Xavi Hernández will go down as one of the greatest midfield maestros in the history of football. His control of the game, passing and understanding of the Barcelona system made him a hero for all culés. Over his career he won many major honours at both club and international level. His ability, combined with his professionalism, saw him captain Barça and remain at the club for the majority of his footballing career.
Despite his smaller size, Xavi Hernández was always destined to play with Barcelona. In an era where the perfect midfielder was seen as tall, strong, athletic and powerful, Xavi, along with Iniesta, redefined what a modern day midfielder should be. The Spanish playmaker was perfect to play the Barcelona way. For Xavi, his game was based of keeping the ball from the opponents, as if they do not have the ball, they cannot score. His relentless demand for control of the ball made him almost machine like in retaining possession. What also stands out is not necessarily the flashes of brilliance, but how simple he could make the game look. Just by doing the basics well, Xavi could dominate teams and dominate games from start to finish.
“Xavi changed football. He helped us to build, or to see, a new player profile that ended up running through all levels of the national team. He killed off the myth of physicality being above all else and opened people’s eyes to the qualities of small, technical players, proving that you can attack and also defend with the ball”
–– Julen Lopetegui
Road to the first team
Born and raised in Barcelona, Xavi Hernández joined La Masía at the age of 11. At the academy, his talent saw him rise through the youth teams. He was key for the Barcelona B team that won promotion to the Segunda divison by finishing first in the 1997/98 season. It is rumoured that the Barcelona youngster almost joined Milan. His father had given the go ahead but it was his mother, after threatening divorce if Xavi left Barҫa, that meant he stayed at his boyhood club. This turned out to be the right decision, both for the player and for the blaugranas. The next season, Xavi was promoted into Louie Van Gaal’s team and established himself quickly. In his debut season he won the league, playing 26 games and was named the 1999 La Liga break through player of the year.
“Xavi is the defender of the values of the greatest Barcelona team in history. He is the personification of a model based on effort and a commitment to touch and technique, that exquisite eye that Barcelona projected around the world”
–– Joan Laporta
After his debut season, Xavi Hernández began to establish himself in a more prominent role in the first team. With an injury to one of Barҫa’s most influential players, Pep Guardiola, Xavi took the opportunity and became a key performer in the team. On the ball, the La Masía graduate showed his quality with his vision and range of passing. His ability to retain possession, high pass success rate, ability to break the lines with passes and press resistance made him a perfect fit for Barcelona. But, the midfield maestro also began to develop his game in the final third too. An eye for goal in important matches and an increasing number of assists, Xavi was perfecting his game. In 2005 he was given the role as vice-captain and would go on to captain the team on many occasions.
Xavi Hernández, during his final La Liga game (as a player) for Barcelona at the Camp Nou | Photo by Lluis Gene / AFP via Getty Images
In 2008, when former team mate Pep Guardiola became manager, Xavi would establish himself as one of the best midfielders in the history of the sport. During the era of Pep, Barcelona were the dominant force in Europe. They set the standard for all teams on how to play football. At the heart of the team was Xavi. He set the tempo of the team and controlled the game along with his midfield partners, Iniesta and Busquets. Their composure on the ball and understanding of each others game is something that is unlikely to be seen again in football. Furthermore, Xavi stood out for his leadership and decisiveness in games. Over his career, the midfield maestro provided 236 assists at both club and international level. His 126 career assists in La Liga sees him placed second, only behind Messi, for the most assists in the competitions history.
“If Xavi has a bad day then Barcelona do not play half as well. He is the one that sets the rhythm of the game. His play allows the team to function. He’s different”
–– Johan Cruyff
Stand out moments
There are many great achievements in the career of Xavi Hernández. One which shows the quality of passing, that Xavi possessed, is the record for most completed passes in a Champions League game. This came against Celtic in 2012, where the Barҫa playmaker completed 178 passes during the match. Another impressive achievement is holding the record for most appearances for Barcelona with 769 games played. One of his stand out games came against Real Madrid in 2009. In this game the azulgranas won by 2–6 with Xavi providing 4 assists. Hernández was also key in the Spain team that dominated world football by winning back to back European Championships and a World Cup in between.
“I don’t win prizes, I construct them; I get more enjoyment out of giving an assist than scoring a goal”
–– Xavi Hernández
The former Barça captain boasts an impressive trophy cabinet, but he was also recognised on an individual level. In the Ballon d’Or rankings, Xavi finished 3rd on 3 occasions in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and in 2010 won World Soccer Player of the Year. He was also included in the FIFA FIFPro World XI for 6 years in a row between 2008 and 2013. In addition, he was part of the UEFA Team of The Year for 5 years straight, between 2008 and 2012. Furthermore, the La Masia graduate was nominated the La Liga midfielder of the year in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He also finished top on the assists chart in La Liga in for the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons and finished top in the Champions League in 2008/09.
The future for Xavi
The Barcelona legend will always be remembered as one of the greats to play the game, not just by culés, but by all football fans. He redefined the role of a midfielder and was untouchable for many years throughout his career. Currently managing Al Sadd in Qatar, it is almost certain that the former player will become the manager of Barcelona at some stage. Based on his time at the club this seems like it would be a perfect match. His leadership, professionalism and understanding of the style of Barça makes him an ideal candidate for the job. It would be great to see the midfield maestro back at his boyhood club.
“He is the best player in the history of Spanish football”
–– Leo Messi
Player Profile: Barcelona’s Ilaix Moriba
La Masia has always had a very strict hierarchical structure that they have made sure not to disturb. Many times, players have left the academy as higher wages and better playing opportunities have been offered in other clubs. Meet Ilaix Moriba, the 16-year-old who became the first player Barcelona took serious financial as well as sporting power to tie down at the club.
Ilaix caught the world’s attention when he scored a hat-trick as a 15-year-old against Real Madrid’s U19. However, the real story begins at Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on 19th January 2003. Born to a Guinean mother and a Liberian father, Moriba Kourouma Kourouma moved to Barcelona as a child. Originally a player for local rivals Espanyol, the Blaugrana signed him in 2010. After starting out at the U9’s C team, Ilaix progressed steadily and quickly, always playing with kids older than him. And this is no surprise, as he has always had a very developed physique. Now at the age of 17, he is 185cm tall and weighs 73kg.
Ilaix is a midfielder who has most recently played as an interior midfielder. He is very well-versed in playing as an attacking midfielder, and has some experience playing as a defensive midfielder as well. Interestingly, he was even deployed as a striker for one or two matches, but this of course isn’t much.
“He’s a little bit, maybe modern—in the English football kind of sense. It’s good to have him at Barca. The academy can’t be all about the Riqui [Puig]s or the Monchus—small players with a lot of talent. Football trends change every year, every month, but Ilaix is here not because he is tall or strong, but because he is very good in every facet of the game.”Silva Puig, ilaix’s coach at juvenil b
The above quote gives a good idea of the kind of player Ilaix is. He is different from the usual academy graduates. Always getting labelled as ‘Barcelona’s Paul Pogba’ due to his physique, people tend to overlook his technical qualities when in fact, he is a very well-rounded player and is a great combination of Barca DNA and the things that Barcelona’s academy graduates often lack.
Offensive and on-the-ball abilities
Something that immediately stands out when you watch Ilaix is how comfortable he is with the ball. Pulling off flicks to see a teammate through on goal, dribbling out of tight spaces and progressing the ball, executing a cheeky nutmeg to get past a player followed by a chipped ball over the defense, the Spanish midfielder always exhibits his readiness to have the ball at his feet. This helps his team in many ways, the most significant of which is progressing from deep spaces.
Ilaix’s physique helps him in many aspects, including this. Many times, he’ll receive the ball in his own half. If there is space to drive into, Ilaix will exploit it. His physique means that it takes much more than just simple pushes to get him off the ball. This is something that Barcelona B have not had in a player recently. Also very good in tight-spaces, Ilaix’s close-control is very polished. He adds another dimension to the team’s ball-progression.
Being a La Masia player, excellent passing and receiving are to be expected. The 17-year-old midfielder is exceptional at receiving. Though he looks to receive on the half-turn often, his receive with his back to the goal while turning is exceptionally good. In terms of passing, Ilaix’s passing range is the highlight. Incisive passes through the defense, delicate chips, and long-passes to switch the play, he has it all.
It’s impossible to give an overview of what Ilaix offers without speaking about his shooting ability. He has incredible shooting range and manages to generate a lot of power even with a relatively small back-lift at times. In the earlier mentioned match against Real Madrid, one goal was from the halfway line. An often-overlooked aspect of the Spaniard’s play is his timing when making runs into the box. He regularly gets into dangerous places and has an eye for goal.
Defensive and off-the-ball abilities
Ilaix has a good defensive work-rate. He regularly tracks back and presses well, making sure his team isn’t in a numerical disadvantage at the back. His anticipation, and defending in 1v1 moments in especially impressive. In a 1v1, the body-orientation is very important. Like maintaining balance on a tightrope, Ilaix follows the dribbler. Neither allowing the opponent to cut inside, nor drive forwards easily is the key.
In terms of positioning, Ilaix needs to be better at times. This season, as he has gained protagonism at the B team he has also started positioning himself carelessly at times. Unlike players like Nico Gonzalez alongside him, who receive the ball in threatening positions, Ilaix looks’ to receive the ball deep and drive at the opposition.
Rather than purely in defense, Ilaix shines when the team transition from defense to attack. He is capable of holding the ball up and involving his teammates in the play. Another aspect in which his physique is influential, but not without his reading of the game and awareness.
In Ilaix, Barcelona have a player who could grace the midfield for the coming decade. He is someone who can make a difference on his own. Being called-up in the first-team squad for the first time against Granada, Ilaix might get chances this season. And knowing the kind of player he is, Ronald Koeman is sure to take a liking to his attributes. Ilaix Moriba is still very much a raw diamond. Shaping him into what he can be should be an enjoyable task for his coaches.