In early November, it will be a year since Xavi took over as Barcelona manager. Having pulled the economic levers, the team has become noticeably more stable in La Liga, but regularly stalls in Europe (again, being eliminated from the Champions League in the group stage). A good moment for summing up the intermediate results.
It is difficult to give an unambiguous assessment of Xavi’s work – in some respects he has already returned the team to the European tops, and in some places he repeats the same annoying mistakes (which are expensive). Let’s discuss both in detail. The goal is to show the most complete picture.
Are Barcelona even stronger under Xavi?
After the clasico, the news about Xavi’s 50 matches spread at the filing of Marca – at this distance, the current Barça coach has the worst statistics in the 21st century (even weaker than Ronald Koeman). Is it really that terrible?
No, this particular case is an example of the careless use of statistics with a total disregard for context. If we take seriously this advanced system of analysis, then we must accept other conclusions: for example, that Pep Guardiola is equal to Tata Martino.
For a moment, let’s move away from the topic of Xavi and analyze this insult to common sense, because it really spread widely – many blindly quoted without thinking. What is the problem with using win percentage in this perspective:
• With a sample of 50 matches, each game significantly adjusts the win/scoring percentage. At the same time, not a completed stage / season is compared, but a distance that ends at an arbitrary point. In this case, after a two-week period that included two matches against Inter and the Clasico;
• such a comparison can be taken seriously only if we assume that all coaches accept the team in the same state, which, of course, is not true;
• ignores the difficulty of opponents (it can differ more than it seems) and the difference between the league (3 points) / cup tournaments (the goal is to go further – sometimes a different result suits).
Each of these factors at such a distance seriously corrects the performance. You can’t take this statistic seriously, but Marca’s call poses the right question. Has Xavi improved Barça’s position relative to his predecessor, who was rightly criticized?
An easy way to answer is to compare results in La Liga. They do not take into account the context: Koeman had Leo Messi in the first season, and Xavi got the team at a crisis point, but he (unlike Koeman) was supported in the market last summer. However, such a comparison will give a basic idea of success against rivals of comparable level:
Koeman vs Xavi in La Liga
|1.96||Points per game||2.27|
|74-74||Points in terms of 38 matches||86-87|
Koeman’s rhythm – getting into the Champions League without claiming more. The rhythm of Xavi is the championship race (this result is not always enough, but the team will definitely be in the fight for the title). Here progress is clear.
The real complaint against Xavi is the speed of progress. The fact itself is difficult to dispute: the team added to it at every stage (starting, after the winter transfers and after the summer campaign). Such dynamics leads to positive conclusions, if you look at the picture globally (and not in the Champions League group table), but it is better to look in all directions.
Could Barça have progressed faster and, for example, have not been knocked out by Eintracht and, probably, Inter? Mogla is an absolutely reasonable requirement, given the strength of the team. And that is why Xavi’s work cannot be called unambiguously good now, but it’s also wrong to point only to failed matches.
The pace of Barça’s progress is ok when measured globally. But the club itself has put itself in a position where they will evaluate not the global picture, but the result with an overestimated bar. When you spend 150 million on transfers (excluding fat salaries), no one looks back at the details. The criticism is understandable, but Xavi looks like an easy target here: we are used to always pointing at the coach, although in this case the main mistakes were made above.
What happens? Bold effective pressing and powerful (albeit predictable) positional attack
Xavi powerfully transformed two key stages of Barça football – pressing and positional attacks. Here, Barcelona is in the lead even among all the clubs in the top 5 leagues. Perhaps, the team has not had such a level in these areas since the days of Luis Enrique.
Important: it’s not just about “pressing in a fashionable way – as high as possible” or “holding the ball, so that later we can poke everyone into the percentage of possession.” It’s about pressing as a tool for limiting chances at one’s own goal and possession as a tool for creating chances. Xavi achieved high performance, not just high stylistic performance.
Barcelona have the highest pressure intensity in La Liga. Also, the team is in the top for high ball returns, shots after them, tackles in someone else’s third.
Barça show such results in returning the ball through pressure with the highest percentage of possession in the league – they have fewer opportunities for such tackles and interceptions than other teams, but the pressure is extremely effective.
The second indicator of the power of pressing is the allowed moments. Barça are defending precisely in the opponent’s half of the field. In their case, reliable defense is precisely a consequence of the quality of pressing. The defense of Xavi’s team stands out against the European background.
Barça presses through zonal orientations in a 4-3-3 formation, which in the course of the episode transforms into 4-4-2 through Gavi’s advances to attack Lewandowski. Then the whole team moves on the ball. The defensive midfielder Sergi Busquets plays an important role – sometimes he stays with the defenders, and sometimes he closes the pressure on someone else’s third. The integrity of the pressure depends on the effectiveness of his decisions. Busquets is slow, but like a professor, he reads such moments.
In the positional attack, Barça also looks great. In terms of possession, the Xavi team is second only to Bayern and Manchester City.
Leaders in possession in the top 5 leagues
Barça looks like the best in both quantity and quality. In the table, all teams have a good positional attack. Teams with bad positioning just didn’t get here. For example, Chelsea has a 19.8% efficiency in bringing protracted attacks to the penalty area. This is an example of a team with a well-functioning ownership structure, but problems in positioning.
Borussia (15.6%) and Juventus (14%) are examples of almost unprincipled teams in positional attacks, to which opponents periodically give the ball. Simply put, the metric is good at catching the crisis of ideas with the ball, but Barça are among the best here.
An even more powerful picture when comparing the witticism created from the game. Right now Xavi’s team is the only one in Europe with 2 xG from the game per match.
What hasn’t worked so far? Get rid of predictability and find balance in open matches
Even last season, Barça were rightly criticized for being too flanked. Then the team had two flanks – combinational left and individual right
Now the whole game in attack has been reduced to delivering the ball to the right winger (Rafinha / Dembele), who either beats the opponent 1-in-1 to move to the center, or crosses into the penalty area.
The move is great for wingers and helps create opportunities for Lewandowski. The problem is only in the total dependence on one zone.
Dembele and Rafinha share a position on the right flank (sometimes playing time) from where key actions are taken, but they still lead by a margin in sharpening passes. At the same time, they have low passing accuracy (they have an almost unlimited right to try difficult things and lose the ball in attempts to aggravate).
Neither Dembele nor Rafinha manage to consistently create from the left flank. They collect a huge proportion of actions in their favorite position on the right. Perhaps, “Bars” is now the most one-flank team in Europe, if we are talking about the final stage.
It was only after the Clasico failed that Xavi began looking for an alternative. Fati and Ferran played against Villarreal. Against Athletic Pedri (left) and Dembele. Barça certainly have the potential to solve this problem, which makes Xavi’s claims all the more appropriate. Alas, his stubborn desire to put both Rafinha and Dembele has already backfired in key matches.
2. Cope with injuries on defense.
Until the international break at the end of September, Barça’s season was going almost flawlessly. Then the team lost Jules Kunde, Ronald Araujo and Frenkie de Jong (plus Hector Bellerin and Sergi Roberto, which hampered Xavi in terms of the ability to respond to major injuries).
On the right flank of the defense, Balde had to go left-handed. In the center, even more desperate measures were taken – the exit of Gerard Pique (in his current form). This segment coincided with important top matches. They had enough tactical problems, but the individual performances of the understudies also had an impact.
Piqué’s failures against Inter and Roberto’s against Vinicius brought Araujo to mind: Ronald could mask both of these problems. He defends better in the high line (and just better than Piqué), which was important against Inter, where the team took risks. And he played brilliantly against Vinicius in last year’s Clasico.
Xavi definitely has some success. Barcelona management and fans must be more patient now than ever to let Xvi realize hiss plans. He has the ability to bring Barcelona back to the top.