Xavi is fortunate that most people only remember how things end.
Against Real Sociedad, his team once again looked disorganized before Ansu Fati came in at the 65th minute and immediately shifted the momentum of the game.
Give credit to the manager for making the impact substitution.
Let’s celebrate and be excited about the great potential that was on display.
But let’s also remain sober and not lose sight of the glaring structural issues that need to be addressed.
For that we need to look at the manager, because Barcelona was once again poor for the majority of this game, and it didn’t look like the right lessons were learned from the Rayo Vallecano anti-climax.
With Real Madrid off to a strong start, Barcelona can’t afford to not keep pace. Too much has been risked, and the Blaugrana must find a winning formula quickly that yields results on a consistent basis.
Simply put, this team has all the talent that any manager could ever want. It’s Xavi’s job to set these great players up for success. So far, however, he’s fallen short with his player selection and tactics.
Against Real Sociedad, Xavi tried reinventing the wheel with a formation that I still can’t explain.
He played with three in the back, which wasn’t a bad idea in principle. But it wasn’t a traditional 3-5-2 or 3-4-3.
Maybe you could call Alejandro Balde a wingback, who provided defensive help on the left, but you certainly couldn’t say the same thing for Ousmane Dembele, who spent most of the game high up the field.
We know Araujo doesn’t want to play as a fullback, but in possession with this new state of the art formation, he still didn’t look good because too much was asked of him defensively, and he was required to take on the responsibilities in possession of building out of the back on the right side, and progressing the ball up the field, neither of which he was able to do effectively.
So where does that leave us? Was the three in the back with no wingbacks any better than the 4-3-3 with Araujo, Jules Kounde, or Sergi Roberto as a fullback? For me, it was no better at all, and just an example of Xavi overcomplicating things.
With the clock ticking on the transfer window, and Fabrizio Romano reporting that Sergino Dest and Barcelona look set to go to war over the exit, it may be necessary for Xavi to examine his prejudices, and find a way to develop the talent he already has.
After all, that’s what good coaches do. Instead, Xavi’s harsh treatment of Dest so late in the transfer window is a bad look that threatens to sow discontent in the dressing room, especially with other players being pressured to leave without realistic exit ramps.
But if he’s truly committed to locking out the American, he’ll have no choice but to play with a three man backline, because frankly there is no good right fullback solution available.
Ironically, if he chooses to play with wingbacks, he’s playing to the strengths of Dest, who is very capable going forward when given the freedom. On the left side, he has good options in Alejandro Balde and Jordi Alba. Raphinha is another player who could comfortably take on the role. But this comes at the expense of the attacking talent Barcelona has at its disposal.
The second problem that Xavi failed to fix against Real Sociedad was in the midfield. Gavi was the weak link the week before, and the obvious correction was to change him like for like with Frenkie de Jong.
To do that, Miralem Pjanic would have to deputize for the suspended Sergio Busquets, which he proved capable of in the preseason.
Instead, Xavi ran back the experiment of forcing a Gavi and Pedri partnership that just isn’t clicking. He doesn’t have the luxury of hoping it will self-correct going forward, and with Frenkie and Franck Kessie around, he has other options.
In doing so, he also minimized the impact that Frenkie could make on the game by playing him as a single pivot, which predictably didn’t work out, and almost cost Barcelona precious points.
Xavi’s third significant mistake was trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.
Raphinha didn’t have a great debut against Rayo Vallecano, but he also wasn’t the problem.
At the end of the game, absolutely no one was shouting out for Ferran Torres.
This is someone who didn’t play a single minute over the summer due to injury. While other players were putting in impressive performances and developing an understanding up front, he was sidelined with a foot problem.
Ousmane Dembele and Raphinha have proven to be hungry and effective, and one underwhelming game doesn’t change that.
But above all else, the most important thing we’ve learned, is that Ansu Fati continues to be Barcelona’s crown jewel, and the player of the future if he can stay healthy.
Is the plan to continue managing his minutes?
Has he not been given the greenlight to play a full game?
If so, then you can be forgiven for not starting him. But even if you want to be cautious with Ansu, Raphinha and Dembele are your best alternatives.
Xavi should take a page out of the Carlo Ancelloti textbook. Keep things simple.
When you have great talent, you don’t have to overthink things tactically. Just put players in their best positions, and give them the freedom to take the game to their opponents.
Xavi is the one who had the courage to go all in. He has been backed by the club, who have risked the future in order to compete in the present. Robert Lewandowski was brought in for no other reason but to help win trophies this season.
This team needs to win now, and to do so regularly, they need to play better.
If they fail to do so, Xavi and Joan Laporta won’t be around to suffer the consequences.
This is their gamble, and they have what they need to make it pay off.
Look in the mirror and learn your lessons quickly.
Everything is riding on the decisions Xavi will be making.
Let’s make this a season to enjoy by putting out the best possible product on the field at any given point in time.
Start with the low hanging fruit that everyone can see.