Xavi Hernandez already has a lifetime’s worth of experiences for Barcelona against Manchester United. However vital Thursday’s Europa League tie against Erik Ten Hag’s team at Camp Nou might seem for the Blaugranas‘ immediate future, it will simply be another set of colourful, passionate images for Xavi’s already bulging scrapbook.
The saturnine Catalan made the first of his 151 Champions League appearances at Old Trafford in a rip-roaring 3-3 draw with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side nearly 25 years ago. He thought long and hard about accepting United’s offer to join them a couple of seasons later when he felt unwanted at Camp Nou and, of course, having lost the 2008 semifinal to United, he then produced two wins, and two assists, in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals against Fergie’s teams in Rome and at Wembley.
There were a couple of attempts at prising the brilliant midfielder, nicknamed “La Machina” (“the Machine”) by his teammates, away from Camp Nou, including by Bayern Munich, who thought they’d captured him in 2014. But it’s the temptation of that offer to become the heartbeat of Ferguson’s United that he’s been most frank about.
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Back in 2011, just before I wrote my book “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team In the World,” Xavi told me about it. “There was a long time when I genuinely thought about accepting United’s offer. I needed a change of scenery and things were not going well for me at Barcelona.
“I have always felt a real attachment to English football and Manchester United would be ‘my club’ there. For a long chunk of my career, when it looked to people like I was Pep Guardiola’s successor in midfield, I was made to feel, by some, like an outsider, like a bad guy for taking over from the legendary captain.
“We are not good at handling change here [at Barca]. I hated all that debate about ‘me and Pep,’ and Louis van Gaal [then-Barcelona manager] wasn’t particularly tactful to put an 18-year-old kid through it. What eventually made the difference is that I’m as stubborn as a mule: I thought about moving to United, but I dug my heels in. I said to myself ‘I need to prove myself here!'”
Those two Champions League finals, in which Barcelona so comprehensively defeated United, would give birth to a couple of the ultra-quotable Ferguson’s best, most remembered expressions. Aside from his growl that Pep Guardiola’s Barca could “pass you to death,” the legendary Scot pointed out that a “mesmerising” midfield of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta — plus Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, David Villa, Pedro, Thierry Henry or Samuel Eto’o at their peak — would “get you on that carousel and make you dizzy with their passing!”
It was an iconic expression for an iconic time when the 3-1 Wembley win, in particular, was treated, by the football community — not just the media — as one of the all-time great displays of football. Three-time European Cup/Champions League winner Graeme Souness said: “I think everyone should be standing up and applauding.” Osvaldo Ardiles, a 1978 World Cup winner with Argentina added: “This Barca is the greatest team of all time.”
Roy Keane’s view, playing as Ferguson’s one-time midfield enforcer, was that “United came up against the best team ever,” while Ottmar Hitzfeld, who won the Champions League as Bayern Munich manager, noted that “this Barcelona is the most intelligent team of all time.”
World Cup and Champions League-winning coach Marcello Lippi said it with even more authority: “There has never previously been a team which played like this in the history of football. We are watching an unique phenomenon.”
It was an unequalled and spontaneous outburst of praise from Barcelona’s peers as the Spanish side played and perfected a brand of football that both conquered and seduced the world. The point in reproducing all this, however, is not to induce nostalgia, but ahead of another Barca vs. Man United meeting, it’s to contrast how differently the Barcelona side coached by Xavi plays compared to the one which he dominated the midfield for and inspired to two trophy trebles, winning such universal praise.
Some of the basic principles remain untouched. Xavi’s Barcelona are an attacking side: nobody in La Liga has scored more, nor spent more time in the opposition half. Barcelona’s press, a major weapon, doesn’t resemble that of the Guardiola team Xavi bossed from midfield: it takes place in different areas of the pitch, and it’s constant rather than in explosive bursts, but opponents are finding that it’s as hard to disentangle themselves from as United found it in 2009 and 2011.
Furthermore, once Barca gain possession, it’s now used very differently. LaLiga stats show that Xavi’s team pass the ball around only seven times each time they are in possession. Under Guardiola, with Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta in midfield, that “mesmerising” “conveyor belt” would zip the ball roughly double or treble that amount per possession.
The reason? Well unlike Guardiola, Xavi wants the ball moved forward, vertically, with much more rapid intent; he doesn’t believe that constant circulation of the ball before trying to divide and conquer the opponent “sets” his team in the right positional order. Instead, this iteration of Barcelona places a high value on winning the ball and then instantly blitzing their opponents with either sharp, forward passing or driving runs from midfield via Gavi, Pedri or Frenkie de Jong.
There was an instant during Barcelona’s win at Villarreal, which put them 11 points clear of Madrid at the top of the table, when Gavi, on the break, passed to a free teammate. Xavi, doing the same touchline dance that any frustrated manager will have recognised, leapt about in fury before indicating, with blistering clarity, that he’d wanted his young midfield prodigy to drive at the retreating Villarreal central defenders with the ball at his feet. He didn’t want him to pass.
We are talking nuances and details, but things are very different.
Xavi might call it version 2.0. The ideas he played under are being “updated” and imposed to fit what the 43-year-old believes is a different footballing landscape. These days, Xavi feels rival teams are less often broken apart by constant, mesmerising use of possession, and more undone when they’re caught at speed, trying to re-organise after being pressed and robbed.
If, as we titled the film of my Barca book, Guardiola’s era was “Take the ball … pass the ball,” Xavi’s era is a lot more about “Take the ball … burst forward at the opponent!” The idea is that it’s up-tempo, up-field and even up in the air, which brings us to one of the two things that probably stands out most of all.
First, when Xavi was playing for Guardiola, it was absolutely prohibited for the keeper to boot the ball long from goal kicks. At all costs, Barcelona passed it out from the back in the hope of dragging the opponent’s front line towards them and creating space in behind. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while beating Villarreal, repeated the tactic that had stood out like a sore thumb against Real Madrid in Barcelona’s recent 3-1 Spanish Supercopa win: he would keep kicking the ball long for diminutive players like Gavi and Pedri to try to compete for against significantly taller rivals, with Barcelona then trying to win “second” or “third” balls when the aerial challenge resulted in loose possession.
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Two examples: Gavi is small at 5-foot-8, but he’s in LaLiga’s top 10 midfielders when it comes to winning aerial duels (24), and he has won a whopping 63% of the jumps for the ball he has contested with opponents.
The other thing is that nobody in LaLiga has won the ball in the rival’s half more than Pedri (42). Ter Stegen hoofs the ball upfield, Gavi leaps for it, Pedri picks up the crumbs. It was utterly unthinkable when Xavi was Guardiola’s midfield general, but it is utterly effective right now. At least in LaLiga, anyway.
Before Sunday’s 1-0 win, Barcelona hadn’t “lost” the overall ball possession to any team. Villarreal won that particular duel with 54% of the ball, though the Yellow Submarine had more passes, and more accurate passes, than Xavi’s team as well.
Back when Barcelona regularly put Manchester United to the sword, any such stats would be the cause of wailing, gnashing of teeth and beating of chests among fans. Now, with an 11-point lead at the top of the table (and 17 games left) plus the Spanish Supercopa already safely stashed in the trophy cabinet, it barely raises an eyebrow because Xavi’s team is winning.
After the Villarreal match, Xavi said “we are in a good, perhaps perfect, moment in defence, the intensity the high pressure.” Zero mention of possession or passing, or indeed anything about use of the ball.
Instead, Xavi was all about attitude, mentality and about what to do when Barcelona don’t have the ball. “We are in the best moment since I came here as a coach,” he said, adding that “now we have to change the mentality for the Europa League … we have to show our best level against Manchester United.”
I wonder: does he mean that against a team used to being pressed, and that is delighted to be asked to win physical, aerial duels, living for these athletic, aggressive contests every weekend in the Premier League, the “change” Xavi might be referring to could involve moving Barcelona’s approach back, a little, towards the Guardiola idea?
Should we expect Barcelona to take the ball and pass the ball at Camp Nou on Thursday? We’ll just have to wait and see.