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Intent and intelligence: Analysing Xavi’s first game as Barcelona manager

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Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The new era at FC Barcelona has begun under Xavi Hernandez. The former Barcelona midfielder was at the heart of the club’s single most successful period. Now, as a manager, he seeks to replicate what his role models in the late Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have done at Barça.

His first game in charge of the garnet and blue was not the most glamorous, nevertheless, it left a lot to be hopeful for. As he repeatedly said in the post-match press conference, there is much left to be improved. Xavi is more than justified in saying this, as, despite all the relative optimism, all good things take ample time to fabricate.

Subsequent to his victory over an old foe in RCD Espanyol, Barça Universal explores what in what ways Xavi showed clear intent from the get-go.

Brilliance on and off the ball

When asked about Tiki Taka once, Pep Guardiola said the following: “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal. It’s not about passing for the sake of it.”

There is a significant disparity between what people think tiki-taka is and what it actually is. Generally, when speaking of this passing style, the public refers to positional play with fast passing, which is what Barcelona are best known for and have, since his departure, tried helplessly to replicate.

Tiki-taka, in actuality, can easily be used as a method for time-wasting and can end up being incredibly unproductive unless used to preserve a lead.

Pep then added the following, which further revealed what his preferred style of play truly is: “Don’t believe what people say. Barça didn’t do tiki-taka! It’s completely made up! Don’t believe a word of it! In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak.”

Pep’s ideas have been immortalised. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

This carefully articulated correction of his interviewer revealed that his main aim on the ball was to overload one side of the pitch. Why so? The intent in this was to then attack on the other side of the pitch once enough of the rivals have gravitated to one side of the pitch.

Pivotal to positional play is the mobilisation of spaces on the pitch to generate numerical and positional superiorities. By forcing a team to abandon their positional references, they are more prone to attacks. 

He then concluded by stating what the goal of this shift in positional balance was: “And when we’ve done all that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker punch. That’s what our game needs to be. Nothing to do with tiki-taka.”

With Xavi Hernandez’ Barcelona, it is admittedly just early days. Nevertheless, the Spaniard has shown that his tactical blueprint is one that subscribes to the philosophy of El Juego de Posicion, or positional play. In many phases during Saturday’s game against Espanyol, the Catalans demonstrated that what Pep Guardiola spoke of is what is making its return to the Camp Nou.

From the very onset, attacks have been shown to start from the goalkeeper. In itself, it stays true to Johan Cruyff’s words, that “[his] goalkeeper is his first attacker.” In this most crucial of phases, in his passing, he was the individual with the highest passing accuracy in the entire team, at 100%. This in itself is evidence that his teammates were better positioned than they usually are, leading to a net zero ball losses. 

Once the ball has left his feet, the ball is moved to one of the ball-playing centre-backs in either Gerard Pique or the precocious passer Eric Garcia. The process afterwards is simple: locate Sergio Busquets.

Commander-in-chief. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The Barça captain is easily one of the best passers in the world. His otherworldly distribution was at its peak yesterday, again thanks in large part to perfectly all his teammates were.

At this stage in the attack, the ball was generally in or around the centre of the pitch. This is where the positional superiorities were best created against Los Periquitos. One of Pablo Gavi or Frenkie De Jong would be positioned nearer the touchline, in such a way as to always be available as a passing option for the hosts.

The 17-year-old was of immense importance to his side. Often combining with the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Memphis Depay or Jordi Alba, he would either seek to transport the ball centrally or make a lacerating pass into a winger on his left flank. The goal of penetration was clear and obvious from Xavi’s interiors all throughout the match.

If this would not succeed, then they would attack Los Blanquiazules as Pep described it. By making a host of one-touch passes, Gavi, de Jong, and Alba created an overload and consistently drew out Espanyol players.

Once achieved, Busquets would again play a pivotal – no pun intended – role in the team’s ball distribution. Often positioned at the centre of the pitch, the onus was on him to now switch play to the other flank. In doing this, Espanyol were caught entirely off guard as too many players had by then been pulled out of place, and acres of space were nimbly created, just as Pep said. 

The best way to accomplish switches, of course, is with the presence of permanent width all throughout the game.

Ilias Akchomach and Abde Ezzalzouli were instrumental in maintaining this balance in play. With the switches played towards them, chance creation occurred in one of two ways.

Abde could turn out to be more crucial to the team than one would’ve thought. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The winger would either play a cross into the penalty area into the corridor of uncertainty or better yet, with their snake hips, waltz through the rival backline and pass or take a shot at goal of their own. This was a reasonably recurrent pattern in offensive phases during the game, and Xavi hit the nail on the head with his offensive tactical approach. 

Given their inexperience, the results were not the best they could have been. Nevertheless, this is the pair’s chance to learn and grow under the philosophy which tactically fits them like a glove.

The constant rotation of positions by the midfield cannot be understated, nor too the positioning of the centre-backs when the team needed to recycle possession. Everything that happened on the pitch happened for a reason. 

With the likes of Pedri, Ansu Fati and perhaps Ousmane Dembele, and the most significant factor of all, in time, the level of football will certainly be taken a notch higher. 

On the defensive side of things, Barcelona displayed their single best pressing game of the season. The PPDA (passes per defensive actions) that they allowed Espanyol was at a staggering 6.2. In this metric, the lower, the better, and Xavi’s proactive approach to the game paid dividends in the end.

As has always been recommended, Barcelona would apply an intense press from the highest line forward. The Blaugrana had Memphis Depay, Ilias, Gavi asphyxiate the rival backline to the best of their ability.

The Dutchman was in the form of his life with regards to his pressing game, as little could take away from his brilliance off the ball on Saturday night. 

The main man in the attack. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

If the frontline was unsuccessful in their endeavours, then the interiors would join in. The goal was such that the Espanyol backline would find themselves at numerical and positional inferiority.

This would regularly lead to the visitors losing the ball cheaply and fairly close to their own box, increasing threat levels in the attack. Any failed pressure would be compensated for by the next line of defensive cover until the ball got to the goalkeeper, who himself barely had anything to do for three-quarters of the match.

Indeed it took 77 minutes for Los Blanquiazules to have any legitimate threat against Barcelona. This in itself speaks volumes about the effectiveness of Barcelona’s pressing on the night. The Catalans easily dispossessed their rivals at every given turn, and once the ball was won back, every individual without exception was well enough positioned to initiate yet another attack. 

Another aspect of defending, not much spoken of, comes in what Barça do with the ball at their disposal. When attacking solutions are hard to come by, then the players commence a quick round of the oh-so-infamous tiki-taka. As long as the ball is at a good enough distance from the rivals, then there is little need to fear an attack. 

This is where the selection of players benefited him most. Every individual on the pitch was complementary to his counterpart. Garcia and Pique may not be the most popular choices for the supporters, but popularity has never won matches.

Still as important. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Both individuals were phenomenal on the ball and off it too. Last ditch tackles, passes under pressure, and overall composure both in attack and defence were the hallmarks of their play last night. 

Once the defensive phase was complete, there was no hesitation from whoever the ball possessor would be to initiate another attack. Espanyol were, after all, at their most vulnerable, and what better way to attack than with pace, precision and, for once in years, a visible structure in which to do so consistently?

Barcelona were not perfect, obviously. During certain phases in play, there were errors of communication. Nevertheless, one could not ask for a better managerial debut for Xavi.

Conclusion 

From both a tactical and mental standpoint, there has been a visible boost in the team’s dynamics. Barcelona are now back to doing all the basics right. Many fundamental aspects in the team’s play that had been lacking for years are visible now in how the team sets itself up, both to attack and defend.

Even with all this said, this is only the beginning of a long story. Given all that has changed in just over two weeks of taking over, it is far from ludicrous to say that the best is yet to come. 

The beautiful game brings to all who enjoy it a plethora of emotions and my way of giving back to it is through my writing. I am here not only to share my insight on the club I hold closest to my heart but also to gain knowledge from my fellow writers.

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  1. Steve johnson

    22/11/2021 at 23:52

    All those aspects you mention are theoretically nice and right, but practically they almost failed in the game with Espaniol. Despite intend or whatever, overloading sides, tiki taka or whatever, all those you mention mostly failed, otherwise the scoreline would have been 2 nil in the first half or Barca would have had some Barca good clear chances and that was not the case. Barca had very few clear good chances created and Espanyol adapted relatively ok their defense. The 3 outstanding chances in the game came all from Espaniol in the last 20 or so, the De Tomas shot, the Di Mata header when he was on his own and the De Tomas header that left Ter Segen standing and hit the post.

    This also showed that the last 20min when attacking solutions were hard to come by, even with Espaniol going forward and being more exposed, when Barca attempted to commence of a quick round of the infamous tikitaka they failed to deter the Espaniol chances or provide defensive protection. Another practical failure.

    And you do fail to mention much about the 17 fouls Barca comitted vs 9. This is another trick that Xavi has picked up from Guardiola. Tactical fouling when losing the ball, when wanting to disrupt the oponents possesion or a dangerous break through.
    It has been documented in the Amazon documentary series ‘All or Nothing’ when Mikel Arteta (back then in Peps training team at City) gets to the heart of how City should avoid counters if they can not regain the ball quickly
    “David, Kevin, Gundo, make fouls. If there is a transition, make a foul.”
    And also by Domenec Torrent who in an article has been documented to have said “When we lose the ball it’s very important for Pep to press high in five seconds. If you don’t win it back within five seconds then make a foul and go back.”
    Perhaps this part seems to have worked well in both theoretical and practical terms. Otherwise it is hard to explain how a team that has 65% posession, almost double the possesion, committed almost double the number of fouls.

    But overall Barca were much better. The lines were closer, chances were created and maybe with Fati and Dembele there would have been more and the score would be higher. The team played with more intencity. If with more work all those theoretical aspects you mention, indeed can be turned into practice then Xavi will progressively make Barca a much better team.

    • Michael Gathige

      23/11/2021 at 06:21

      That’s a very amazing outlook. Didn’t think of that aspect. Thank you very much Steve 🙂