that requires a 50-pass sequence, fine; if all it takes is a 30-yard through ball from a defender to a midfielder in the final third, do it as well. A long ball over the top to someone making a run in behind? Do it! Nico González carrying the ball for 50 yards and running through everyone, even his own teammates? Yes, please!
That is not only refreshing and exciting as a Barça fan after watching so many boring games for the last half-decade, but it’s a crucial part of actually beating other football teams. You need to keep them on their toes, never knowing how you’re going to create a chance. Predictability was the worst part of Barça’s attack. After Xavi’s first two games, that is no longer a problem.
Just take a look at all of the pictures of players making runs in behind:
Even DJ Khaled would get tired of saying “another one!” with all of those runs. And you can see how they happen regardless of who has the ball and where they are. In three of those pictures a Barça player has the ball in the midfield line and plays it either through or over the top of the defense. All five of the plays above created a dangerous attack that was finished either with a shot or resulted in a corner-kick.
That is the secret sauce of Xavi’s Barça: constant movement. There is a structure to the back three and the two wingers keeping extreme width, but everybody else should present themselves as an option at all times, whether it’s a short or long one. That movement confuses teams, forces opposition defenders to make constant decisions in split seconds which causes mistakes and creates scoring opportunities.
Xavi’s Barça gives itself a better chance to score more goals than any other Barça team since 2017. And that’s after just two games. It’s really impressive stuff.
“But they’ve only scored one goal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, the haters will scream. And that is when the lack of talent does become a problem. Xavi simply has no other central attacking options besides Memphis right now, since Luuk De Jong is clearly not part of his plans. When the big striker who can score headers in the 93rd minute when the game is 0-0 doesn’t even come on when the game is 0-0, you know the coach doesn’t count on him.
Ansu Fati and Martin Braithwaite are injured. Sergio Agüero may not come back. Ousmane Dembélé just returned (and was spectacular against Benfica), and Yusuf Demir, Ilias Akhomach and Ez Abde are too young even though all three look really good.
As well as they have played, Nico González and Gavi are chance creators, not finishers, and that showed in crucial moments against Benfica. Memphis’ selfishness has already been addressed. Had Ansu Fati played on Tuesday, Barça are probably in the Champions League Round of 16 right now. Philippe Coutinho is a lost cause.
Barça desperately need attackers, and must find a way to get at least one in January.
Transition & Pace
Last but not least, the crucial piece of what made Xavi’s Barça so impressive in the first two games, something that just pictures can’t really do justice: the sheer speed at which this team operates. Gone are the days of slow, boring attacks and terrible transition defense. This Barça team runs A LOT, and very fast, and non-stop.
Again, the pictures don’t do justice, but just look at the number of Barça players in a dead sprint as they went on a counter-attack against Benfica:
Essentially a five against three. More impressive is seeing how many Barça players ran back to stop a Benfica counter-attack:
EIGHT Barça defenders against five Benfica attackers. That’s how you get two clean sheets and two really good defensive performances in Xavi’s first two games, perhaps the most surprising aspect of his team so far.
But it’s not just about the running that’s making them better at the back. There is a better defensive structure even when they’re in possession. Against Espanyol, when Jordi Alba was the left-back in a 4-3-3, he wasn’t bombing forward every time. We saw a lot of this:
That’s Alba on the same line as Mingueza and the two center-backs. Because of where the ball is, Alba can’t play as a winger and leave García all alone on the left side if Barça lose possession in that area. His job on Saturday was left-back first, and until the ball was in a more advanced position he was not allowed to be a winger.
Another reason Barça were so good defensively was just how compact the team was when they had the ball:
That’s virtually the entire team in a 40-meter block that will squeeze the space and try to win the ball back as soon as they lost it. Barça did this to near perfection against both Espanyol and Benfica, and only allowed one true counter-attacking chance in both games: the hilarious and potentially Barça-life-saving miss by Benfica’s Haris Seferovic.
It obviously can’t all be perfect. Xavi’s Barça has been very susceptible to crosses, whether they come from live balls or set pieces, something that ironically was the Achilles’ heel of Barça’s best teams when Xavi was a player. They should have conceded at least one goal from a cross against Espanyol, and Benfica’s disallowed goal in the first half on Tuesday came from a corner.
There are clearly things to work on: player fitness is at the top of the list. Barça players haven’t been used to this level of intensity under the previous managers, and they clearly ran out of gas in the final 30 minutes of the two games under Xavi. That is actually a positive thing because it shows that they are capable of keeping up that intensity for 60 mintues already, which is a good sign for what’s to come once their fitness levels improve.
They are better defensively, but the aerial threat of other teams is clearly a big problem already. They need a goal-scorer in January as badly as Tony Stark needed a replacement for paladium in Iron Man 2.
But the balance of the first two games of the Xavi Era is overwhelmingly positive. He has already made his mark. This is his team, and he has proven that the very good footballers on this squad can play much better than they did under previous coaching. Once they can run for 90 minutes and score some goals, this team will be very good.
Unfortunately, the Bayern Munich game is only two weeks away. The short-term might still be painful, but Xavi’s Barça shows plenty of promise for the future.