Is Xavi’s Pragmatism Being Overblown By Barcelona Fans?

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 2: coach Xavi Hernandez of FC Barcelona during the Spanish Copa del Rey match between Real Madrid v FC Barcelona at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 2, 2023 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 2: coach Xavi Hernandez of FC Barcelona during the Spanish Copa del Rey match between Real Madrid v FC Barcelona at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 2, 2023 in Madrid Spain (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

FC Barcelona have bounced back from the Europa League exit and a loss against Almeria in a peculiar fashion. Xavi’s men have edged past Real Madrid and Valencia with identical 1-0 wins.

However, the manner of these victories have not gone down well with all fans. In the Copa del Rey clash, Barcelona held just 35% of the ball (as per fbref). Although Real Madrid failed to put any of their 13 shots on the frame, we registered just 4 shots across 90 minutes ourselves. The game against Valencia was barely a respite. Barca ended the game with 6 defenders after Araujo’s sending-off, in a tame display yet again.

Injuries have been promptly used as an excuse to defend Xavi’s tactics. And to an extent, it is an acceptable one too. In recent games, Pedri, Dembele, Gavi and Lewandowski have completely or partially missed out on some key games. Christensen and Frenkie de Jong are also reportedly struggling with a niggle.

Are injuries really an excuse for not “playing good football”? For this, we first need to clearly define what “good football” is.

And immediately, we encounter our first problem. Andrea Pirlo perfectly encapsulated football as an “imperfect science”. There is really no commandment or rulebook outlining that the beautiful game HAS to be played in a certain way. This makes any interpretation on an “optimal” style of play highly subjective.

Therefore, it becomes futile to prefer one or put down another approach to the game over personal preferences. Any comparison between two different philosophies of the game also suffers from similar biases.

At this point, we will try and draw a distinction between the terms “philosophy” and “tactics” in football. In a broad sense, the former refers to a combination of the principles and vision of the game.

Tactics, on the other hand, can be the set of pre-planned ideas, mechanisms, and patterns implemented to maximize the potential of the team individually and collectively, while neutralizing the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of the opponent, individually and collectively.

A footballing philosophy could be a broader, more idealistic approach to “how” the game is to be played. Tactics could be “what” actually happens when the manager’s vision blends with the players’ individual qualities and characters, as well as several factors of variance.

If we are willing to accept these terms, we could attempt to categorize a tactic as effective or ineffective, if not good or bad. Ideally, a team with a good tactical set-up has strong fundamentals. The system compliments the players’ best qualities, and as much as possible, masks their shortcomings too. Furthermore, it would attempt to counter, or outdo what an opponent intends to in the course of 90 minutes too.

To further simplify it, during the course of a game, every team broadly plays in any of the five phases: possession, off the ball, attacking transitions, defensive transitions, and set-pieces. A tactically competent team would necessarily have a clear and functional plan to navigate through and within each phase of play.

And this is exactly where my problem with Xavi’s Barcelona lies.

Mikel Arteta and Erik Ten Hag, two among the very best in the Premier League, have built strong fundamentals with their respective sides. When the Spaniard took over Arsenal, he did not immediately deploy an expansive and aggressive approach. Rather, a system that suited the profiles of his players was initially deployed. Over time, with new players coming in, and the older ones being “re-taught” how to interpret the game on the same wavelength as their boss, we saw Arsenal develop into a more cohesive unit. Erik Ten Hag is on the same book at Manchester United, just a few chapters behind. The Dutchman has deployed a slightly more pragmatic approach as compared to his Ajax side, to counter some of their struggles in playing out against pressure. Both managers have designed systems to enhance the best qualities of their players, not one that completely relies on individual quality.

Xavi’s system is overtly reliant on individual quality, to such an extent that an injury or bad game from a key player can completely destabilize the structure of the entire team. By this statement, we also encounter another risky admission; from a tactical standpoint, Barcelona are really not “elite” in any phase of play.

The team has no specialist for free-kicks or corner-kicks. Off the ball, Barca’s man-to-man approach has often left Busquets exposed, and the backline highly vulnerable. Without the quality of Araujo or Kounde, opponents have frequently made in-roads against the high line of defense. In possession, the highly advanced 8s and wide wingers made it impossible for us to stretch defenses. By switching to a 3-2-2-3 shape, we have increased the workload of the LB to maintain width on the left, more often than not leading to a lopsided attack.

After 2 consecutive successful transfer windows however, FC Barcelona had a MUCH better team than it started the 2021-22 season with under Ronald Koeman. As a natural result of the upgrade in quality across positions, a lot of our flaws get masked in-game, giving the team more flattering results than often deserved. This is also the reason that players like Pedri, Gavi, Lewandowski, Kounde, and Dembele get almost no rest when they are available for selection.

From this view on “good football”, I believe FC Barcelona have not consistently played good football under Xavi, or for that matter, practically anytime after 2016.

However, there is another requisition that comes as part and package of being an FC Barcelona manager. Almost as an unwritten rule, the club only seeks out managers who understand, believe, and employ the principles of Johan Cruyff.

And for over 20 years, Xavi positioned himself as a player, coach, and person who believes truly and solely in the principles of the positional game.

In an interview back in 2011, the Spaniard said “Some teams can’t or don’t pass the ball. What are you playing for? What’s the point? That’s not football. Combine, pass, play. That’s football – for me, at least.”

The same principles were echoed when the 2010 World Cup winner was managing Al-Sadd, in an interview with The Coaches Voice.

Xavi also took a dig at Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone for his team’s style of play last year, specifically saying the Argentinean “understands football in a different way” and “they feel comfortable without the ball. When we don’ have it I don’t feel comfortable.” A similar shade was thrown at Ancelotti’s Real Madrid side too last season.

There is nothing wrong with a manager choosing to be pragmatic to handle certain game states. In fact, I even lobbied for the same after our Champions League elimination. However, I also believe that our performances have genuinely been below-par for a good year or so, and only a slide in results is actually opening eyes to this issue. Xavi’s “holier than thou” stance on how football should be played is appreciable and not something new for any manager. But a blatant hypocrisy and failure to actually practice what he has preached, leaves a sourer taste in the mouth.

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Is Xavi’s pragmatism acceptable for FC Barcelona in the future? Let us know in the comments.