Coming out of the international break, the big question was how Xavi and Barcelona would replace the heart and soul of their team.
The fighting force of young Gavi helped paper over the cracks, allowing Barca to win games early on that they probably didn’t deserve to win, based on team performance alone.
But with one man down, Xavi also had an opportunity, with the return of Frenkie de Jong, and Pedri recovering his form after extended time away.
The truth is, Xavi had to get it right in this game. The calendar doesn’t get any easier from here, and Barcelona has already experienced a drop in confidence.
Two points lost is bad enough, with Real Madrid in front of you in the table, and a surprising Girona in first place, with a critical feature against the number one team in the league coming up on December 10th. Next weekend, Atletico Madrid could jump in front of Barcelona with a win as well, if they come out on top in the head to head.
Worst of all is the pressure that is now building for the Champions League game against Porto on Tuesday. Culers will be present at the Estadi Olimpic, but they will be nervous, knowing that a loss puts Barca on the European chopping block once again.
Getting three points at Vallecas is never an easy task. As Xavi knows, beating Rayo Vallecano anywhere lately is a tough puzzle to solve.
Especially if you play the way Barcelona wants to play.
Rayo loves taking on the role of David against the Catalan Goliath.
Being the underdog is in their DNA, not just from a footballing point of view, but from the culture of the community that dates back to the Spanish Civil War.
Barcelona is an army with superior resources and strength. Rayo, meanwhile, comes together to make themselves more than the sum of their parts. They are well drilled, and understand the mission. And every time, there is a belief in their ability to get a result, and a determination to see it through from beginning until the end.
They know who they are. They don’t try to be anything else.
Barcelona, however, looks confused. Nothing Xavi is doing seems to work. In live play, they look lost in the forest of the game, desperately looking for a path out. But the more they struggle for a way through, the more struck they become.
In this one, Xavi opted to give a rest to the team’s most important players. In theory, there is logic to this. Ilkay Gundogan, Jules Kounde, and Ronald Araujo all need rest. But when they don’t play, Barcelona is not at its best.
Andreas Christensen and Inigo Martinez are able replacements, no problem there.
But the decision to go with a double pivot of Oriol Romeu and Frenkie de Jong put the team on shaky footing from the get-go.
Romeu is very low on confidence, and taking a lot of criticism from the media and fans alike.
Frenkie de Jong is just back from injury, and it’s reasonable that his touches and instincts are off.
Pairing them together in this way didn’t make sense given the timing, and also given the matchup against this Rayo team.
Pedri is a player you want to get going. I’d love to see him with a role like this, as a traditional number ten, with the freedom and space to run the attack. But it must be acknowledged that he continues to struggle to find his old world class form.
But for me, one of the most consequential calls that Xavi made was on the forward line.
Raphinha needs to play, and Xavi should find a way to change the tactics to take advantage of his playmaking.
With Gavi going down, it should be a wake up call to not overuse Lamine Yamal, who just came back from his time with the Spanish national team.
Yamal is not performing, which is reason enough to give him a reduced role, but also to take pressure off of him, so he doesn’t think he needs to be the next big star right away.
Earlier this week, I called for Raphinha and Ferran Torres to step up and be given a chance to be the players they were brought in to be.
I have my doubts that Ferran has the ability to be a protagonist on the team.
But Raphinha has proven in the past, that not only can he perform in the spotlight, but that in fact, he may require it.
In the short term, the team really should continue targeting Raphinha, and ask Joao Cancelo to join him from the right side to create overloads.
On the left side, where there is really no good answer to the question of who should play on the wing, my solution would be to give the space to Alejandro Balde, and how Joao Felix or Ferran Torres, whoever plays in that area, just get out of the way.
In fact, Felix and Torres may be best off inverting themselves, to have a second striker in the area, and to help centrally in the build up.
One silver lining from this game was seeing Balde put in a killer first time ball to create the equalizing goal.
But in the end, it was too little, too late.
The manager continues to struggle to set up his team for success.
A bit of consistency may help going forward. But that would require Xavi to pick the right players for the system he wants to get off the ground.
The mission right now is a tough one, but it is essential if Barcelona is to win silverware this season.
Get to January, with some time to reset. Changes are clearly needed, even if it will be difficult to pull off.
Before then, be smart, by keeping things simple with the most experienced and proven players you select, and fight hard to do what it takes to get results against Porto, Atleti, and Girona.
Stay competitive. Don’t panic. There is time to turn this ship around.
Your rivals will make mistakes too. Real Madrid has already shown they aren’t perfect.
Xavi doesn’t have to be perfect either.
But he needs to get back his winning attitude, and inspire the dressing room to not drop their heads.
And he needs to not be his own worst enemy.
To get out of the forest, less is more. And the team needs to stick together.