May 24, 2024

Xavi Hernandez frequently makes reference to Barcelona as being the most “difficult club in the world” to be a part of, whether you’re the coach, as he is now, or as a player, as he was for two decades before leaving for Qatar in 2015.

The reason, Xavi explains, is because winning is not enough. You need to win with the club’s DNA.

What the club’s DNA is, exactly, is the source of many late night bar discussions in Les Corts. You could talk for hours about the intricacies of how the club’s style has evolved under Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola over the past 35 years, but essentially it relates to the three P’s: positioning, possession and pressure.

Barça want to play attacking, exciting football. They want to play through the lines from the back, pressing high, with one-or-two-touch interplay where possible. They want players who can bring supporters to their feet, who can score brilliant goals and who can win them matches and trophies.

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Despite winning LaLiga last season — their first league title since 2019 — there were complaints that Barça were not hitting all those KPIs. An exaggeration of that came to the fore after the 1-0 Clásico win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of the semifinal of the Copa del Rey in March.

Missing a lot of players due to injury, Barça were forced to adapt their game, handing over 60% of possession to Madrid, who did not manage a shot on target. They were criticised for their performance. With 53% of the ball in the return leg, Barça lost 4-0 at Spotify Camp Nou.

That, in essence, illustrates the challenge facing Xavi this season as he attempts to create version 2.0 of his Barça side. After building a league-winning team last season on the back of defensive solidity, sources told ESPN that Xavi now wants his team to improve as much with the ball as he feels they have without it since he replaced Ronald Koeman in 2021 with the team ninth in LaLiga.

This weekend’s Clásicostream LIVE on Saturday, 10 a.m. ET (U.S.) — at the Olympic Stadium is the perfect setting for Barça to show how they have progressed since last season. A long injury list — Sergi Roberto and Jules Koundé are definitely out, while Pedri, Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Frenkie de Jong remain doubtful for Saturday — means any conclusions drawn this weekend will not be definitive, but Xavi’s planning for the season was with games like these in mind.

Building the base

Barça have completely overhauled the squad since Xavi was appointed. Defenders Kounde and Andreas Christensen both arrived last summer and youngsters Ronald Araújo and Alejandro Balde both became regulars as part of a new-look back four that, with the help of goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, provided the backbone to Barça’s league title. Iñigo Martínez has joined since.

The Blaugrana conceded just 20 goals in LaLiga last season, their lowest-ever total across a 38-game campaign. They wracked up 11 1-0 wins and while they rode their luck at times, Xavi’s side looked completely different defensively to the one that had conceded 38 goals in each of the previous three seasons. Kounde — or Araujo in special cases, such as against Madrid’s Vinicius Jr. — played at right-back, allowing the team to be able to switch to three centre-backs when needed.

However, what Barça gained in defence, they lost in attack.

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Kirkland: Guiu proves La Masia works when Barca need it most

Alex Kirkland reacts to Marc Guiu’s dream Barcelona debut, as the 17-year-old academy graduate scores immediately after being subbed on.

Despite the additions of Lewandowski and Raphinha, Barça managed just 70 league goals in 22-23. It was just the second time in 15 seasons, dating to Guardiola’s first in charge in 2008-09, that they had failed to hit more than 80 in a single campaign. They have registered more than 100 on seven occasions in that period. The only other time they failed to hit 80 was in 21-22, when they scored 68 after Xavi replaced Koeman.

Xavi, therefore, was clear in his diagnosis of what was needed to improve the squad in the summer. He wanted a right-back, a replacement for Sergio Busquets (now with Lionel Messi at Inter Miami) and more creativity in the middle of the pitch. Due to the club’s financial situation, he was forced to sacrifice on squad size, opting for quality over quantity. Barça have just 19 players registered to the first team, although youngsters like Lamine Yamal and Fermín López are also now established regulars.

Right-back balance

The arrival of João Cancelo on loan from Manchester City is the biggest indicator of how Xavi wants Barça to play. The Portugal international has effectively replaced Kounde at right-back, with the Frenchman reverting to centre-back.

Cancelo is as comfortable going outside the winger down the flank as he is stepping into a midfield role where he can provide numerical superiority in central areas. He is averaging 3.94 take-ons per 90 minutes this season with a 68% success rate, in comparison to Kounde’s 1.11 last season with 50% success. He is also creating 1.26 chances per 90, scoring twice and creating one goal in seven appearances. Kounde created 0.59 chances per 90 last season, scoring once and assisting three goals across 29 LaLiga outings.

None of those numbers are surprising given the profiles of the two players, but they highlight the difference Cancelo makes in the final third.

Without the ball, though, Barça are more susceptible to conceding goals as Xavi is still striving for a balance between being rigid defensively and improving going forward. They have already let in 10 goals this season in 10 league games, when it took them 31 games to concede that amount last season. There was an element of them overachieving last year at the back, mind you. They conceded 20, but their xGa was 33.61 as Ter Stegen served as an occasional saviour in goal. That has reverted to the mean this season, with the 10 goals conceded coming with an xGa of 9.88.

Replacing Busquets

Xavi said the key to Barça’s summer would be how well they replaced Busquets, who left for Inter Miami when his contract expired. There was no money for the club’s first-choice options, which included Real Sociedad‘s Martín Zubimendi and Bayern Munich‘s Joshua Kimmich, so they brought Oriol Romeu back to the club after a decade away at Chelsea, Valencia, Stuttgart, Southampton and Girona.

Romeu started the season well, but there have been doubts about his quality in recent weeks, notably since De Jong got injured. Romeu is not considered at the level of Barça’s other midfielders — De Jong, Pedri, Gavi and Ilkay Gündogan — but he started the campaign as an essential part of the team given his ability to anchor the midfield. But as this team plays more games, Romeu’s importance has waned: Barça look better with the ball when he’s not involved, posting a goal difference of +17 in all competitions when he’s not on the pitch. With him, their goal difference is +1.

That disparity is a large reason why Xavi still wants another deep-lying midfielder. In the short-term, once De Jong and Pedri recover from injuries, the coach must decide whether he wants Romeu sat in front of the back four or whether, as he pushes for a style more classically attributed to Barça, it would be better to take the handbrake off and choose a more attack-minded option.

Creative midfielders

The arrival of Gundogan as a free agent from Man City did not sate Xavi’s appetite for creative midfielders, either. Sources explain that one area where he feels the team needs to get better is connecting defence and attack. Asked in the summer who his dream signing would be, he said someone with the profile of Santi Cazorla. City’s Bernardo Silva remains a long-term target, albeit one who is out of the club’s price bracket.

Gundogan can perform that role; so can Pedri, who is brilliant, but has now missed 25 games through injury since the start of last season. That has left Barça dependent on Gundogan to create from central areas. He ranks seventh in LaLiga for xA (2.35) and fifth for chances created (21), with no other Barça player close to his numbers. Ferran Torres and Gavi come next with 10 chances created each; João Félix, Cancelo and Lewandowski have all created eight.

Sources add that Xavi’s coaching staff believe Barça will more closely resemble what Xavi wants from them when Gundogan and Pedri can have an extended run of games alongside each other.

Variety and unpredictability in attack

Even without Pedri, there have been glimpses of what this new Barça are capable of, especially since the signings of Felix and Cancelo. The Portuguese duo’s first two starts coincided with what Xavi dubbed “the best performances” of his time as coach to date: the back-to-back 5-0 wins against Real Betis and Royal Antwerp in September.

Those victories featured everything Xavi has tried to add to the team this season: Cancelo’s variety and creativity from right-back, Felix’s unpredictability in attack and Gundogan’s ingenuity. There has been no consistency since, though, even if Barça have shown resolve to come from behind to earn points against Celta Vigo, Mallorca and Granada in maintaining the only unbeaten start to the LaLiga season through 10 games.

Losing Lewandowski and Raphinha to injuries hasn’t helped, but Xavi has found players in the club’s academy who are able to take on what some sources say has become his buzz word for the season: bravery. He wants players to take risks on the ball, to run at opponents, to try passes between the lines and to play without fear.

“This generation of players coming through is fearless,” Xavi said after 17-year-old Marc Guiu scored the only goal of the game 30 seconds into his debut against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. “They look at me with a face that says: ‘Stick me on and I’ll show you I am ready.’ And they are ready. They have bags of character and bravery.”

It could be argued that a sprinkling of the club’s La Masia academy in the first team is also part of the club’s DNA. This team certainly has that; before Guiu, it was 16-year-old Yamal starring in the comeback against Granada, and 20-year-old López helping off the bench at Mallorca. Gavi, still only 19, and 20-year-old Alejandro Balde are already first-team regulars.

Felix, on loan from Atletico Madrid until the end of the season, is also playing an important role. His ability to drop deeper into midfield and create space is useful, while he is also prepared to take responsibility for creating attacks, as he showed against Athletic when he set up the winning goal for Guiu. With Ousmane Dembélé and Ansu Fati out of the club, Lewandowski and Raphinha hurt and Torres experiencing inconsistent form, he’s quickly established himself as a key part of Barça’s revamped attack.

With just one goal in seven league appearances from an xG of 3.07, though, more will be expected from Felix, starting against Madrid on Saturday. After all, it is in these games where Barça can make statements.

Gerard Pique claimed Barça were “back” after a 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in March, 2022. Xavi said the 3-1 Spanish Super Cup win over Madrid in January of this year was a turning point for the team. The Copa del Rey exit, three months later, brought doubts to the surface given the style of their win in the first leg and another notable big-game collapse in the return match.

Saturday is another opportunity to draw conclusions as Xavi, now two years and over 100 games into his tenure, has the chance to showcase where he is taking this young Barça side.

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