Xavi’s biggest mission is to Make Barcelona Brave Again

Close surveyors of the footballing trope economy will know well that appointing a manager in the middle of the season has several drawbacks. Chief among them is a paucity of time.

No time to train, to assimilate, to implement a system – all are just explanations for a side failing to change skins in the winter months. On the other hand, international football provides a counterpoint, where teams band together with mere hours of contact time to form coherent plans. Either way, swapping spots for stripes has not been the big problem for Xavi

This is not to suggest that the boy from Terrassa is already seeing the culmination of his big idea take to the pitch. Yet at a fundamental level it’s clear that Barcelona are not the same as they were a month ago. Even if the ends have not differed greatly, there is a contrast in the means. Nor has Xavi reverted to the hackneyed excuse that his players aren’t fit enough. So far, Xavi’s issue has been bravery.

The real challenge for the newly minted doyen of Camp Nou is building a solid structure of self-belief within the playing squad. Long-time observers of La Liga will remember the not infrequent sight of (a younger) Dani Alves playing one-twos inside his own six-yard box a decade ago. Others might recall Lionel Messi’s conquering of the Santiago Bernabéu in the dying embers of a 2017 El Clasico. The genesis of that move was, of course, a quick exchange of passes involving Sergi Roberto next to his own corner flag. 

The wider proposition being that this side neither has the confidence nor the instinct to take the ball in situations of difficulty. Twice against Villarreal and Espanyol, Barcelona faded into a passive and desperate team in the closing stages. Both occasions saw journalists raise fitness in the post-match pressers and, you guessed it, on both occasions Xavi responded with the same answer. In his mind, it was a problem of concept rather than conditioning. Barcelona can’t keep the ball.

One fundamental of the Barcelona of old was the ability to control the match. Had either of those matches had Xavi himself on the pitch, the Blaugrana would have been less reliant on the mercy of the opposition. Yet currently, it’s a team that reverts to survival instincts in the face of adversity.

It’s a problem that plagues their own forwards too. Up until now, the final third has resulted mostly in square football – thinking within straight lines and taking obvious passes. There’s a scarcity of invention and a reluctance to play through the corridor of legs. It’s true that for the last 15 years Barcelona have possessed players blessed with inspiration, but nowadays conservatism rules the minds of the group.

Nobody evinces this more than Memphis Depay. Bearing down on goal against Benfica, the Dutchman cut back onto his right and lost the opportunity; a stark contrast to earlier this season, where he thundered a bouncing ball home against Athletic Club with his left, without thought. Weighed down with writers block, as everyone peers solely at him, Memphis’ attempts to come up with a storyline have moved between bad and bizarre in recent weeks.

The problems at Barcelona are manifold. Yet in Messi’s absence, Barça players are in a period of painful discovery – they must now play the bold pass or find the courage to take the ball themselves. Xavi’s biggest challenge is not enforcing his ideas, but fixing a corrupted system; it’s rewiring the very synapses of his players.

Tags Barcelona La Liga Real Betis Xavi