Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez is winding down until his summer break, able to take a brief reprise from the constant pressure of his position. It’s been a successful season for Barcelona winning the La Liga title, but it was not easy, and Xavi had to change his plans midway through the campaign.
Coaching in his first role in European football, Xavi has admitted that some home truths were told after Real Madrid beat them at the Santiago Bernabeu in October of 2022, calling it a turning point.
Emotionally, clearly it was a different team thereafter, but Xavi also made adjustments on the pitch too. Setting up initially with a 4-3-3 with two wingers in the side, he sacrificed the left-sided forward to play Gavi in an inverted role – a move which paid dividends whenever Xavi had his first-choice midfield available.
“In the end I detected, and also the staff, that we suffered during many transitions, that there was a lot of ball losses, and that we had to have more control, more order,” he told Sport.
“I am a person who has been a midfielder and in the end what I like is control. Having the team in the opposing half is what I like the most. It gives you protagonism, it gives you the feeling of saying: now you are dominating the game and now you are going for the game.”
“And the feeling I had was that we didn’t have players in midfield, especially for quick transitions; maybe just Frenkie and Kessie. And there I put the four midfielders who were also giving us a lot of performance: Gavi, Pedri, Frenkie and Busi. It was time to have more stability, and through that we were much better.”
It has also been said of Xavi’s Barcelona that his side have far less control of the ball than previously expected. Xavi’s sides tended to dominate the ball for at least two thirds of the game when he was a player, but as a manager, his Barcelona look far more vertical.
“As a player, the ball losses of my teammates broke me. It annoys me and demoralises me. But there are different scenarios in football, right? When they say that Xavi’s Barca is vertical; I think: why can’t we be vertical?”
Asked when exactly was the moment to do so, Xavi explained hi s thinking.
“You have to be vertical when the opposing team is set in midfield and they put high pressure on you. You have to find the space behind the opposing defensive line. That’s when you have to be vertical.”
“It was seen against Mallorca: they play you direct until the death and the opposing defence was already in midfield. Well, that recovery of the ball is when the footballer is faced up and we have to take advantage of the space in the defensive line of five. There are different scenarios. You are not always going to dominate the game in modern football.”
Given the margin with which Barcelona have won La Liga, few are likely to criticise that line of thinking domestically. Yet it is true that against Manchester United in the Europa League play-off, Barcelona struggled to hold the ball at Old Trafford, and ultimately couldn’t stem the flow of United attack. A large part of that of course is down to the absence of Pedri and Gavi in that game, but it spoke to a wider inability to control games in Europe – which is Xavi’s big task ahead of next season.