On the one hand, Barcelona is sitting in first place going into the first Clasico of the season, having only conceded one goal in eight La Liga games.
Barca’s form may have dipped since the international break, but unlike last season, they are finding a way to get results even when their performances are subpar.
This domestic campaign looks like it will be a runaway race between Spain’s biggest rivals.
But that’s only half of the equation. After investing big, and risking their financial future, Xavi and the club know it’s essential to become Champions League contenders again.
They now find themselves on the outside looking in, and they need to win their remaining games if they want to avoid another shocking relegation to the Europa League.
It’s not that they have performed so badly against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
Compared to their efforts last year with Ronald Koeman, they look more confident and competitive this time, and frankly have been in a position to win all their matches.
But in these games, the details matter, and Xavi made costly decisions that he’ll need to correct on Wednesday to put his team in the best position to turn the tide, get the win, and be back on track to achieve their goal of advancing to the knockouts.
The first thing Xavi got wrong in both matches, and must not repeat, is starting Marcos Alonso over Alejandro Balde.
Balde has been the best left-back this season, and has earned the right to play in big games. This has nothing to do with age. If you are good enough you are old enough, as we’ve learned with Pedri and Gavi.
With Alonso, Barca will continue to get a lot of the possession, but they will lose out on having a creative, and dangerous, attacking threat down the left wing that is desperately needed.
That’s especially important, because we’re starting to see that none of the left wingers on the roster are rising to the occasion and showing they can be counted on consistently.
Raphinha has been given several chances, but really looks like a fish out of water on that side.
Ferran Torres can put in a shift, but is still lacking confidence, and is really not much more than a backup option at this point.
Ansu Fati is hopefully the man of the future in this position, but for now doesn’t have the fitness, at least in the eyes of his manager.
The best person to play there at the moment is Ousmane Dembele. Even though he is better on the right, he is perfectly comfortable on the left, and has even had moments of brilliance playing their last season. His versatility is part of the reason he is so valuable to this team.
Playing Dembele there will allow Xavi to put Raphinha back on the right where he can be the most dangerous.
This is a critical detail that Xavi must get right. This setup of Balde and Dembele attacking on one side, with Raphinha on the other, with Robert Lewandowski up the middle, fixes the predictability of just bombing up one side and putting in crosses.
Raphinha is a great right winger because he can offer service, but he can also cut in and strike fear with his powerful striking ability.
Dembele and Balde can be a bag of tricks on the other side, even with Inter sitting deep.
But because we do expect the Italians to be extremely defensive, no one will be more important in this game than the midfielders.
And this is where the most difficult decision of all is required.
In my opinion, Xavi needs to drop Gavi in favor of Frenkie de Jong.
Barcelona doesn’t need a ball winner in this game because Inter is going to give them the ball by default.
They need the best playmakers in the midfield, and that means Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Frenkie.
Frenkie gives you the added benefit of being someone who knows how to make runs into the box as an additional target man, which takes pressure off Lewandowski.
He also is much better than Gavi at penetrating through the midfield on the dribble. In fact, this is an attribute that the young Spaniard has yet to develop at all, while Frenkie excels at it.
By starting the Dutchman on the bench against Celta, you wonder if this is where Xavi’s mind was already at.
I unfortunately doubt it, and believe that Xavi will ultimately go with Gavi, who had a very industrious game, and continues to be an undroppable for club and country.
Choosing Frenkie will be the hardest decision that Xavi makes, but in a game that will make or break the season, he needs to do it in order to maximize tactical opportunities.
In my mind, Frenkie is the missing ingredient that best explains what Barca has been missing of late. Barcelona needs better playmaking from their midfield in order to take this burden off the forwards exclusively. Frenkie is still one of the best in the world.
However things turn out on Wednesday, Xavi will be accountable.
He has enough information to know what has worked, and what hasn’t.
The Camp Nou will be rocking, and he will have the full support of the fans.
The manager needs to do his part now, and put out the team with the best chance of breaking down the blue and black wall.
Even with all the injuries, he has enough talent at his disposal.
He just needs to put the pieces in the right place in order to solve the puzzle.
These are the moments where the best managers show their value.
Xavi must step up.