Tactical Insights

How Xavi’s ‘unfinished’ Barcelona project has gone so far… and what happens next

Back in his midfield days, Xavi’s signature move was turning out of pressure.

He would receive with opponents closing around him like a net and spin in a tight little spiral until his markers fell away and the ball zipped forward to discover some team-mate in space. No matter how many times you saw him pull it off there was always a little thrill at the moment of escape, like watching a street magician slip out of handcuffs and produce the key from behind your ear.

That’s pretty much how his managerial career has felt so far, too, watching him wriggle out of one jam after another in the two-and-a-half years since he returned to lead Barcelona.

When he announced last week that he’ll stick around to coach another season, Xavi’s mood was less triumphant than grimly determined. His Barca will finish this season trophyless. The squad is still threadbare compared to its glory days, the money still tight, the fans not entirely convinced that he’s the man to lead them.

For his next trick, Xavi still hopes to beat the pressure and surprise everyone. He calls his project “unfinished” — but what will a final draft look like?

If anyone at Barca thought hiring Xavi as manager would mean a return to the exquisite football of his prime, the reality has turned out to be almost the opposite. The quicksilver passing of the old Barcelona is gone, replaced by a more functional modern style that trades ingenuity for sensible risk management. Xavi has come not to praise tiki-taka but to bury it.

At least it suggests he’s been keeping up with the times. Even Xavi’s old mentor Pep Guardiola has lately rethought his tactics in response to broader changes in the game, and over the last few years the two coaches’ visions at Manchester City and Barcelona have had a lot in common: more traditional striker play and dribbling wingers to break down low blocks, more centre-backs shoehorned into full-back or midfield spots to cut out counter-attacks.

But Barcelona’s turn away from their old style was also a natural response to a changing of the guard. Xavi took over just a few months into the club’s first season without Lionel Messi, a cataclysmic loss for a team that had built its attack around one man for over a decade. Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets followed Messi out the door over the next couple of seasons, nudged towards the exit by their old team-mate turned manager.

Whatever came next was bound to look different than what had been there before.

Xavi playing for Barcelona in 2013 (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Without Messi to unzip defences down the middle, the attack became a lot more reliant on wing play.

In the old Barcelona, crossing had been almost taboo: in 2019-20, just 17 per cent of their passes into the box came from crosses, nearly half the rate of the second-lowest team in La Liga. By the end of 2021-22, they were up to seventh in the league at 41 per cent.

To avoid throwing full-backs forward on the overlap, Xavi turned to wingers who could beat a defender one-on-one and put in a cross on their own. He had one of the world’s best take-on artists at his disposal in Ousmane Dembele, and for a while, he tried more one-dimensional dribblers such as Abde Ezzalzouli and Adama Traore, until the club could rustle up enough cash to sign Raphinha, who offered a goal threat from off-ball runs to go with his dribbling skill.

Attacking from the wings meant Barca could play with a conventional striker. One of the first big names to join under Xavi was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a temporary signing who nevertheless scored 11 goals in half a season with line-stretching centre-forward runs. He has been replaced by Robert Lewandowski, who hasn’t been anyone’s idea of a classic Barcelona striker but who nevertheless managed to lead La Liga with 23 goals in his first season at the club. Let the wingers win style points — to earn points in the table, what Xavi needed was someone to get in the box and put the ball in the net.

Lewandowski (Flor Tan Jun/Getty Images)

Not all of the club’s signings made sense in this new attacking scheme.

Ferran Torres’ pedigree with Spain and Guardiola’s City made sense on paper, but on the pitch, he was too much of a runner and not enough of a dribbler to start on the wing for Xavi. High-profile interior attackers Memphis Depay and Joao Felix struggled to establish themselves in the system, as did the homegrown starlet Ansu Fati. Without a dribbling left-winger, Xavi was forced to rotate the teenage left-back Alejandro Balde up the wing and tuck a spare midfielder or inside forward into the left channel.

Dembele’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain last summer might have spelled the end of the whole dribble-and-cross strategy if not for the emergence of Lamine Yamal, whose firework rise from Barcelona’s academy to bloom into one of the best wingers in Spain at the ripe age of 16 caught even his manager by surprise. According to Michael Imburgio’s DAVIES model, which estimates a player’s overall contribution to his team’s goal difference, Yamal is having the most valuable season on record of any 16-year-old in the top five leagues, dating back to at least 2017-18.

If Xavi’s Barcelona has one thing in common with Guardiola’s, it’s the seemingly inexhaustible miracle of their academy, La Masia: every time a hole has appeared in the squad, some brilliant prospect — Gavi, Balde, Yamal, Pau Cubarsi — has stepped up to fill it better than anyone could have hoped.

But not even Barcelona’s fabled academy could replenish the old midfield magic of Xavi, Busquets and Andres Iniesta.

Riqui Puig had the passing flair but not the positional discipline to earn his manager’s trust, and he quickly packed his bags for the LA Galaxy. Pedri, signed at 19, is the closest thing in the modern game to a ‘Xaviesta’ regen, but has spent the past few years battling injuries. Ilkay Gundogan, a Swiss army knife honed at Guardiola’s City, has often had to sit deep in his debut season to replace Busquets’ build-up play instead of near the box where he’s best.

The team’s other key midfielders have less traditional Barcelona profiles: Frenkie de Jong is more of a deep-lying dribbler than a quick combination passer; Gavi is a frantic ball of energy whose greatest strengths lie off the ball.

Pedri has struggled with injuries during the past few seasons (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

With a less preternaturally gifted midfield up against better high presses than he used to face, Xavi has urged his team to play longer and faster than the Guardiola-era ideal.

Barcelona’s average pass distance, once the shortest in Europe, has climbed 11 per cent during Xavi’s tenure and is now just the fourth-shortest in La Liga. In 2020-21, only six per cent of the team’s open-play passes were long balls of more than 40 metres; over the past three seasons, they’ve averaged nine per cent. Passes per game have fallen from 750 per game to 645. Open-play passes per possession sunk from 8.6 to 7.3. Passing directness is up, completion rates are down. The old tiki-taka just isn’t ticking like it used to.

One pillar of the old Barcelona style that Xavi has restored is the high press, which had crumbled under Ronald Koeman during the late Messi years.

Like Guardiola’s City, Xavi’s Barcelona bring their whole team up the pitch in possession and take calculated risks in attack, trying not to lose the ball unless it’s near the sideline or in the box where they can quickly counter-press to win it back. Like Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, they’ll often press man-to-man in midfield to stifle opponents’ build-up play, which they do well.

A useful way to measure high pressing is the percentage chance that an opponent’s touch in possession in their own half will lead to a turnover in the next five seconds. In 2019-20 and 2020-21, Barcelona’s high press slipped to fourth and then fifth in La Liga, bottoming out at a pressure rate of 32.8 per cent. In each of Xavi’s three seasons, they’ve topped the league for pressure, averaging 37.0 per cent.

Barcelona are not an easy team to play through — at least not up front.

Defending in their own half has been a bumpier ride.

Last season, until they clinched the title, Barcelona were letting in goals at a historically low rate, though that flattered them a little compared to their expected goals allowed. This season, the defence has become both worse and less lucky: their 37 goals allowed are just the fifth-best in La Liga.

A lot of that has been due to a downturn in the team’s shot-stopping fortunes, especially during goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen’s long injury absence. But another problem, as Xavi hasn’t been shy about pointing out, is an alarming spike in individual errors.

This season has been one long blooper reel of blown offside traps, baffling decisions, bad positioning and worse tackles.

Some of that is normal from the 17-year-old Cubarsi and it’s just part of the deal with Joao Cancelo, who has offered the team some much-needed creativity from left-back but cost them with routine defensive lapses. It’s been harder to explain why the veteran defenders Ronald Araujo and Jules Kounde suddenly look mistake-prone.



Celebrating Sergio Busquets – the invisible genius impossible to ignore

Maybe the defensive line is just more exposed than it used to be.

Busquets was creaky by the end, even slower than he had always been, but last season his subtle positional brilliance and press resistance held Barcelona together at the back.

Since he left for Inter Miami in the summer, the inability to replace their legendary defensive midfielder has been an ongoing crisis for Barcelona. Oriol Romeu, signed from Girona in the offseason, hasn’t been good enough to start. Gundogan and De Jong don’t offer much defensive cover as a central midfield pair. By February, Xavi was playing centre-back Andreas Christensen as a sturdy but awkward midfielder, a la John Stones and Manuel Akanji at City.

Barcelona’s real problem, of course, is money.

Financially levered to the hilt, they still couldn’t afford to sign the calibre of defensive midfielder Xavi wanted or entice Dembele to stay. Lewandowski is 36 this summer and showing signs of decline, but the club have no obvious means to replace their leading scorer. Gundogan, their most successful recent signing, is 33. If not for all the academy talent, there were times this season when Barcelona would barely have been able to field a team; at some point, the supply of wonderkids or millions of euros found under a sofa cushion will surely run out.

Xavi’s Barcelona have been better than could have been reasonably expected when he took over, but they’ve also been spending beyond their means. There’s no guarantee that can continue.

Aside from Sergi Roberto, there aren’t many bloated contracts from the Josep Bartomeu era left to get off the books, and the prospects of significant transfer income are slim. Even if De Jong was to finally accept a move, his ankle injury last weekend could complicate a summer sale. Fati’s failed Brighton loan has taken the shine off a former gem who should have been sold when Xavi kept him on the bench. Most of the club’s other saleable players are too young and gifted to leave without causing catastrophe on the pitch and riots in the streets of Catalonia.

Xavi gives Gundogan orders (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

So where does that leave Xavi?

He says his Barcelona project is unfinished but it might still go unfunded. Even assuming no key players leave, this summer’s shopping list will be long, starting with a defensive midfielder and someone other than Lewandowski to score goals — the type of talent that does not come cheap. Xavi once famously played for the club in an all-La Masia line-up; if that happens again while he’s coaching, it’s liable to be a bunch of homegrown teenagers filling in because no one else is left.

It’s good news for Barcelona that Xavi has decided to stay. His principled but flexible approach has been effective, even if it hasn’t won over aesthetes. Sporting director Deco’s department has a clear tactical blueprint to guide recruitment if only they can manage to stick to it. Stability, not more change, is what the club needs right now.

The old Barcelona are gone, but the new Barcelona are still very good. This is Xavi’s team now.

We’ll see how long a man who always excelled at wriggling out of tight spaces can keep it up.

(Top photo: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

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