Xavi Hernandez – FC Barcelona – Tactical Analysis

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Barcelona have been on a deep, downward spiral ever since rumours of Messi’s departure started to surface toward the end of the 2019-20 season. The La Liga giants have won just the 2020-21 Copa del Rey since the 2018-19 season, and now look destined to finish below a UEFA Champions League place this time around. Xavi Hernandez has come into the club to try and restore normality, but with the club floundering under uncertainty of poor budget planning and insufficient funds, Xavi’s task appears to be a mammoth one. Barcelona sit in just sixth place at the moment, and they’ve had very few convincing performances since the former Barca legend arrived from Al Sadd. With young players not quite ready and old heads no longer at their best ruling the starting lineup, Xavi’s ability to find consistency before the end of the season could be impossible. So with that, let’s take a look at some of the tactics Xavi has deployed since taking over the helm at Camp Nou, and what needs to change if the legend is get his team back into the UEFA Champions League next season.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3

Barcelona’s lack of consistency shows in the fact that thirty-four different players have accumulated minutes this season in La Liga. Half of those men are 22 years of age or under, and five are under the age of 18. Xavi’s preference toward youth is partially down to what he has at his disposal, but also partially down to wanting to give young players a chance to shine – particularly in attacking roles. He’s overdone this to an extent, with Barcelona becoming reliant on players that are not yet ready to deliver the goods.

In fact, if you take the likes of Andre ter Stegen, Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay out of the team, you’re probably left with a bottom half of the table team. The likes of Dani Alves and Jordi Alba no longer have the legs to do the excellent work off the ball they could achieve in the early 2010s, and Barcelona are having to rely on their shape and structure to avoid serious calamities. In a pacier, more powerful league like the German Bundesliga, they’d probably be scrapping just above the relegation zone. So normally this is the section where we talk about the players that Xavi has deployed within his 4-3-3 since taking over. But instead, we’re going to make suggestions for how he should progress in a world where all players are fit.

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First, Xavi needs to stop relying on the likes of Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Ferran Jutgla and Abdessamad Ezzalzouli. These players are all fine to make cameo appearances and earn minutes when the time is right, but they cannot be consistent starters for a team fighting for Champions League football at this time. Youngsters like Sergino Dest, Pedri and Ansu Fati have a bit more experience under their belt and should be favoured instead when available.

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Secondly, Xavi needs to stop relying on the older heads that he knows well from his time as a player. Dani Alves could do excellent work and seemingly has better fitness levels than the ‘how is he still playing?’ slowness of Jordi Alba on the other side. Realistically, Barcelona are so bad right now that Alves could probably be one of the best players in the team. But, Xavi has a player in Sergino Dest who should have already nailed down that starting spot. Dest can be a useful option further forward, but his best position will be as a right back. It will be awesome for Dest’s to develop to learn from the man he was brought in to emulate, but it won’t be as good for his development to do that learning from the bench. If anything, the 38-year-old Brazilian can come into the right-side of central midfield if Frenkie de Jong and Pedri are both out, which would allow Alves to limit his defensive responsibilities and just focus on his excellence with the ball at his feet. Jordi Alba should be out of the squad completely if Barcelona are going to continue with a back-four, as the Spaniard’s legs to get back and defend are absolutely shattered. He’s useful in attack and times his runs forward well, but he’s creating a massive issue for his team going the other way. Xavi could experiment with an Al Sadd styled 3-4-3, but if he deploys Sergio Busquets as the sweeper and utilizes the ball progression of de Jong and Pedri in midfield, it’s essentially the same system as the 4-3-3.

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Gerard Pique meanwhile could easily be replaced by Ronald Araujo and Eric Garcia at this point. Then you have a player like Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who doesn’t look the same confident goalkeeper we saw years ago, but remains the best option. Sergio Busquets should be the first name on the team sheet when Frenkie de Jong isn’t fit, as he continues to anchor a young midfield excellently well. But Xavi needs to get Frenkie and Pedri back to full fitness to complete his midfield triangle and allow for better connection between the midfield and forward lines in possession.

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In the final third, Xavi needs to put an arm around Ousmane Dembele and tell him to express himself and take risks. Dembele looks a shadow of his former Dortmund self, taking shots from deep nearly every time he receives the ball in the attacking third, when he has the dribbling quality of a Jadon Sancho. Barca also need to provide better service into the target man that is Luuk de Jong if they’re going to persist with him up front, otherwise…why play him? Memphis Depay or Ferran Torres should be the striker if they’re not going to deliver crosses or use de Jong with his back to goal. If they are going to use both Dutchmen in the squad, Depay would make for an excellent option off the left to support his compatriot. But realistically, Ferran Torres will make for a much better player up front, and massively help with linking the forward and midfield lines with his false nine qualities.

So when considering all this potential change, Xavi has a lot of work to do. But persisting with seventeen and eighteen year old prospects is simply not the way he’s going to get Barca back into the Champions League. So with that, let’s now take a greater look at Xavi’s tactics, and what he could improve in the quest to get his team back to the level they desire.

IN POSSESSION

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Xavi’s 4-3-3 system quickly takes on various different forms in attack, as you’d expect from a team deploying a possession-based version of this popular system of play. Positional play is always integral to what Xavi’s teams look to do within their tiki-taka based possession. Fullbacks will invert with wingers or central midfielders wide (usually both), and vice versa. They work the wide areas and look to create overloads like no tomorrow, with several players drifting over to one side. The idea behind this would to either outnumber the opposition and then play an incisive pass down the line; or to isolate their opposition on the other side and switch play. The problem for Xavi is that Barcelona have been incredibly ineffective in both regards. Their switches of play are far too slow and readable, and their incisive passes down the line often end with a player drifting into an offside position. On other occasions, they work the ball into the wide area, overload one side, and then don’t actually take advantage of the overload before quickly (but slowly) switching play to the other side and allowing the opposition to shift across. They then make pointless sideways passes on a one-touch back and forth toward the halfway line, with the opposition wondering the entire time – ‘So what else can you do?’.

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The answer to the solution? Xavi’s Barcelona simply need to be more direct. Luuk de Jong is one of the best target men around. If you’re not going to use him like a target man and give him service, there’s no point in playing him. Further, if you’re going to use players who haven’t quite developed yet and lack the elegance when it comes to the final ball into the box, there’s even less of a point. Barca’s latest goal against Granada came with 34-year-old Alba dribbling the ball in-field, passing the ball to 38-year-old Alves and then continuing to make a shadow run as Alves prepared his cross to the big man up top. This is the kind of thing Barcelona should be looking to do more. Stop the slow methodical passes around between the centre-backs, and give de Jong something to work with, or even Depay something to chase. Ferran Torres drifting in deep to pick up possession will be another way Barcelona can combat this, and the Spaniard would be a welcomed addition into the team.

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They could also be more direct in utilizing Dembele’s trickery out wide. If the Frenchman could just get a little bit of confidence in his game, he could be a brilliant player. But for now, he’s receiving the ball, cutting onto his left foot, and striking from 25 yards out when better options are available. Besides, it becomes very easy for the opposition to double-team Dembele when the rest of the team is young and completely out of sync. They desperately need the ball progression of Frenkie de Jong and Pedri back into the team, and should be praying on all of their wishes to god that those two will be back in no time.

BUILD-UP
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Xavi Hernandez’s team build out from the back with the fullbacks typically low, and a 4+1 structure most common. The central midfielders will also remain relatively low, as the team then look to move up the field together on their one and two touch passing. Close proximity helps massively in a tiki taka style, but it also invites greater pressure toward the team’s own goal. Ter Stegen is capable with the ball at his feet and decent at finding the right times to play forward, but again, Barca could simply go long into their striker’s path more often, especially if Depay can take advantage of knock downs and sprint in behind. You’re probably reading this going – ‘Yeah, but Rhys, it’s not the Barcelona identity.’ If it’s not the Barcelona identity, then what are you doing with Luuk de Jong in the first place?

PROGRESSION
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Once progressing into the opposition’s half, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba will typically take turns in venturing forward, with Sergio Busquets always holding and ready to cover for his out of position mates. The two outside central midfielders will often drift wide to compound matters, allowing their fullbacks to go on the underlap. A 2-4-4 is a common shape in this phase, with one centre-mid higher than the other, as Barcelona play their sideways passes and take hopeful shots from distance. This is also where their wide overloads begin to take form, but they will also utilize forward bounce passes in the progression phase, looking for players at the very front of their attack to bounce the ball back from the centre-backs into central midfielders operating slightly lower. They’ve been slightly more effective at utilizing these ideas to create chances than their abysmal switches of play, which again showcases the need for a quicker, more vertical style. For now, we’ll stake our claim as the ones who used the term ‘possession with a purpose’ to catch Mark Carey’s eye on The Athletic, and say that Barcelona are simply a team that keep possession without a purpose.

OUT OF POSSESSION

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Most of the good work Xavi has done so far at Barcelona has been with his team off the ball and out of possession. This matters when they have one of the slowest defensive units around, and so the Spaniard should be commended for the shape and structure he’s built.

When pressing, or rather blocking high, Barcelona frequently deploy a 4-1-3-2 shape. Gavi will join the striker as part of the front two, and Busquets will step up almost in line with the other three to make it a 4-4-2. They allow space in between the lines when they block high, with the strikers far ahead of the midfielders in behind. We discussed this ideology in our recent analysis of Brighton, positing that leaving space can allow the opposition to move into positions further away from goal. The obvious downside is that it makes a team like Barcelona, who don’t press from the front as well as Brighton, open and easy to expose. They’ve improved under Xavi in this regard, now with the second most successful press in the league. So why they don’t ramp up their intensity and desire is a bit puzzling. For example, when losing the ball in the final third, Xavi’s team simply back off when they could counter-press instead. Surely it would be more advantageous to win the ball back closer to their opposition’s goal? But Barcelona instead save their energy for their in-possession moments, knowing they’re relying on a mix of incredibly old and incredibly young players who are either over or under their peak of physical fitness. What it represents from a tactical perspective is a lack of hunger for the ball until the opposition reach Barca’s defensive third. With La Liga being a slower, possession-based league, the approach is ultimately a fair one to take.

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In the wide areas, Xavi’s side may use those overloads to then step up their counter-press, and they will often look to keep their opposition out wide and overload again in 2v1’s. Central midfielders will frequently come out wide to help their fullbacks, and if wingers are diligent in tracking back then they can stop the opposition from creating overloads of their own. That means further down the pitch in their mid-block, the shape will look more like a 4-1-4-1, with Gavi firmly back into midfield, helping his left-back more than his striker. Busquets does an excellent job in this phase at screening the opposition’s striker and limiting central progression, practically playing as a third centre-back. The 33-year-old doesn’t have to do an awful lot of actionable items out of possession in truth, with most of the work done around him as he slides around to always be in the right place when it matters most. The idea would then be to force shots from deep, the kind Barcelona seem to love to hit from range in the attacking plans of their own. But they’ve been fairly ineffective at actually accomplishing this, with one of the highest percentages of shots in their own six-yard-box, and one of the lowest in percentage of shots against from range. This is all to say that while Xavi has made improvements, Barcelona could simply be far better out of possession, and there is still a massive amount of work to do in seeing his defensive principles fully come to life.

CONCLUSION

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Barcelona have been bad this season. There’s no way around it. Xavi’s team have achieved some decent results and rarely lost, but nearly every single one of their wins has been marginal at best, and the team still struggle to form any real consistency both in personnel and tactics. We suggest Xavi not be afraid to deploy a more direct, vertical style of play, especially with Luuk de Jong in the team. We also suggest the Spanish manager stop relying so much on players who have come straight out of the academy, and look to get the likes of Araujo, Frenkie de Jong and Pedri back into the team as soon as possible. Otherwise, Barcelona are destined to finish outside the top four for the first time in decades.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Xavi Hernandez’s Barcelona after eleven games in charge. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite via the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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