It’s been a sobering month for Xavi and his players.
The momentum that carried Barcelona through February and March has run dry, and what comes next will be the true measure of the progress made under the young manager.
A top four finish is an expectation, not a goal, because it’s essential to the future of a club that’s still on the brink.
After the historic statement victory in the Clasico, and the successful run to the quarter-finals of the Europa League, it seemed there were two clear paths for Barcelona to qualify for the Champions League.
Even as their form began to dip, it was encouraging to see the come from behind win against Levante. Like Real Madrid on the weekend, championship teams prove their ability to get results even when they get the tactics wrong.
Cadiz gave Barcelona a wake up call. It’s the same wake up call they’ve been giving for the past two years since being promoted to the first division, with two shock victories and two draws.
Against Frankfurt, Xavi had excuses at his disposal. The German invasion was a surprising sight, but it didn’t explain why his team was eliminated. Frankfurt played like the game mattered to them because they rarely compete in Europe, while Barcelona played like they were too good for the tournament.
Against Cadiz, the victors played like the game mattered to them, because their survival in La Liga depended on it. Conversely, Barcelona continues to take their run of good form, which is now in the rearview mirror, for granted.
Now, everything is at stake. For Real Sociedad, a victory on Thursday will be worth six points, as it will catapult them back into the running for a top four finish themselves.
It’s not enough for Barcelona to want to be back in the Champions League. They have to understand the gravity of the consequences of failing to do so, and start playing with the intensity that is required.
One helpful question to ponder is what made Barcelona so good for two months to begin with.
Was it the impact of the winter signings?
Was it Xavi’s system finally starting to click?
Or was the return of Pedri that important?
| Barcelona in La Liga this season.— Barça Buzz (@Barca_Buzz) April 18, 2022
- 10 wins, 2 draws in 12 matches.
- 32/36 points won.
- 7 wins, 7 draws, 5 losses in 19 matches.
- 28/57 points won.
Barcelona have not lost a league game when Pedri has played. The team's most important player? pic.twitter.com/dC6vzPcnmo
For Barcelona’s sake, let’s hope it’s not the latter. There is a golden opportunity for other players to step up now, and prove their value to the club.
Frenkie de Jong and Gavi played poorly against Cadiz.
Frenkie is the veteran, and has less excuses, but Gavi also needs to grow up quickly. This is, after all, a harsh, what have you done for me lately business.
And as the manager, Xavi should be doing his players the favor of holding them to account for bad performances.
That may be the biggest reason of all why team form has dipped.
Pep Guardiola is notorious for dropping players who aren’t at their best. There’s no favoritism. No, I only trust some players. If you aren’t great, someone else is in.
Xavi has the luxury of finally having a deep bench to call on.
Nico Gonzalez is still an option as a midfielder, but the name screaming out against Cadiz was Riqui Puig.
Riqui is the most like-for-like replacement for Pedri. Gavi is more of an eight than a ten. Likewise for Frenkie.
With Riqui, you get a true playmaking attacking midfielder. Someone who can find a solution with a killer pass. He’s capable of managing the tempo of the game on the ball, whether you need it to be fast and direct, or calm and controlled.
In losing Pedri, those are the qualities that need to be replaced, and Riqui has the profile to do it.
The midfield was a glaring problem against Cadiz, but over the past few games, concerns have also been raised with the forwards.
It was good to see Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang come off the bench, but his logical replacements are Luuk de Jong or Martin Braithwaite.
If you wanted to give Memphis Depay an opportunity, Ferran Torres was the right substitute.
Ferran has been solid for Xavi, but he hasn’t been exceptional. It’s confounding why Xavi has rewarded him with so many minutes when he has other options to experiment with.
Meanwhile, the dangerous Adama Traore has been marginalized. Memphis is playing out of position. Braithwaite hasn’t played a single second.
Not to mention the promising youngster Ez Abde, who was a very capable threat on the wing, and is probably dying for another call up.
The point is Xavi has stuck with the same guys for too long, and has been slow to respond to changing circumstances. Ousmane Dembele has been the only one to earn it consistently, and with his heavy workload, you start to worry about injury.
Xavi deserves credit for changing the attitude of the players, and putting them in a favorable position to achieve what is absolutely necessary.
Now the pressure is on him to look in the mirror and realize he has the power to make changes and get the team back to its winning ways.
Losing Pedri is significant, but coming out of the Lionel Messi era, there should be no dependence on any one player.
Not Ansu, Gavi, or Dembele, or anyone.
This is a team, and everyone who is hungry should be given an opportunity.
When the intensity goes away, next man up.
All eyes are on Xavi.
The training wheels are off. Time to sink or swim, and the Europa League lifeline is gone.
Seven critical games to go to turn around the fortunes of a fragile club.