Who would have thought that the FC Barcelona team trailing in the mid-table of LaLiga back in November would now be a favorite to secure a spot on the top four of the competition?
A couple of months ago only, the fear of not attaining next year’s Champions League was a reality in a team that was drifting away, having lost Lionel Messi in the summer and without the playing style of past glory days.
The arrival of Xavi Hernández changed everything, to the point that today Barcelona looks like that horse in races that comes back from behind surprisingly lurking towards the first positions in the final stages of the race.
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Barcelona’s season can teach you a lot about horse racing, as it’s not so important how you start the race as much as how you finish it. And the facts speak by themselves.
Xavi’s team is very attacking-driven and much more vertical than former Barcelona teams that used to rely on patience and control of the ball to dominate games.
Against Napoli in the return fixture of the Europa League, you can witness the high pressing tempo put in place by the team, with the forwards and midfielders working tirelessly to recover the ball as high as possible. Even experienced players like Sergio Busquets seem rejuvenated as he continuously jumps forward to press rivals in the opposing half. This resulted in an emphatic 4-2 win as the http://www.uefa.com/ report shows.
Nevertheless, this high-pressing style of play comes with a handicap. As Barcelona drives all of their lines forward, they leave wide open spaces at the back of their defenders. This is making Barcelona games very exciting and full of chances for both teams.
Take the game against Napoli again. The Catalan team had 10 shots during the first half alone. Away against Valencia, the shot count was 11-7 in favor of the home team and Barcelona still won 4-1. Against Atletico de Madrid at home, it was 10-9 in favor of the visiting team and Barça won 4-2. And against Napoli in the first leg, Barcelona had 21 shots on goal in the match, only scoring one thru a penalty kick from Ferran Torres.
The goal-scoring efficiency was another field of play that completely changed this year. When Xavi arrived back in November 2021, he only had Luuk De Jong as the sole striker of the team. Memphis Depay, Ousmane Dembélé, and Ansu Fati are great attacking players but thrive on wide positions.
It was essential for the team to bring in a new set of attacking players during the winter transfer market (January) to propel them to the next level. And that’s exactly what happened.
Adama Traoré, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Ferran Torres came in thanks to the work of sporting director Jordi Cruyff in detecting the profile of players that the team needed. Two free transfers and a 55 million euros fee for Ferran Torres according to http://www.transfermarkt.com/.
Barcelona went from not scoring in 3 out of the 5 first games in the Xavi Hernández era as a coach, to recording a streak of 17 games scoring at least one goal with 4 games recording 4 goals from the Catalan team.
They’ve even broken a curse in European football as against Napoli, they’ve managed to score more than one goal as visitors. It was since February 2016 that they didn’t score more than one goal as visitors in European competitions, in the 2-0 win against Arsenal.
And although the mood has completely changed in the Camp Nou and fans start to get excited about the near future, Xavi keeps preaching for calm and patience. Sporting press outlets are already talking about Barcelona as the favorite to win the Europa League, but the Catalan coach asks his teams to remain humble as “they’ve done nothing yet and have won nothing”.
What remains true is that just as in his playing days, directing the team forward from the midfield, Xavi is now redirecting Barcelona from the dugout towards better days.