The way the game started was bizarre, with Barcelona blasting a ball up the field, with runners bearing down on a lowly Alaves side.
Now, this is a move from the kick-off that you see many teams do. It signals an intent to start things off with intensity. It does not signal, however, that you intend to dominate with the ball.
For Barcelona, it felt like a reflection of where the team stands at the moment.
Lost for an identity. Changing shape, strategy, and formation from game to game. Hoping something good reveals itself.
Within seconds, the Alaves defender parried the ball back towards Ilkay Gundogan, who looked surprised by the situation he found himself in. The veteran, perhaps Barca’s best player this season, was quickly dispossessed, and big Samu scored on the counter with less than a minute on the clock.
This was poetic justice in a way.
Barcelona isn’t going to fix their problems by brute force. They have to do it by playing better football.
Now it’s the international break, and Barcelona find themself in a competitive position on paper.
In La Liga, they sit in third place, in a close race against Girona and Real Madrid. Girona has been the example in Europe this season for their ability to play as much more than the sum of their parts consistently. Real Madrid has had bad results, but they have also shown formidable firepower, including a 5-1 thrashing of Valencia over the weekend.
When you look at Real Madrid in particular, Carlo Ancelotti had an idea in mind from the beginning of the season to integrate a new superstar, and move beyond their reliance on legends who are past their prime.
From the beginning, he hasn’t wavered. At times, the new system has looked shaky, but overall, they are trending up, and showing signs that it will only continue to get better.
In the Champions League, Barcelona is in a good position to get out of their group. But after the shocker at Shakhtar, fans will be feeling nervous that a collapse is possible if the team doesn’t regain their form ahead of the fixture against Porto on November 28th.
The truth is that Barcelona was placed in perhaps the weakest group in the competition. They really haven’t been tested.
And this season for Xavi is all about showing he can succeed by passing tests that Barcelona have consistently failed at for three years plus.
In my mind, Xavi isn’t a bad coach. But he has been bad at evaluating talent, and that may be his downfall.
Barcelona has spent a lot of money to back him in a very challenging financial environment.
It was very refreshing to see Robert Lewandowski bag two goals to end a long drought. He is Xavi’s marquee signing. Along with Raphinha and Ferran Torres, he has chosen his attacking foundation, and it hasn’t paid off.
Defensively, Jules Kounde is probably the best signing he’s made, and even though Alejandro Balde has struggled offensively his season, he has still proven to be a very reliable asset as a left full-back, and Xavi deserves credit for giving him the chance to prove himself. The backline has been the strongest part of Xavi’s system.
Now, during the break, the question should be asked whether the problem is the players, or the tactics.
If there’s enough talent to succeed, then Xavi will get another chance to reset and figure out how he wants his team to play. In this case, maybe what’s needed is simply to go back to the basics, and have some consistency.
When Frenkie de Jong comes back, they’ll have their best midfielder available, and will have a formidable formation alongside Pedri, Gavi, and Gundogan.
The lowest risk would be to give Raphinha back the job on the right wing. Lamine Yamal has a lot of potential, but playing so regularly may do more to damage his confidence, rather than increase it, if the team continues to struggle. In pressure situations, the experience of the Brazilian, alongside Lewandowski, and either Joao Felix or Ferran Torres, is probably the best way to go.
Give these players a run of games to learn to play with one another, and figure things out on their own, without changing things up so drastically at the first sign of trouble. With the roster getting healthier, you have enough options to maintain healthy competition on the depth chart.
In the end, this was also a big assignment for such a young and inexperienced coach.
Xavi has done a lot of good things, but this is his moment of truth now. Barcelona aren’t world beaters again, but they have stopped the ship from sinking.
The job of Barca boss now is a lot more attractive than it was the day Xavi took over, and ironically, he deserves credit for that, even as his job will be called into question if he can’t turn things around.
The short-term mission is clear. Coming up, there is a must-win Champions League clash against Porto, and big challenges in La Liga against the likes of Girona and Atletico Madrid.
Barcelona’s chances to compete for titles this season will be greatly affected by the results in these matches.
Xavi is also coaching for his future at the club.
The pressure is building, and Barcelona will need a big pivot to get the season back on the rails.
Let’s see how far Barcelona has come, and if they’re ready to put their demons behind them.