The mission for Xavi’s men in the upcoming season is twofold.
The first objective is concrete. Make it two in a row in La Liga. In order to do that, the team will need depth in order to put in consistent performances, and outlast their main rival in Real Madrid.
As the reigning champions, Barcelona theoretically already have everything they need in order to repeat. Instead, big question marks surround Real Madrid, who can no longer rely on their aging superstars.
The second metric of success is more murky. You can’t just say Barca needs to go out and win the Champions League given the magnitude of the challenge, although frankly that is exactly what we should be saying given that it’s an expectation that’s built into the fabric of Real Madrid as a club.
Simply put, Barcelona needs to show that they are a serious contender in Europe again. That means they need to be seen as a threat in the Champions League in the eyes of their opponents, and they need to embrace the pressure of the competition instead of having ready made excuses for falling short.
Last season, they were unlucky to draw Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. The Bavarians are a perennial favorite in Europe, and Inter was a recent winner of Serie A.
Still, we all expected Barcelona to get out of the group.
In the end, it was the mystique of Bayern Munich that defeated Barcelona in both games, and not the play on the field. From a performance point of view, Barca outplayed the Germans for much of the first match, and should have gone into half-time with a two-goal lead, as the away team nonetheless.
They were undone by an unmarked header on a corner kick, and self-destructed from there after getting carved open by Leroy Sane five minutes later.
This was the first game of the group stage, and maybe with a little bit of luck, momentum could have shifted and their fortunes in the competition could have changed.
Against Inter, they once again were dominant on the ball, taking 72% of the possession, but fell 1-0 due to some unfortunate decisions from the referee, and a golazo against the run of play in first half stoppage time.
In both games, however, the real story was Xavi’s team selection.
Marcos Alonso was chosen over Alejandro Balde throughout the group stage, just as the young Spaniard was breaking out on his way to a surprise call up for the World Cup.
Sergi Roberto also featured in the defensive line. Enough said.
The thing about the Champions League is that there is no margin for error. You can play well, but be knocked out because of one defensive lapse.
That was the story of Barcelona last season, and Xavi was the main culprit because of the choices he made, although it must be acknowledged that there were significant injuries to Ronald Araujo in particular.
So what does Barcelona need in order to be more effective in the Champions League next season?
A more favorable group would help.
Xavi must choose his strongest team as well, and make the right tactical decisions to best serve his team given the format and nature of the tournament.
But the follow up question to that is whether the Barcelona team from last season was good enough to make a deep run, meaning they were just unlucky, or if they need to make a big signing in the summer in order to compete with the best in Europe.
Manchester City was the best team in the world, but they are losing key players. Will they still be the benchmark for greatness in the future?
I wouldn’t bet against Pep Guardiola, who never becomes dependent on any one or two players. Ilkay Gundogan may be gone, but that may just mean that Phil Foden gets his chance to step up and break out as the next hero of the team.
After Manchester City, who’s the next best in Europe?
There is no one you can point to.
It’s an open field, and Barcelona is right there in it.
My concern isn’t that Barca lacks a superstar, but that the team lacks depth at key positions, with Xavi not convinced by many of his own players who aren’t in his chosen starting eleven.
The defensive line is formidable if healthy, but what happens if any of them pick up an injury?
Will we see Marcos Alonso or Sergi Roberto again? The answer as of now is yes, and that’s a red flag that can’t be ignored.
In order for Barcelona to be in the best position to go deeper in Europe, the conversation should start and end with strengthening the defensive line in all four positions.
The team still doesn’t have a right full-back, and after losing Jordi Alba, they are thin on the left side as well. Could Arnau Martinez or Ivan Fresneda, or someone around that level, be the answer?
If they’re brought in, Xavi must truly be convinced, because they won’t come cheap.
Should the club focus on center backs and go with the trend of having one of them deputize as a full-back to neutralize a dangerous winger?
To that end, it looks like the arrival of Inigo Martinez is inevitable, and will surely be a boost to the team.
Barca shouldn’t stop there, especially if Xavi has serious concerns about Eric Garcia.
The midfield is very solid at the moment, so long as Manchester City doesn’t swoop in and steal Frenkie de Jong.
Question marks surround the forward line.
Who will back up Robert Lewandowski?
Xavi seems to be content with Raphinha, who actually had a very lively showing in the group stage, and Ousmane Dembele.
But after that his confidence seems to be very low with what remains.
Does he rate Ez Abde? Other than Dembele, this is the one winger option who can run at defenders and create one on one.
Might he have a plan for utilizing Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres if it’s not possible to move them?
If Barcelona is going to compete with the big boys, they will need a full roster of options, and contingencies as well.
That doesn’t mean they need to spend 100 million euros on a new signing, but it does mean Xavi will need to have a plan and show confidence in all of his players.
This is his team now, and he won’t have excuses if things go wrong.
At the end of the day, maybe it’s less about the players, and more about the manager.
Does Xavi have what it takes to lead Barca back to the promised land?
All eyes are on him.