The Passing of Xavi’s EraPosted: February 15, 2014
It was said, after the completion of Bayern Munich’s incredible treble, that Pep Guardiola’s job would only be made more difficult by the success that directly preceded his arrival. Yet in some ways, it actually made his process simpler. The hunger that the tragedy of Bayern’s May 2012 inspired has been sated somewhat, and the pressure to win absolutely immediately is ever so slightly lessened. It allowed him to try some new (perhaps somewhat controversial) things, such as moving Philipp Lahm to midfield and the evolution of their 4-2-3-1. The results were as expected but the performances were initially more mixed as the players and manager grew used to each other, and various injuries struck.
The fatal mistake made by many a successful manager is to rest on that success, and remain completely faithful to the style and tactics which brought them that glory. With that follows players who are unchallenged and contented in a regular routine. This has always been something Guardiola has worked strenuously to avoid. It showed best in the stream of trophies won across his four years at Barcelona, but also in the changes in personnel and style between their own treble in 2009, and the completed product that was the 2011 side.
2011 was the peak of his Barcelona. And despite reaching the heights he did, Guardiola recognised the need for change and the changes needed. Guardiola’s belief that the team would be best strengthened by making its most important area even better was and is the correct one. Xavi Hernández was ageing and with their reliance on him being so heavy and his uniqueness meant that they would need new figures to carry them forth into a new era.
8 years after leaving, Cesc Fàbregas was re-signed partly for this very job, with Thiago Alcântara coming through at the same time. Thiago is closer in position and qualities to Xavi, but more direct in style. More direct than both of them is Fàbregas, yet both fit perfectly into Barcelona’s ideals of attractive, entertaining and attacking football with a heavy focus on possession. Andrés Iniesta would become even more central over the following few years, compatible next each individual and the best enabler of the in-between point of moving from Xavi’s Barcelona to Fàbregas and Thiago’s, before succumbing to the ageing process himself.
At the start of last season, the alterations were taking shape seamlessly and an invigorated Barcelona, with a slightly more limited Xavi, a more liberated Fàbregas and Iniesta (with the latter more advanced than usual) were a new, different magnificence. Then after Tito Vilanova’s injury, complications in style, control and personnel took shape. Fàbregas struggled for form and eventually lost his place. If they were indeed the orchestra that so many lazy metaphors have described them as being, it was one attempting to play pieces from memory, with a conductor who could no longer lift his arms above shoulder height. Fàbregas’ stumbles caught eyes and headlines, but everyone had forgotten Thiago.
With everything seemingly so precarious, playing an inexperienced 21-year old in the most important area of the pitch while no manager was present occurred to very few. When Vilanova returned, something of his nerve for any kind of risk appeared to have left him in his chase for a record 100 La Liga points. Thiago’s lack of game-time opened up a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave for just €18million. Thiago plays for Bayern Munich now.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino took over as Head Coach in the summer after the unfortunate return of Vilanova’s illness. With Neymar’s signing, there was little left to buy a replacement for Thiago (or a centre back or centre forward, at that), so Sergi Roberto has been brought up to play a somewhat deeper role than his most comfortable one and fill the fourth midfielder space. Martino’s changes have continued and noticeable, despite some detractors for ‘going against’ Barcelona’s traditional (read: Guardiola’s) way of playing.
They key difference in personnel between this Barcelona and the 2011 one is the wings. Where before there were Pedro, David Villa, Bojan and occasionally Iniesta, they are now Pedro, Alexis Sánchez, Neymar, Cristian Tello and occasionally Iniesta. More individualistic and dribbling-prone players, perfect for a more direct method. Behind them remains Fàbregas who, of course, is perfect for such an endeavour. And then there is the embodiment of Tiki-Taka; the unchangeable man that is Xavi.
Xavi is too important not to play most of the major games. For one thing, for a team with a relatively weak back line whose primary defensive strategy is retaining possession, his importance is almost on the level of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets, even though he has decline. For another thing, he’s the best they have for that deep midfield position. Iniesta can play there, but it is a role with which he is not entirely familiar and is generally a better option in smaller, more open games. The same is true but to a far greater extent with Sergi Roberto. So Xavi plays. Even at 34, despite averaging 52 games a season over the last six, he almost always starts and generally plays much of, if not the full 90.
But at the same time, Xavi is not who he was a few years ago. He cannot control games as he did then, he is missing the dynamism and mobility he once had that allowed him to alter a game’s pace through the speed of his own passing and movement as he pleased. Well-drilled defensive sides have been far more able to disrupt the Xavi-Iniesta partnership of late. Too many times in the last couple of years, stagnant performances lacking in their former majesty from the pair have been bailed out by individual brilliance in the final third – mainly from Messi.
In the meantime, the question still remains as to what Barcelona’s best eleven is. The injuries to Messi and Iniesta meant they have not been able to test their various shuffles against the more major opposition. Even though Iniesta has had a few adaptation issues with Martino, anything Iniesta gives will almost always outweigh what Martino could believe to be lacking. While Pedro and Alexis are in such form and Neymar has impressed, Iniesta on the left is relatively unlikely. Yet the holy trinity of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta have had the aforementioned issues; Fàbregas gives them that extra dimension. Fàbregas-Iniesta as a pairing leaves the defence too exposed against stronger attackers. It is a difficult one to solve – my expectation is Martino will either trust in a more advanced Iniesta with Xavi closer to Busquets, and Fàbregas either benched played up front, with Messi on the right. Or maybe being a bit bolder, and playing Iniesta starting from the left, interchanging with Fàbregas in the midfield.
Barcelona lost their true Xavi replacement last summer, and they won’t move forward until they find an alternative. İlkay Gündoğan is one who would fit in style but more significantly, would allow for greater versatility, fitting into a 1-2 midfield setup and even more comfortably into a 2-1, which would be ideal for Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta.
Gündoğan, or a player like him (good luck finding one of those) would be the optimal – assuming he does not suffer too greatly in the long-term from these injuries – especially if the rumours of Xavi’s departure to the New York Red Bulls have any truth. Even if not, they allow Xavi to remain at the highest level for far longer than forcing him to play 50 games a season would, and with less Xavi, shifts to greater directness would be even easier to facilitate.
Xavi has given Fàbregas the keys back this season after the lapse midway through last. If Barcelona can add a centre back, Gündoğan (or some other of that ilk) and a central striker to both cover Messi and allow more versatility alongside him, they will be the complete force again. A very different kind, but approaching similar supremacy.
All the while, adding a proper left-sided centre back to partner Gerard Piqué would free Javier Mascherano to play as Busquets’ backup (a vast improvement on Alex Song) and even his partner, allowing the Catalan to harness his more creative and expressive qualities, while keeping the defence well-protected at the same time.
Spain, too, must attempt to marginalise Xavi in an attempt to move forward. However, they have what Barcelona do not, in the form of the far greater pool of well-fitting players, including the dearly departed Thiago, himself. Busquets, Fàbregas and Iniesta are all, of course, ever-present in the squads. Xabi Alonso, Javi Martínez, Koke and even Santi Cazorla, Isco and Juan Mata, are all options for the spare spaces next to Busquets in the central midfield three.
Iniesta generally plays on the left-hand side, to wonderful effect and Busquets is constant, but Vicente del Bosque’s propensity to rotate steadily from game to game and his incredible depth of players makes it somewhat difficult to predict his next moves. He is generally loyal to his old guard, to the point where Fernando Torres has somehow not been given a restraining order from the squad/taken outside and shot. My prediction is that he will look to replicate Barcelona’s most-often used midfield set of Busquets, Xavi and Fàbregas, with Iniesta on the left, rather than a midfield of the trinity with Fàbregas up front.
It would allow Xavi to settle in as that more defensive player with Fàbregas, Iniesta and whoever is on the left or up front – most probably any two of Pedro or David Silva and Álvaro Negredo or Diego Costa (the latter is even tougher to call). Though, if Thiago keeps up his more recent form at club level, it will be difficult for Del Bosque not to play him, and perhaps even use him with Xavi and Busquets, pushing Fàbregas back up to the false 9 position.
It is easier for Spain than Barcelona both in the short and longer terms, after the Thiago fiasco, to work for a future without Xavi. While his slow descent marks the end of an incredible era for both his teams, it does not have to be an end to their supremacy. They have been Xavi’s sides for the greater part of the last decade. Now someone else, or a number of others must create something new and most importantly different, because there won’t ever be another quite like Xavi.