The Quiet Man’s Silent RevolutionPosted: December 24, 2012
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, born with his appointment in 2008, will be remembered by the majority as Lionel Messi’s team. He has been the symbol of their dominance, his unprecedented goalscoring records have epitomised the distance between they and almost every other club. His stunning contribution has been a massive part of their success, but the foundations for it have been in their style and the players who enable it; none more so than Xavi Hernández, who has arguably been an even more important figure than the Argentine.
From the start of the 2006/07 season to the end of 2011/12, Xavi has played a staggering average of 65 games a season for club and country, including summer tournaments in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, and has already played 29 at the halfway point of this season. He has just signed a new contract that ensures he will end his career at Barcelona, but at 32 and following from the sheer amount of football he has played over the last six years, he can hardly be expected to play two games a week for much longer. Under Guardiola, he was the personification of their style. He was perennially at the centre of their patient, opposition-strangling, possession philosophy, with the intelligence to know exactly when to play the longer and shorter passes and where to be at any given time.
Next to him he has had the more dribbling-prone Andrés Iniesta and behind the pair of them lay the majestic Sergio Busquets, who acted as the brawn of the operation. The three in tandem were arguably something better than any trio that have preceded them; the balance was perfect and the results reflected their shared and self-enhanced brilliance, with Xavi at the heart. His importance is such, that in order to move forward without him they will need a style adjustment. For now, they are attempting to both prolong his career, removing some of the physical strain from him within the games he plays and even more so, build for a life without him, in one swoop.
When Cesc Fàbregas returned to Barcelona after 8 years away, the general perception was that he had damaged his career. How could he possibly get a game ahead of Iniesta and Xavi? Quite aside from his own talents, they were the inseparable partnership that had won it all. This issue was initially circumvented by their playing him in other areas. Of his 28 league appearances in 2011/12, only 9 were in his natural position of central midfield. The rest were made up primarily of time on the wings and occasionally as a ‘false nine’, which he would go on to do to such great effect for Spain at Euro 2012.
When he first arrived back at Barcelona, he appeared to have a renewed freedom and joie de vivre that was present all too little in his final year with Arsenal. But as the season wore on he followed the trail left by a number Barcelona signings in their first seasons; physically he seemed exhausted, not used to playing with such intensity off-the-ball. Crucially, when he returned, for all the goals and assists he amassed, he still roamed around the pitch as if he were still in the free role that he held at Arsenal. He became more disciplined with time and with that, his effectiveness suffered. Naturally, this led to him losing his place and with it, his confidence. He looked a cut down, forlorn figure, completely stripped of the panache and verve that make him such a wonderful player.
Fàbregas himself spoke about his issues under Guardiola just before the start of the season, stating that “Under Guardiola I never really got to grips with the system”, continuing, “playing in central midfield was hard for me because I need more mobility and I am not quick off the mark in the first few metres… It is true that I am a bit anarchic, but that is my style.” Since Vilanova’s arrival, his tune has been changed somewhat. “Tito has made it clear that I need to play the way I know. I have to be mobile, look for space and help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.”
In a couple of sentences he outlined the difference between what Guardiola could not utilise about him and what Vilanova sought to. Without direct reference, he also alluded back to what made him great in the Premier League: freedom. His, in his own words, anarchic nature meant that although a fit and confident form of himself could perform admirably in multiple positions in Guardiola’s side, the true essence of his ability could only be completely released when he was.
Fàbregas is a player quite apart from any of his fellows. Converted from a regista to a classic number 10 (or trequartista), he retains the instincts of his former role – namely the tendencies to collect the ball from the defence and drive forward, start attacks with long passes to the wings and to control the tempo of a game. He harnesses these qualities and couples them with the attributes of a trequartista; to operate in more confined space, maintain composure in front of goal, know instinctively when to surge into the box and most crucially, be a team’s central creative figure. He operates on a different level to other players, always thinking two or three moves ahead. His intelligence is greater than almost any other. His ability further back means he sees the game clearer when further forward. On a field entrenched in chaos, he is the calm head with the ability to make those around him better players. He is the most complete creator on the planet; a genius of the modern game.
There was little question he had the talent to make it at Barcelona, but in a system that was so efficient and so elegant, his more tactically rough-edged, yet footballistically more effective and graceful style, just seemed not to fit. Under Guardiola, this was so. Vilanova’s mission was to bring forth Barcelona’s new era. His philosophy, while fundamentally similar to his predecessor’s, differs in a few areas, the most significant of which is that he wishes to make them more direct, more ruthless and more overwhelming to their oppositions. This is closer to Arsène Wenger’s ideals – the ideals under which Fàbregas learnt his trade and which are still the overriding feature of his game.
Vilanova was blessed to have the player who fitted this so perfectly, while fitting so well into the soul of what Barcelona are and always will be as a club, with regard to the possession-based, forever attack-minded, 4-3-3-centred philosophy that were brought over by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruijff and became engrained in the fibre of the club’s being.
The variation of the formation that Vilanova has moved to thus far sees the midfield three remain in a 1-2 formation, with Busquets sitting behind Fàbregas and Xavi, but in attacking moves, Fàbregas moves forward and Xavi slightly deeper, seeing it become something closer to a 2-1 setup. This is far more similar to the aforementioned role he had at Arsenal. His roaming makes him almost impossible to mark. As part of ‘looking for space’, he is just as comfortable operating further back when necessary. Xavi’s importance remains in the slower buildup play and the maintenance of possession, which remains so crucial to them, but it is Fàbregas who holds the primary creative responsibility. His anarchy has become his interpretation of conformity, just as it was in North London. His strong pre-injury showings may even have convinced Vilanova to place Iniesta on the left-hand side on a more regular basis, where he has been so fantastic for Spain, and from whence 8 of his 10 league assists have come this season.
Fàbregas’ season started as the last one ended. Shorn of confidence and re-adjusting to another new role, it seemed as though the pre-move sceptics could be proved justified in their arguments. His form began to improve steadily, aided by Vilanova’s continued use of him in central midfield. Until mid-November, he was Barcelona’s only outfield player to start every league game, illustrating both the faith the manager had in him, and the importance he possessed. It was not until the rather insane 5-4 triumph against Deportivo La Coruña that it felt like he was truly ‘back’. In that game he made three assists, two of which were trademark, defence-splitting through balls and the other a backheel to Messi that signalled the strengthening of the axis that the two were forming. From this point he replicated similar performances in almost every game he played, until he picked up a hamstring injury at the start of December.
Some of his better performances early in the campaign, including the aforementioned game at the Riazor, came with Xavi out of the side. Since, Vilanova appears to have found a way of accommodating both in a way that suits both players. The differences between Xavi and he exemplify the differences between Guardiola’s Barcelona and Vilanova’s. On the pitch, Xavi has visibly handed Fàbregas the proverbial keys.
Xavi will remain in an important and extremely valued capacity, but tactically speaking, it is not his side any more. It is Fàbregas’. They have gone from a team reliant on Xavi’s lateral instincts to Fàbregas’ vertical style. Vilanova’s vision is a Barcelona led by him and his abilities, and it is more than possible that Spain will follow suit as Xavi’s years wind down. He was always too good to remain in the mire in which he was engulfed for so much of 2012. Now, it is his time; his era; his Barcelona.