Strict rules and the end of the old guard?’ – how Xavi will bid to halt Barcelona’s ‘lazy decay’
Discipline. Rules. Order. Sacrifice.
These are probably not the words you would expect to hear repeatedly emphasised by new Barcelona coach Xavi upon his return to his former playing club with the aim of restoring lost glories.
As one of the greatest creative ball-playing midfielders the world has seen, you might think Xavi would arrive with heady promises of free-flowing, exciting, attacking football.
Instead, since replacing Ronald Koeman earlier this month he has been literally laying down the law by implementing a series of strict off-the-pitch rules, covering everything from everyday training ground routines to meal times and media appearances.
The intention, of course, is that these demanding habits will lead to a similar sharpening of focus on the pitch. Before Tuesday’s must-win Champions League meeting with Benfica, it’s only necessary to look back at the first group-stage game between the teams to understand why Xavi believes his strict measures are necessary.
The Portuguese team won September’s meeting in Lisbon easily, scoring with their first shot on target – something Barca’s opponents have done on eight occasions this season – and proceeding to wrap up a 3-0 victory with little trouble as Barca mustered just one effort on goal and looked vulnerable to every Benfica attack.
The most worrying thing about that capitulation is that it was neither new nor surprising. It was merely the latest in a long line of heavy defeats suffered by Barca since 2017 in the Champions League: 0-4 and 1-4 against PSG; 0-3 against Juventus twice; 0-3 against Roma; 0-4 against Liverpool; 2-8 and 0-3 against Bayern Munich.
For far too long they have been too easy to play against, routinely unable to find a compact shape and leaving big holes in the middle of the field for well-organised opponents to comfortably exploit.
It is no small task that lies ahead, even for a club legend who won 25 trophies in his 17 years as a player at the Nou Camp. Barcelona are currently sixth in La Liga, haven’t won a European title since 2015, are in a battle for qualification for the Champions League knockout stages, and are severely limited by a lack of finance.
Xavi’s biggest challenge is making his team competitive in the physical sense of the word. And he knows that on-the-pitch discipline begins with off-the-pitch discipline, an element blatantly lacking in a player-centric dressing room over the last few years.
A significant part of that process is determining how prominently the old guard of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique should feature in the new regime. The trio, all former team-mates of Xavi, are well into their thirties and it has been reported the new boss believes they can only be expected to play one game per week at the required physical level.
They all started in Xavi’s first game, a scrappy 1-0 win against Espanyol on Saturday and may again on Tuesday because of the must-win nature of the game, but in the medium-term future their places are far from guaranteed as Xavi looks to shape a more mobile and dynamic team.
Another issue to address is in the medical department, with Barca plagued by injuries all season and set to be missing six players against Benfica.
Specifically, players reinjuring themselves after being pushed too soon upon recovery from a previous absence has happened too often – including to Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele and Pedri this season alone – for it to be a coincidence, so there were no complaints when Xavi elected to change the club’s medical staff and bring along his own people from Al-Sadd.
Again, this is part of Xavi’s quest to bring a more serious and focussed approach to everything about the squad and its surrounding environment, in all areas of their activities both on and off the pitch.
Having said all that, we should definitely not expect Xavi to be a negative, defensive-minded coach. One of the biggest criticisms against Koeman came after September’s 3-0 defeat to Bayern, more for the timid, passive nature of the performance than the actual result, and a major reason for Xavi’s recruitment is that he will be more positive.
The new Barca boss has strong footballing principles straight out of the same Johan Cruyff school which also deeply influenced his former team-mate and manager Pep Guardiola. We will see Xavi insist upon the same high-pressing, passing-heavy style of play.
It is, however, often underappreciated that such a possession-based game – to be done well – demands a huge amount of work, both mentally and physically, to deny the opposition space and hunt down the ball whenever it is lost.
Nobody is better aware of that than Xavi, who covered more ground than any other player in perhaps the finest exposition of Barca’s glory years, the 2011 Champions League Final victory over Manchester United.
Xavi might be remembered as an era-defining passer, but really his game was built just as much on non-stop running – both with and especially without the ball.
That kind of commitment to sheer physical effort has been lacking from Barca’s make-up over the last few years, which have been marked by a gradual, complacent, lazy decay. Xavi is here to halt the decline, and the message to his players is clear: the hard work starts now.