From the beginning, even when times were tough, Xavi had a vision of how he wanted his Barcelona team to play, and who he needed in order to make it work.
In January, he was directly involved in the signings of Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, not just as short-term bandages, but as important structural pieces in the system he was implementing. Both had big roles to play, but ultimately were going to be members of the supporting cast.
Xavi already had a star in Pedri, and it was just a matter of time until the prodigy was healthy and ready to make his impact.
But even a playmaker like Pedri couldn’t do it alone. In order for this system to work completely, dangerous wingers with pace were needed who could break down defensive lines.
Xavi knew right away what he had in Ousmane Dembele, and he knew that the Frenchman had the specific profile that was needed to make his attack go. And Xavi wasn’t quiet about it either, stating matter-of-factly that Dembele could be the best in the world in his position.
Even when things got ugly with contract negotiations, Xavi made it clear to Joan Laporta that in the best interests of the team, Dembele would play, because he was, definitively, the best option they had in the position.
It has always been about winning for Xavi, and putting the success of the team above all else.
Dembele, for all his self-confidence and desire to bet on himself to earn a lucrative new contract, needed a coach who understood him, and truly believed in his talents, even when the fan base and pundits began to doubt him.
The Frenchman came at a difficult time in Barcelona history. Neymar had just left unceremoniously, the club was flush with cash, and he became a world-record signing, adding expectations that were going to be almost impossible live up to.
Ernesto Valverde was the manager, followed by Quique Setien and Ronald Koeman. These were coaches who lacked imagination, and although they played Dembele when he was fit, they didn’t put him in a position tactically to maximize his potential.
Of course during those years, we will always wonder what could have been if Dembele had stayed healthy. Whether it was the lifestyle of a young player in need of guidance, or the club’s subpar medical staff, or a combination of the two, fans felt robbed of seeing a great player play, and were left frustrated as the time on his contract began to run down.
Because of Xavi, we now have confirmation that Dembele is what we always hoped he could be. A truly incomparable winger who won’t be easily replaced if the club and player can’t find a way to negotiate a fair renewal that values Dembele’s unique talents, and stays within the realm of what is possible in today’s financial climate at Barcelona.
When the situation was at its lowest, Mateu Alemany signed Adama Traore on loan in the waning days of the winter transfer window.
Adama was an incredible spark in his first games as the situation with Dembele was still being sorted out. Unfortunately for Adama, once Xavi gave Dembouz the opportunity, he held on tight and never looked back.
The comparison between the two tells the story. Adama is an extraordinary specialist on the right side, and fits in well to Xavi’s system. The difference with Dembele is that he’s multidimensional, and can go anywhere at any time and make a big play.
The assist to Pedri against Sevilla is a good example of this. Whereas Adama would have carried the ball down line and served in a cross, Dembele cut the ball inside with a confident first touch, and had the vision to see Pedri and play him in with his left foot.
The rest of the game was a highlight reel of Dembele showcasing the many different ways he is capable of beating defenders and creating danger in front of goal.
Xavi saw this potential all along. He has structured the team in a way for Dembele to know exactly what his role is. Stay high and wide, and let the game come to you. When you’re in isolation you have the freedom to go to work and show the world how good you are.
Dembele has rewarded Xavi’s confidence. He’s even making a point defensively to track back. As sweet as the assist was, the cherry on top was seeing him go in for the slide tackle on the sidelines to help close out the win.
There’s so much chemistry with these Barcelona players, and everyone on the field seems to enjoy playing with Dembele.
We already knew about Aubameyang, but Ferran Torres, Frenkie de Jong, and Pedri are developing a special connection with him as well. Sergio Busquets looks world class again, and it’s in no small measure because of the attacking options he now enjoys.
Players are coming out of the woodwork to praise Dembele, because players love teammates who make them look good, and help the team win at the end of the day. Everyone now recognizes how important Dembele has been to the recent success.
But only one man can say that he knew it all along. And that man is the manager. The maestro. The Dembele whisperer. Xavi Hernandez himself.
It’s high time for Dembele and Barcelona to see that they need one another.
This summer, let’s hope the two sides can come together in good faith, let bygones be bygones, and reach a deal that is fair to everyone.
No one will be cheering that outcome more than Xavi.
Because in year two of their partnership, we are likely see the best version of Dembele yet.
And as a result, we are more likely to see a Barcelona team that is once again the envy of the world.