European Update: How Xavi changed Barcelona

Last November, FC Barcelona, one of the most popular clubs in the world, was in total shambles. 

Barcelona, who has won 10 league titles and four Champions Leagues since 2000, sat in ninth place in La Liga, mired in financial difficulties and playing unexciting, unsuccessful soccer. After a 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano Oct. 27, the club fired manager Ronald Koeman, whose squad earned a third place finish last season, behind their mortal enemies Real Madrid and their crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid. 

The squad was poorly constructed and underperforming. In the summer transfer window, club legend and the best player in the world Lionel Messi, whose contract expired at the end of the 2020-21 season, left his boyhood club because of Barcelona’s bloated wage bill.

Messi’s departure meant Barcelona struggled challenge for the title this season, but it was also an emotional blow for Barça fans, who had grown used to Messi’s ability to win matches single-handedly. 

One man, though, appeared brave and dedicated enough to right the ship: Xavier Hernández Creus, best known simply as Xavi — a club legend who starred in midfield from the late ’90s until 2015, when he accepted a contract form Al Sadd in Qatar to ease into retirement. 

After retiring in 2019, Xavi immediately became Al Sadd’s manager, winning seven trophies with the Qatari club. By conventional standards, Xavi, with no European coaching experience, was underqualified for the Barcelona job. 

Yet, Xavi, who personifies all of Barcelona’s Catalan and footballing values, was perhaps the only man qualified to guide Barcelona out of the unholy situation into which the club’s hierarchy had guided it (except for his ex-teammate and mentor, Pep Guardiola, the current manager of Manchester City). 

Despite the hope and optimism Xavi’s presence brought, his job was never going to be easy. The club legends such as Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were not getting any younger, while the club’s young breakout stars of the previous season, Ansu Fati and Pedri struggled with injuries. 

Additionally, a calf injury plagued striker Sergio Aguero, who the club had signed ostensibly to encourage Messi to stick around because of the pair’s friendship, limiting him to only five appearances before he tragically retired in December after being diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia. 

His first two months brought mixed results, but Xavi has successfully renovated Barcelona’s playing style and his changes have led to Barcelona finding some of their best form since former manager Luis Enrique left the club in 2017. 

Recent stumbles against Eintracht Frankfurt and Cádiz aside, Barcelona went on a 15-match unbeaten streak from Jan. 23 until April 14, drawing four matches and winning nine. The highlight of that was a 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid on the road, their first El Clásico win in three years. 

How has he done it? Well, for starters, Xavi has implemented ideals popularized by his former coaches, Guardiola and Enrique. 

Barcelona has returned to using a flexible 4-3-3 formation,
possession-oriented system. Yet, Xavi’s side is not a carbon copy of the Guardiola teams he played in during the late aughts and early 2010s. 

The current Barcelona resembles Guardiola’s current Manchester City team in the sense that, when attacking, Barcelona will have five players pushed against the opposition’s backline, stretching the field wide to create lateral gaps for midfielders and strikers to surge into and exploit. 

In that sense, the two midfielders ahead of Busquets in Xavi’s system do not actually play in a similar style to Xavi and his former midfield partner Andrés Iniesta. Whereas Xavi and Iniesta sat behind the front line, recycling play and creating chances from a deeper position, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri frequently make runs into the box to find shooting positions, scoring with some regularity. 

In fact, while this edition of Barcelona prefers keeping possession, they are not afraid to hit a ball over the top to their pacey forwards, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ousmane Dembélé and recently acquired Ferrán Torres. The team’s not averse to directness when it benefits them and enjoys isolating its wingers against an opposition fullback. 

Dembélé and right winger Adama Traoré, who was signed on loan in January, have high success rates in one-one-one duels, so Xavi’s system frequently overloads one side of the pitch before switching the ball quickly over to the opposite winger, who looks to beat their defender on the dribble before sending in a cross or cutting back to oncoming runners. 

While Koeman’s side played unexciting soccer, Xavi’s team actually crosses the ball more frequently, with 15 per game. Their willingness to send crosses into the box further supports the notion that Xavi is pragmatic, playing Luuk de Jong, a great header of the ball, at striker for last ten minutes of a game when they need a goal or using Traore in a dribbling role that limits his need to make a killer pass or finish difficult chances. 

The future looks cautiously bright for Barcelona. Xavi continues to reinvigorate the team’s tactics and work ethic, earning a trademark victory against Real Madrid to announce the Xavi era. 

The club appears to have made prudent signings in January, with Torres, Aubameyang and Traore all making key contributions to the team since their arrival. Barcelona probably has the best collection of young midfielders in the world, with Pedri, Gavi — who’s still only 17 and a key player in Xavi’s plans — and Frenkie de Jong. 

If the club manages to steer clear of further financial issues, they look poised to make a genuine title challenge as soon as next season. Will Xavi be the next iconic Barcelona coach in a long line of greats? Only time will tell, but he stands as good a chance as anyone. 

Jack Hallinan is a freshman discussing the latest news surrounding European soccer. His column “European Update,” runs every other Monday.