There’s something in the air in Barcelona making this pre-season feel different.
Players are arriving early to train, and to show their commitment to a manager who has stated that everyone will start from scratch, and must prove themselves.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to see Ansu Fati putting in the extra work. In addition to convincing Xavi, who so far hasn’t counted on the young Spaniard, he’ll want to make sure his body is strong and able to mitigate potential injuries.
There is hope for Ansu, and other Barcelona players, who may question whether a manager really is capable of changing their opinion.
Ferran Torres, for example, was one of Xavi’s top players when he arrived, but he struggled for minutes after missing most of the pre-season a year ago because of an injury.
On the flip side, Alejandro Balde never saw the field at the beginning of Xavi’s tenure, but became undroppable after an explosive pre-season campaign, while Sergino Dest’s fortunes went in the opposite direction at the same time.
Even Pedri is showing up with new muscles and a point to prove. If anyone should feel safe, it’s the young Canarian.
Maybe Xavi is one of those rare managers with an open mind, for whom nothing is personal, so long as players work hard and can prove themselves, even if it’s just in training to start.
This summer, things feel different, especially compared to the wheeling and dealing we’ve come to expect in Barcelona when the transfer window is open.
Barca look set to run back the team that won them La Liga and Supercopa titles.
The starting eleven will likely look very familiar. Something Like…
Ter Stegen, Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Balde, Frenkie, Pedri, Gavi, Dembele, Lewandowski, and Raphinha.
Ilkay Gundogan is probably the only new player with a realistic shot of breaking in. But what about an academy star like Lamine Yamal?
What about players returning from loan like Ez Abde and Nico Gonzales?
The bench does look deep, and that means no one is truly safe.
Inigo Martinez, Ansu Fati, and Ferran Torres, in particular, will be pushing their way to the front of the line, especially if Xavi’s sticks with the familiar 4-3-3.
But rumors have suggested that the manager is working towards a system that uses a three-man backline.
That’s where things get interesting, because the biggest competitive advantage may come from learning the new system, and finding a role in it.
This offseason really does feel exciting, because as familiar as this team may look next season, big changes are also underway.
The biggest question of all centers around replacing club legends.
First, there was Gerard Pique, for whom the writing was on the wall early, with Xavi making it clear he was no longer at the required level.
Luckily, Kounde and Christensen were able to step up, and not only replace Geri, but make the defensive line stronger than it’s looked in recent memory.
Then there was Jordi Alba, who never stopped fighting and contributing until the very end. Kudos to him for so magnanimously supporting Balde during his breakout season.
But there’s only one man who no Barca manager could ever live without, and that’s Sergio Busquets.
The question of the summer will be how to replace him.
Oriol Romeu could be a serviceable stopgap, but surely he won’t be the first choice. At 31 years old, there’s simply no future to invest in.
No, this is Frenkie de Jong’s team now, and the Dutchman will have more pressure than anyone to show he has the vision and instincts to control the game from the defensive midfield.
There is no like-for-like replacement for Busquets. Frenkie will need to reinvent the position, and usher Barcelona into a new era. We’ll all be watching to see what ideas he has in mind with an early run of games, but we should also be prepared to give him time to figure it out.
But to replace legends of the game, especially ones who built their legacy together, and you can throw Lionel Messi into that group to really appreciate the magnitude of change that is required to move forward, there’s no better solution than open competition.
Luckily, that’s something that Xavi seems to understand.
It likely won’t be tactical genius that brings success to the new manager, but an ability to implement a culture of meritocracy, where players are expected to compete for their playing time week in and out.
It will be a blast to see Barca touring the United States again, against some of the best in Europe, and to see which players are able to rise to the occasion and seize the day.
Tryouts start now.
And the season is around the corner.
Take advantage of every minute.