In many ways, this is not your classic Barcelona team.
With Xavi sending vacas sagradas Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba to the bench, and with Sergio Busquets in the last year of his contract, it’s starting to look like the club is entering a new era.
The fact that Xavi is the one to do it as manager, given that he was the very personification of the tiki taka era as a player, makes what’s going on now even more intriguing.
To understand Xavi’s vision, you have to start by looking at the front three, because that’s what makes this team so different from the ones that came before it.
From day one, Ousmane Dembele was the manager’s main man. Xavi knew that having dynamic wingers that could stretch the field was the first thing he could do to fix a team that had been stagnating for years, devoid of identity.
Xavi’s early success has less to do with tactics, which I feel is still a work in progress, and more to do with giving the team a definitive structure, and making sure the players understood their roles within it.
Barcelona has primarily played with a 4-3-3 for a long time. But prior to Xavi’s arrival, the managers were forcing players into the formation based on perceived talent, and not because they had the profile for the position.
This was the time of Messi dependence. In fact, the formation and tactics didn’t matter at all, so long as the great one was on the field. Just surround him with other world class talent like Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann. Throw them all on the field, and they’ll find a way to make it work.
Except it didn’t work. There was no system. Yes, they would find a way to win a lot of games, but for the first time in a long time, season after season, there were epic meltdowns that finally reached the tipping point during the pandemic.
With Xavi, he went position by position, and said who is the right person for this role on the field. Dembele was the first piece of the puzzle when designing his front three.
In his first transfer window, if you set aside the contract renewal drama of the Frenchman, he brought in Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Ferran Torres, and that completed his first crack at designing a front three.
Aubameyang was a low cost, and effective short-term solution, at bringing in a center forward who could navigate the final third and finish off chances.
Most of those chances would be created by Dembele, but Ferran Torres, for all the criticism you can give him, was a great structural piece. He takes direction from the manager about where and how to play, reads the game well, and is in the right place at the right time.
Together, Ferran, Aubameyang, and Dembele helped Xavi achieve his goals as manager in his first season, and rescued the club from catastrophe.
But going into the summer, it was time for Xavi ball 2.0. Aubameyang and Ferran were good, but the club needed the best.
Enter Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha.
Now we’re going to see what Xavi’s system can really accomplish. The objective is clear. Win La Liga, first and foremost, and compete seriously for the Champions League too.
Early on, the attacking trident of Lewandowski, Dembele, and Raphinha, has been quite effective, and with all the forward talent Xavi is keeping on the bench, you are starting to see why these three are his preferred starters that he really wants to make work.
Against Sevilla, we saw for the first time since the preseason, how lethal this trident can be.
Sevilla was in control for about the first 20 minutes, just as Real Sociedad was in the previous fixture. In a way this is becoming a pattern under Xavi. Whether it’s intentional or not, his teams are not dominating possession. Instead, we are starting to see a team that’s comfortable playing on the counter attack.
So for long time fans, you watch this and are initially concerned. This doesn’t look like Barcelona. We are not in control. If it weren’t for MATS, we would be in a lot of trouble.
All of that is true, Barcelona do need to start games better. Ter Stegen is having a fantastic start to the season in goal.
Xavi is deliberately choosing Gavi over Frenkie de Jong, to the consternation of many. But maybe there’s a method to that madness.
With Frenkie, you get more control and possession. With Gavi, you get a ball winner and physicality. With the latter, you get more counter-attacking opportunities, and counter pressing that results in chances high up the field, as opposed to having to build from the back.
This leads to Dembele, Raphinha, and Lewandowski finding themselves with more space and time, and lets them do what they do best in the attack.
It’s good for breaking down opponents because it’s more unpredictable.
So in theory, maybe that’s the evolution in the Barcelona style of play we’re starting to see.
Dembele was far from perfect against Sevilla, but he was as threatening as ever in the open field.
Lewandowski is on fire.
Raphinha is starting to heat up too.
There is danger in every direction. How do you defend against that?
Well, you can do what Rayo Vallecano did and just be disruptive. The test going forward will be whether Barcelona can find a solution to get past teams like this, and in La Liga there will be others.
But in the Champions League, this Barca team looks so much more capable of competing with the big dogs.
We haven’t even mentioned yet how much more solid the defensive line looks, and that’s been while tinkering with new options from week to week.
We also have barely talked about Pedri, the prodigy, who has had a lot of pressure taken off his back.
Because Xavi’s turnaround has really been about finding a formula to get the forwards to be dangerous and clinical. From the wingers you have the danger, and from the center forward you have one of the best finishers in the world.
It will be hard to justify playing Ferran and Memphis in the short term.
Ansu Fati will be a puzzle to work in as a starter because he is such a unique player with very different qualities than the three who are currently there.
But for now things are looking promising.
It’s raining goals, and it will be a challenge for any team to defend against this attacking trio for Barcelona.
The question will be whether these three have staying power as a unit, week after week in a congested calendar.
Because if their form dips, there are reinforcements waiting in the wing.
But they’ve earned their manager’s confidence for good reason.
This is an exciting Barcelona team to watch.