The statisticians were glowing last night with news of Xavi’s pass completion rate hitting a mind boggling 96 passes out of 96. There were no statistics however, to show that underneath the surface Barcelona’s central figure is struggling.
Fitness is the main issue here, no doubt, and while it may seem that is something that Barca can manage, they haven’t exactly done so adeptly over the last year or so. This is a man, now 33, that’s played 60 or so games a season for the past several years. It’s no surprise that he’s beginning to show signs of wear and tear, but the surprise is Barca seems to be doing little about it.
Xavi’s game, which is defined by his searching of space and weaving a pattern for his teammates, was particularly negated last night against Paris Saint-Germain. The lethargy and laborious side that has crept into his own game is now transferring to Barca’s as a whole. A healthy proportion of the 96 passes he produced yesterday went nowhere, into areas that only retained a simple pattern. There was scant direction, purpose and penetration.
More of a concern perhaps was the effect it had on those around him, with Sergio Busquets especially appearing out character and flustered. Xavi’s partner, the man whom he refers to as ‘extraordinary’ despite the best efforts of people to declare him as simply ‘ordinary’, was unable to build from the back and focus on his usual game. Instead, Busquets was putting out fires with the water pistol Xavi had handed him.
Barca’s tempo for some time has been gradually slowing and the fitness and health of their chief conductor is beginning to show as its main problem. This has the aforementioned ripple effect of course, and if Xavi doesn’t perform and seek out the space that others can’t see, it poses a problem for whoever operates ahead of him. Be it a Barca with a 9 like David Villa, or without one in regards to Cesc Fabregas’ usage.
It’s not like the Catalans don’t have a solution either. An area like defence they obviously have issues that can’t be attended to until the summer, but from now until the end of the season there is a solution for Xavi’s rust. The oil could indeed be Thiago Alcantara, the Samba-infused Spaniard who has perhaps played less than anticipated this term. The next stage in his maturing is regular games at a high level, to be engulfed in the pressure that surrounds a club as esteemed as Barca. It’s the only way he’ll develop and utilise the talent he has in abundance, for now he’s played enough bit part roles and even Spain Under-21 games – it’s time for him to take the spotlight on the bigger stage.
This by no means is a call for Xavi to be dropped, sold or pushed into a coaching role because he’s reached the end of the road. This is by no means a message to Tito Vilanova saying ‘it’s time to take the old dog round the back of Camp Nou, and put him down’. It’s simply a point that it’s time to better manage his role in this team and his health as it continues to decline. It’s simply a point that his battles need to be picked better, whilst another midfielder in Thiago needs to sit in the throne more often.
Xavi is style, and he deserves to bow out in it. Not suffering.