The World Cup is always full of revelations.
Little known players have the opportunity to grab the attention of the world, and established stars have the chance to show what they can do under different systems.
For club coaches, it’s a chance for introspection. A break to sit back and watch how their talent performs under the management of a different coach with different ideas in mind.
When the season resumes for Barcelona at the end of the year, the question will be whether Xavi used the time to think through ways to improve the team, especially with the way he utilizes the seventeen players who have featured at the World Cup.
Perhaps the best information we can consider comes from analyzing Spain, France, and Brazil.
These are the three of the best teams at the tournament, and in different ways they offer insights into what Barcelona currently is, and what they could be with structural and tactical changes.
In the case of Spain, it’s a pseudo Barcelona team to begin with.
If Xavi is mostly content with what he’s seen from his team so far, he’ll look at Luis Enrique’s squad and say, this is the way forward. It’s a like-for-like 4-3-3 formation, with Sergio Busquets, Gavi, and Pedri dominating the playing time in the midfield.
As it is with Barcelona, so it has become with the Spanish national team since their World Cup victory in 2010. Win through possession. Keep the ball away from your opponents, let the midfielders go to work, and eventually with patience you’ll find a breakthrough.
Remember though that in 2010, it was a series of 1-0 victories that won Spain the trophy.
2014 was a major let down with a crash out in the group stage, and in 2018 they were shocked by Russia in the round of 16.
Everything looked great after thrashing Costa Rica 7-0 in the first match of this tournament. But since then, we’re starting to see the shortcomings of Luis Enrique’s system that parallel the struggles of Barcelona. Too comfortable with possession for the sake of it without taking more shots forward, and a defense that gives up goals at very inopportune times.
At least Barcelona has a true center-forward in Robert Lewandowski, and a dynamic winger in Ousmane Dembele. If Ansu Fati returns to form, they do have a formidable front three to make a run for the La Liga title with. In addition to that, having a center-back pairing of Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde is an improvement on the options for Spain.
But let’s think outside of the box for a second by looking at the two best teams in the tournament.
Could Xavi be inspired by what he sees from Brazil and France, and could that offer a new way of looking at what this Barcelona team could be?
Most of the time, both teams play in a 4-2-3-1, something many Barca fans and commentators have been suggesting for a long time.
Both teams are ball dominant, but unlike Barcelona, they are willing to take chances in transition. One reason they do this is because it’s part of their cultural makeup. Joga bonito is about playing beautifully and having fun. Having the ball by itself isn’t fun. Doing something with it is.
Another reason they can do this and get away with it is because of their players. Specifically, both teams are very strong defensively, and can shut down counter attacks.
Their center-backs are both athletic and smart. But they also have the cover of two defensive midfielders who are not afraid to be physical.
Rabiot, Tchouameni, Paqueta and Casemiro are essential elements that make the system go, and enable the likes of Mbappe, Dembele, Vinicius Junior, and Neymar to take risks on the other end.
So if Barcelona were to evolve in this direction, Sergio Busquets would be the next club legend on the chopping block.
And Xavi does have players to replace him with. Frankie de Jong and Franck Kessie could easily try out this role, and I have a feeling they would do very well.
The main reason we are unlikely to see it is because Xavi, like Luis Enrique, is desperate to have Pedri and Gavi on the field at all times. In a 4-2-3-1, Gavi is the odd man out because of course Pedri is taking the role of the 10. Gavi would have to play the left wing, and join Dembele and Lewandowski on the forward line. Could that work? Occasionally perhaps, but it’s not a long-term solution.
But the advantages of this system are clear. It would suit Lewandowski and Dembele perfectly. Bob is Bob, and Dembele is shining in the World Cup under this setup.
Interestingly enough, one of the people he’s playing so well with is Antoine Griezmann who is playing behind the striker as a playmaker. It goes to show you that good managers look at their best players and find a way to build a system around them. Barcelona has been so inflexible over the years because of its identity. Griezmann was a casualty, but he is proving his class now under a manager who knows how to maximize his potential.
Would it be such a bad thing if Gavi and Pedri were rotated more often, or are they so indispensable together that Xavi won’t even think about using a different formation that plays to the strengths of other players?
The World Cup is an ideation factory. If Xavi can’t generate inspiration here, he’s not likely to find it anywhere else in his tenure as Barcelona manager.
It’ll be interesting to see how Spain performs in the knockouts. If they make a deep run, Xavi is likely to see it as evidence that the system works, and we’ll be seeing a lot of that midfield, along with Ferran Torres in the near future.
But what if they get knocked out in the last 16 or the quarter-finals?
What if we see a France and Brazil final as many people expect?
Are there any lessons to be learned?
It’ll be intriguing to see how this World Cup affects Xavi’s management going forward, both on the field, and with the winter transfer window.
This tournament has been nothing but unpredictable so far, and maybe some of that magic will rub off on the Barcelona boss.