As Ronald Koeman trudged across the lush, fabled grass of the Camp Nou he looked like the forlorn embodiment of a dead man walking. His Barcelona team had just been beaten 1-0 by Rayo Vallecano and as he walked towards the tunnel, the joyous, merciless taunting of the Rayo fans seemed to leave most of them on the verge of a below the belt no return. He knew his time was up and a few hours later it was, a single sentence tweet from the Barcelona club account announcing the end to a reign doomed from its desperate beginning.
Fast forward five months to that time, when two times a year, every English football fan pretends to be an expert on Spanish football; it’s El Clásico day. Looking at the table, it may appear that the return of prodigal son Xavi Hernandez, following his 7 year rendezvous as the poster for a migrant graveyard (also known as Qatar), had altered little of Barcelona’s head bashing fall down the Montserrat. 15 points behind Real Madrid in the league, out of the Copa del Rey, dumped into the Europa League for the first time in nearly two decades – were Barcelona even worse under Xavi?
After a stunning 90 minutes of football at the Bernabeu, which ended with a 4-0 Barcelona victory, the answer was unequivocally no. Barcelona are a team reborn, a debt-ridden Phoenix rising from hedge-fund owned ashes. To say they played Real Madrid off the park is not really fair, Madrid were so bad they were like a Sunday league player so hungover they fell asleep in their car and missed the match.
Led by a joyous Frenkie de Jong, a tricksy, determined Ousmane Dembele and a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who seems to have remembered he is actually an elite footballer, they tore Madrid asunder.
Xavi has been building his team under the post-Cryuffian principles that defines Barcelona and in particular it’s high-priest and his mentor, Pep Guardiola. However, Xavi’s Barcelona are not a 2022 rehashing of 2011 Barcelona, football has since moved on, as Guardiola himself has recognized.
Against Madrid on Sunday, as he has done for much of his tenure, Xavi employed a 4-3-3 system. Unlike Guardiola’s Barca, which Xavi was fundamental to, the system was centered around ball possession through the centre of the pitch, Xavi’s incarnation is different. This Barcelona is defined by its wingers – Ferran Torres and Dembele – effectively hugging the touchline and staying as wide as possible. This is instructive because it shows one of the key differences between the team Xavi played in and the one he manages; the use of full-backs. Xavi’s full-backs, rather than pushing forward during every attacking transition, tucked into central positions. With the wingers staying wide occupying Madrid’s full-backs, creating huge gaps in the half-space between them and the centre-backs, it was the central midfielders making forward runs into those areas. In the classic Guardiola team, overlapping fullbacks would create the half-spaces which the tucked in wingers would use to overload the opposition defence.
These tactics have created some intriguing attacking play, one which you would not expect from the tika-taka maestro. Real Madrid had an absurdly high-line given they had no organised press and a defence slower than Wes Morgan on valium. This left huge canyon gaps in behind which Barcelona exploited by playing, of all things, long balls over the top. Granted, these weren’t the lumpy boom forwards of Ryan Shawcross but the fizzing precision of Gerrard Pique or Sergio Busquets. Still, it offers an interesting example of how football has progressed over the last 10 years, with the triumph of transition over constant ball circulation meaning even a Barcelona purist like Xavi will allow balls into the channel.
Are Barcelona back to the summit? Well, not quite. They are still 12 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga and recovering that would be miraculous. They will be confident going into their Europa League quarter-final tie against Eintracht Frankfurt, and will be considered favourites for the tournament, but with teams like Atalanta and RB Leipzig still in the competition, it is no given. Then there is of course the €1.4 billion debt that caused them to lose Lionel Messi over the summer, the Sisyphean necklace of their own making, dragging them down.
Yet, there is a slight salt-flecked wisp of a sea change in the air. Since their defeat to Althetico Bilbao in January, Barcelona have won 9 of the last 12 games, losning none. The manner of the El Clasico victory, the comprehensive mauling Madrid were given, suggests Xavi has been quietly building something in Catalonia. And while it may seem absurd, given Madrid are 12 points in front of them, Barcelona now suddenly feel in a more positive state than them. Xavi could be creating something special in the deep bowels of the Camp Nou, but whatever happens, nothing can take away from the sheer brilliance of Sunday night.
Main image credits- Embed from Getty Images