Lionel Messi’s level of superstardom has reached another strata in the last few weeks following his hat-trick against Arsenal and the opening goal of El Clasico; all of it on the back of another exceptional, free-scoring season. This is not however, another paean to the wonderful Argentine – enough has been written of the diminutive dervish, some of it condign, some of it a premature coronation – rather, I wish to shine the spotlight on someone who at the top level of club and international football, has a more tangible overall influence than his Barcelona teammate; that man is Xavi Hernandez.
Xavi is the paragon of modern football. The stylish way he plays, the at times astonishing way he keeps possession of the football, and the speed, intelligence and intensity of his pressing when shorn of the ball have come to embody everything that is at the top of the world game. And given Barcelona and the Spanish national teams pre-eminence, the impact of this style of football will be felt in future years, offering as it does an effective and attractive blueprint for success.
Every team would love to be able to manipulate the possession of the football the way Barca and Spain can. It’s an unimaginably potent weapon. Against Arsenal recently, Barcelona actually looked quite vulnerable to rare forays forward by the Gunners when they escaped the stifling pressure of the Barcelona midfield. Had Barcelona not had the majority of the ball, they would have struggled to stop Arsenal scoring and could have lost the tie. But they didn’t.
Which is where Xavi comes in – his ability to turn instantly, shield the ball, and in a split second assess where an opponent or challenge is coming from, is nigh on supernatural. His pass completion rate is consistently around the 90% mark, which if you think about it, is staggering. Playing in the position he does makes him at the heart of Barcelona’s passing game and consequently the arch pace setter; passing the ball backwards and forwards with consummate ease and effecting devastating tempo changes.
Some attacking midfielders have an awareness and ability to pierce the lines between the opponents defence and midfield with passing or movement, and some defensive midfielders marry excellent short passing and retention of the football in close quarters with a physicality and a knack for interception; yet they rarely excel in both, which is what makes Xavi stand out.
There was an interesting parallel in the El Clasico between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Ronaldo was the essence of individuality – a one man show roaming the pitch on a mission to win it for his team, without the assistance of his team, and yet there was Messi latching onto a sublime through ball from Xavi to add the finishing touch to another supreme passing move. The contrast is instructive – Messi’s team gives him the platform to perform, much in the way Manchester United did for Ronaldo In his record breaking season.
This concept of the team is something that Real have struggled in their modern history, to firstly identify, then acquire in amidst of the whirlwind of desperation that represent their deep-seated need for instant gratification. But most managers acknowledge that for a team to be really successful, you need to fuse grafters and players included for a specific purpose with a smattering of stardust. Madrid themselves were a the perfect example of this when they had a team including Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul and Figo underpinned by Claude Makelele, a player without Xavi’s elan going forward, but instead a brilliant mix of physicality, awareness and technique needed for a position eventually immortalised in his name.
Again with the Juventus and French sides that housed Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps was disparaged as a ‘water carrier’ but formed a crucial component of their success. In the AC Milan team which won the Champions League recently, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso were two halves of the role that Xavi performs in the current day. In fact, if you look at every successful passing side in the last 20 years, you will find a player at the heart of it that made them ‘tick’.
Xavi is a conduit, a siphon for nearly all of Barca’s play and through his inimitable style, personifies the club. And if anyone is going to stop them – Jose Mourinho in the next round of the Champions League for example – and similarly if anyone is going to stop Spain in this summers World Cup, they would do well to man-mark the Spaniard. If you reduce his influence you can stop Barcelona retaining possession, and more importantly, you stop the ball getting to Lionel Messi. The clearest indication that it might work lies in the contrast in Messi’s performances for Argentina and Barcelona. Of course there are other factors, but without the unique support Xavi Hernandez and players like Iniesta offer at Barcelona, players seeped in their philosophy, Messi is not the same force.
Trouble is stopping Xavi is easier said than done.