Less is more. A popular quote, but rarely analysed in depth. What does it actually entail? Barcelona, under the (non-)guidance of Xavi Hernandez, are realising what the popular saying means.
Too often, Barcelona are too fast, and that has become a common ground for complaints from cules. Sometimes, one needs to take one step back to advance two steps forward. But by speeding, insisting on verticality, Xavi’s Barcelona are feeling the inevitable consequences of constantly rushing, with too much adrenaline, and rarely pausing for breath.
Even if it does not correspond to what the average pro-Pep Guardiola fan preaches, dynamic play is not necessarily a problem. However, it becomes a problem when it isolates players, and Xavi’s jigsaw puzzle looks as if it is losing pieces rather than gaining them.
Alejandro Balde, a star of the previous season, is limited with his options on the left. When a player cannot progress, he should be encircled by players coming closer to him to advance together. But it does not happen, due to mismatches. Joao Felix, loaned from Atletico Madrid until the end of the season, has been prioritised in the left half-space. The few times where he’s stuck to the left wing, his influence has diminished. And just like Balde, he too is alone, often against two defenders, and one of Barcelona’s major sources of progression has been cut off.
In the final third, Robert Lewandowski has become another continuous talking point throughout the past 365 days. The Polish striker, who arrived with excellent output in his first few months, has not been the same since the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Instead, he’s continuously rotated out of the penalty box, despite Xavi claiming he’s been instructed to stay in that box (following the 2-1 victory against Deportivo Alaves, where the Pole struck twice).
Not only does it vacate the most crucial zone of the final third with nobody available to fill in for Lewandowski’s movements, but his movements on and off the ball slow down the team’s ball circulation, more important than ever against compact defences.
As for the right wing, it’s November 14th and there still is no regular starter. La Masia star Lamine Yamal has made a number of appearances, but the 16-year-old remains raw and is unlikely to become a starter right away. As for Raphinha, he remains a problem due to his lack of tactical discipline, often acting as a chaotic creative force instead.
All of this becomes a problem, especially when Barcelona depends on situations it cannot afford to. Without Pedri Gonzalez, there was no tempo-setter. Without Frenkie de Jong, the bridges were broken, and players lost in the swell. But even with the pair slowly coming back, Barcelona does not act as one unit, instead each individual changing the style to suit them, but it is all of them dealing with counter-attacks as fast as they initiate them. With Oriol Romeu as the deeper midfielder, his mistakes and lack of athleticism cost Barcelona points. There’s too much distance between players, ensuring no player can associate with the other. Whether it is voluntary or not, it certainly has become one of Xavi’s greatest shortcomings.
Many individual shortcomings are often mentioned, between Cancelo’s erratic defending, Romeu’s lack of pace, and Lewandowski’s dearth of output. But how often is it mentioned how isolated players have become, rarely acting as a functional unit? Barcelona’s defensive record of the past season is gone (with Cancelo’s inclusion being one of the main reasons), and the attacking output so far is far from satisfactory, despite the available talent pool. Besides Lamine Yamal, Xavi has retained another La Masia talent, Fermin Lopez, who has impressed more of cules from his first minutes. And yet, he has featured less and less since his Clasico breakout, contrary to expectations.
Barcelona need to do ‘less’ on the pitch, because it’s trying to do too many things simultaneously and it’s clearly not working out, for anyone. Barcelona are trying to transition from the post-Busquets era, and while they have changed its back-line (and are constantly re-shuffling it, between the right-back situation and the continuous alternation of the centre-back pairing), therefore forcing players to adapt to new teammates and situations every week. But it is also trying to find the right wide pairing, which it has not managed, due to the different profiles. The young average age forces the team into uncertainty and inconsistency, therefore preventing them from finding any regular outlets in the final third.
Change is good, but the change Barcelona is going through looks like a devastating blizzard instead of a peaceful, seamless transition. Barcelona is trying to jump instead of walking down the path, and with its face in the mud, it complains about the state of affairs. A step back would be advised to look at the situation and contemplate the speed of what Barcelona is trying to accomplish.