By almost every metric, Barcelona look more like Barcelona with Xavi Hernandez in charge. In both matches under their new manager, the Catalans have claimed over 65% of possession. They have had over three times the touches of the ball than their opponents and over three times the passes.
However, the metric that matters most illustrates the challenge Xavi faces in taking Barca back to the top of the Spanish and European game. For all that the Catalans dominated their games against Espanyol and Benfica, for all the touches they had and passes they made, they scored just once.
That one goal also came through the award of a controversial penalty against an Espanyol side that had the chances to score three or more themselves. Barcelona are certainly playing with more control under Xavi than they ever did with Ronald Koeman at the helm, but this has seemingly come at the cost of attacking verve.
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Of course, Xavi is currently without a number of key figures in the attacking third. Most notably, Ansu Fati is sidelined through injury with Ousmane Dembele only just making his return from a spell out in the second half of the 0-0 Champions League draw against Benfica on Tuesday.
Pedri, so often Barcelona’s creative spark over the last two seasons, is also missing while Sergio Aguero, signed as a free agent in the summer to give the Camp Nou club a sharper edge in front of goal, is facing questions over the future of his career after the detection of a heart problem.
Nonetheless, there was still enough attacking talent on the pitch against Espanyol and certainly against Benfica for Barca to make their possession count for more. Xavi might have given his team a stronger platform in the centre of the pitch, but what does it really matter if it doesn’t show in the scoreline?
He quite clearly wants to take Barcelona back to the values that made the club such a dominant force during the Pep Guardiola era, but what if the game has moved on since then? After all, the technical ability and intensity of Barca’s play back then is now commonplace across the elite level of European football.
Guardiola himself has evolved his footballing ideology over time. His Manchester City team play a more dynamic game than his great Barcelona side ever did even if the principles that underpin his methods remain the same. If Xavi truly wants to emulate his mentor, he must recognise how change is necessary to stay at the vanguard of the sport.
“Generally, the only thing I am unhappy about is the result,” Xavi insisted after Barcelona’s goalless draw against Benfica, a result that could ultimately send his team into the Europa League.
I am happy with the effort, the inspiration, the play. We deserved to win. We’re on the right path. Sincerely, we played a great game. It was just a pity we did not get the goal we deserved.
In many ways, Xavi is entitled to feel encouraged by what he has seen from his new team so far. Barcelona have kept back-to-back clean sheets in the same way they used to maintain a good defensive record under Guardiola - through their use of the ball. If an opponent doesn’t have possession, they can’t score. That in itself gives Barca an advantage.
There must be more than just possession for the sake of possession, though. Xavi’s approach must aim to replicate the best bits of the precedent Guardiola set for him and not the bits that are no longer considered effective at the elite level. At some point, the goals must flow.
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