Barcelona travel to the Spanish capital to take on Real Madrid in El Clasico on Sunday, and for the first time in a long time, they do so with somewhat justified optimism.
As Bob Dylan said, “the times, they are-a-changin'”.
That will perhaps be one of the many songs we will hear blaring out at Camp Nou after Barcelona signed a deal with music streaming giant Spotify for naming rights to the iconic stadium from next season.
This is a club that until 2006 thought it uncouth to even have a shirt sponsor, and when they eventually did, it was a philanthropic deal with UNICEF.
Eventually, the increasing need for vast sums of money in order to stay relevant at football’s top table led to the Blaugrana signing a deal with Qatar Airways, though their financial situation has famously worsened in recent years.
That, of course, has been largely down to poor decisions in terms of contract negotiations and recruitment, with their transfer strategy on shuffle in the past five years.
On and off the field, it seemed like Barca were getting further and further away from their roots, though they tried to turn that around by bringing in former European Cup-winning defender Ronald Koeman.
The Dutchman replaced Quique Setien in August 2020 and led Barca to Copa del Rey success in his first season, but they finished third in LaLiga and suffered a Champions League last-16 exit, as well as losing the Supercopa de Espana final to Athletic Bilbao.
A shock 1-0 defeat at Rayo Vallecano in late October 2021 spelled the end for Koeman, but the decision to replace him with Xavi felt like it could have been a different colour of the same thinking, that you need someone who ‘gets the club’ rather than simply an elite coach.
Pep Guardiola had no affiliation with Manchester City before going to the Etihad Stadium, as with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool or Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea.
However, while Koeman was a former player and European Cup winner, Xavi was a figure from the club’s real golden generation, an era the club and their fans are eager to return to.
Xavi says pic.twitter.com/DC6kbac0r7
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) November 8, 2021
Barca felt at their lowest ebb after losing Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain due to financial constraints at the end of last season. They were out of the LaLiga title race early on after winning just four of their first 12 games (D5 L3), before arguably the ultimate humiliation of Champions League elimination in the group stage for the first time in 21 years.
Xavi’s first game in charge was somewhat appropriately a derby against Espanyol. It was nervy, it was uncertain, but it was at least a 1-0 win.
Ahead of the home game with Elche in December, the 42-year-old suggested part of the problem was some of his players’ inability to grasp “juego de posicion” – “the position game” – a structured approach to play with and without the ball in which the great Barca sides thrived.
In a video for The Coaches’ Voice while still manager of Al Sadd, Xavi outlined his philosophy, saying: “The most important, the most beautiful and the most precious thing in football is to have the ball, and to attack and dominate the game with the ball.
“It’s clear to me that my team has to control the ball. I suffer when I don’t have it. It happened to me when I was a footballer and now even more so on the bench.
“How do I set up the team? Regardless of the system, in the end, the most important thing is this philosophy that we talked about. Total control of the ball – it matters a lot to me. I’m obsessed with possession, and not just to have the ball for the sake of having it, but to attack and create chances and hurt the opposition.”
Since Xavi’s arrival, Barca have taken 34 points from 15 games in LaLiga (W10 D4 L1), a record only bettered by Real Madrid in that time (39 points – W12 D3 L1).
They have also not lost any of their nine away league games since the legendary midfielder was appointed (W5 D4), and should they avoid defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu, Xavi would become only the second Barca coach to be unbeaten in his first 10 away games in the competition after Ernesto Valverde.
Results have clearly improved, but what changes has Xavi actually made to the underachieving side he inherited?
Comparing his 24 games in charge so far with the 13 overseen by Koeman at the start of the season – it would be unfair to look at the Dutchman’s entire record at the club given he had statistic monster Messi at his disposal last season – the improvements have been slight yet significant.
Interestingly, their average possession has only risen slightly, from 63.8 per cent to 64.5, while the average number of passes per game has gone from 604.4 to 625.8.
Given Xavi’s insistence that possession must also lead to chances that “hurt the opposition”, it is a slight surprise to see that Koeman actually saw marginally more big chances created (2.23 per game to 2.21), but Barca now have more shots on goal (15.0 per game, up from 11.2) and are averaging a goal every 47 minutes, drastically up from one every 73 under Koeman.
One thing that may cause some surprise is the apparent willingness to go long more often under Xavi, hitting 52.1 long passes per game compared to 43.6 under Koeman. This does not mean they are becoming a long ball team, rather that they appear to be more willing to play riskier balls to try to turn the opposition around with one pass rather than the possession for the sake of possession Xavi spoke of.
This could also be a result of the additions the coach has made to the squad, despite obvious limitations in terms of budget.
The former Premier League trio of Ferran Torres, Adama Traore and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might all be used to playing more direct styles and have impressed since arriving from England.
The return of Dani Alves may have raised eyebrows, but the 38-year-old – while understandably not quite the Alves of old – has restored a certain energy and spirit, even contributing four goal involvements in his eight appearances so far (one goal, three assists).
Xavi no doubt also sees the benefits of having such an experienced head around young stars like Pedri and Gavi, who have both established themselves as vital components of the team being put together.
Another interesting sub-plot to Xavi’s brief tenure has been Ousmane Dembele, who still looks like he will be leaving Camp Nou at the end of the campaign once his contract expires.
The club were desperate to move the France international on in January but unable to do so, and it seemed Dembele may just sit in the stands to see out the final months of his deal.
However, Xavi has decided to bring the enigmatic attacker back into the fold, and that call seems to be paying off, with Dembele putting in some star performances in recent weeks, registering five assists in his past four LaLiga appearances, as many as he managed in his previous 45 league games for the club.
The improvement seen at Camp Nou will be put to the test in the Clasico, with Madrid the team to beat in Spain for now.
Xavi will be seeking to change that fact in the coming seasons but first must ensure he continues to get a tune out of his players before the reported €280m Spotify deal kicks in – starting on Sunday.
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