Barcelona has experienced two revelations that could payoff big this season.
We now know the team’s best backline, and how much more effective the attack is with an extra midfielder.
For Xavi, it’s been an exercise of trial and error. From the beginning, we could appreciate his vision, but were frustrated by the setbacks along the way.
Expensive signings that struggled to fit in.
Exciting young talent on the cusp of taking off, but held back by a system that wasn’t quite clicking yet.
A club desperate to maintain its identity, while slowly figuring out how to adapt to a game that’s constantly changing.
Xavi is a young manager, and he has made mistakes, some of them quite costly. But he has also been undeniably committed to the cause, and his persistent experimentation on the field is now yielding data at just the right time to win trophies.
The Spanish Supercopa is just the beginning.
Now it’s time for the manager to test what he’s learned, and show he can put forth a consistent product.
What we’ve seen this week doesn’t feel like an aberration.
The takedown of Atletico Madrid wasn’t pretty, but it was music to our ears to see a gritty defense hold strong for a result.
The lineup of Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, and Alejandro Balde moves Barcelona into the future. Doing that also involves bidding farewell Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, and even Eric Garcia.
Eric was actually having a solid season, but he’s also a relic of the past that gives you false confidence with his abilities on the ball, while looking past the risks on defense. The fact that we are now talking about selling him to Arsenal is a significant turnaround in how Barca is thinking about defenders.
But another important question remained unanswered.
Xavi’s 4-3-3 had not yet looked truly convincing.
The midfielders were talented individually, but left much to be desired in combination.
And how to best deploy the wingers?
Ousmane Dembele was always a threat, but the game of whipping balls into the box was becoming predictable.
For all the opportunities given to Raphinha and Ferran Torres, neither was stamping their authority on the other flank.
Using four midfielders gets the playmakers on the field. Having to decide between Frenkie de Jong and Gavi was a false choice. There was room for everyone.
It works because the team is less rigid, giving creative license to the midfield maestros to read the game, and express themselves using their instincts.
Previously, the wingers had to play high and wide, and stay that way.
Now, Dembele has the liberty to float wide, or play through the center, making him harder to mark.
The midfielders can roam, filling in space as needed.
Balde is more than capable of providing width on the left side.
Finally, the artists have been given a blank canvas. On any given day, they can create as they are inspired. This coloring book has been thrown away.
The combination of a strong, no-nonsense defense, with a midfield that has been liberated, honors Barcelona’s heritage, while respecting the changes in the modern era.
This is the way forward.
It may have taken Xavi a while to get here, but all that matters now is that he’s arrived.
Considering it’s the middle of a transfer window, it will be interesting to see how recent success informs the strategy on the market.
Are Raphinha and Ferran Torres surplus to requirements, or will they find new life in this system?
Will we be seeing more of Pablo Torre and Franck Kessie, or will Xavi vacillate tactically and use three forwards from time to time instead?
As good as it feels to humble Real Madrid and win a trophy, we know this victory was just an appetizer.
At the end of the season, success in La Liga is still paramount.
And there’s a lot of work to be done.
But hopefully, the heavy lifting is in the past.
Hopefully, Barcelona is free to enjoy it’s football again.