The one thing Barcelona were missing in the early days of Xavi Hernandez’s tenure was goals. Almost as soon as the former midfielder returned to the Camp Nou, a clearer structure was evident in the Catalans’ play. The ‘Tiki-Taka’ principles that had been eroded under successive managers were back, but this wasn’t always reflected in the scorelines posted.
Indeed, Barca drew a blank in two of their first four matches under Xavi. Now, though, they have found the back of the net 20 times in their last six La Liga outings. Xavi hasn’t just given Barcelona control in the middle of the pitch, he has also given them cutting edge in the attacking third.
Xavi used the first few games of his reign to measure not just the quality of the players he’d inherited, but their skill sets. He spotted an imbalance – Barcelona lacked wide men who could stretch the pitch, provide an outlet for the ball and create space for others when they didn’t have possession.
This was always a key feature of Barca’s play when they were at the peak of their powers under Pep Guardiola. Focus might have been on the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi himself as the pace-setters, but Guardiola had Pedro to occupy wide areas and opposition defenders. Without him, Barcelona’s possession game might have been too congested.
With this in mind, Xavi focused much of his January transfer window efforts on finding players to round-out his attack on the right side. Adama Traore was signed on loan from Wolves with the Spanish international, previously maligned for his lack of final product, contributing four assists in his first five appearances for his new club.
Ferran Torres was signed from Manchester City with the 22-year-old a versatile forward who can play in any position across the frontline, including on the right wing. Stylistically and tactically different to Traore, Xavi has demonstrated a willingness to rotate players from game-to-game depending on the task at hand. Previously, he didn’t have that flexibility and freedom.
Perhaps most intriguing about Barcelona’s recent good form which has seen them go 10 games in all competitions without defeat is the resurgence of Ousmane Dembele. Only a few weeks ago, it appeared the Frenchman was on his way out of the Camp Nou with his contract up at the end of the season. Disgruntled fans booed his every touch of the ball.
Now, Dembele has registered five assists in his last six games and is showing the sort of form that convinced Barcelona to pay €105m for him five years ago when they saw him as the ideal replacement for Neymar. Uncertainty around the winger’s future remains, but he is an important member of Xavi’s team for the time being.
Then there’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. By all accounts, Barca only moved for the Gabonese striker when it became apparent he would be available in January, but Aubameyang has settled quicker than anyone envisaged would be the case. The 32-year-old has six goals in his last six games and has been described as a “gift from the sky” by Xavi.
A lot has changed since Barcelona suffered a home defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the league season back in October. The Catalans still haven’t fully restored their reputation as one of European soccer’s most formidable forces, but there’s no denying they appear to be on the path back to the top.
El Clasico might not hold the relevance it did a few years ago when it was a platform for the era-defining Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo individual duel, but both Barcelona and Real Madrid are building for a better future. Sunday’s fixture between the two rivals will demonstrate this, particularly in the case of the former.
Xavi has built a system to harness the likes of Ansu Fati, Gavi and Pedri as the homegrown future of the Camp Nou club. However, he has also taken measures to ensure the short-term development of the team – see the January signing of Aubameyang, Torres and Traore who have all added something to the squad.
There is a long way to go before Barcelona can once again look down on the rest of the sport from the summit, but they have the firepower to get back to that level. The days of Messi producing moments of magic are gone. There is, however, fresh hope that what happens next for Barca might still bring glory.