Athletic accomplishment starts with mentality. Or as a longtime friend is fond of saying, “You gotta want it.”
When Xavi arrived in Barcelona and assessed the team that he had, his talk was about mentality and psychology. It was clear to see why. Koeman, for whatever reason, inherited a broken team and somehow made it worse. Between epic failures and mental breakdowns, Barça was a team that was not only looking for bad things to happen, but expecting them.
And they played like it. Tentative, dull, off the back foot.
Everyone talks about tactics and Xavi, because tactics are cool. I get it, even as tactics don’t excite me. When a ball is kicked and players start to move, it’s marbles in a bowl, actions and reactions. Numbers dissolve into the reality of action. A player who believes sprints to get to a 50/50 ball. A player who doesn’t believe backpedals so as not to get caught out when the opponent gets to the ball first. It’s simple, and so visible.
To be sure, Xavi has made some tactical changes, but the reality? You still gotta want it. It’s that fire in an athlete’s belly that makes them shrug off a would-be foul as Frenkie De Jong did against Napoli, or makes them sprint to close down an attack, busting a lung to do so, as Dest did in that same match. Want is a weird thing that is impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t had it. But the difference between immensely talented players is want. A belief in not only their quality, but their plan and their role in that plan.
As managers work with a team, a lot of things happen. Looking at Conte at Tottenham, it sounds like he’s already making excuses for when he resigns or gets the sack. It’s a quite different approach from Xavi, who even after the clunk, rust and mess of a team that he had to mold into a group that would be competitive enough to do the work it needed to do, he was positive, affirming. He talked about work, about progress, about things taking shape.
Being a coach is about tactics. Being a manager is about psychology. The lucky clubs have a bench person who is both. When Pep Guardiola took over the broken team of Frank Rijkaard, he added a few key pieces and won a treble. What happened? It started with “Run, you bastards, run!” Not running for the sake of running, but running for a goal. This is what you should do, and this is how you should do it. If you do this properly, good things will happen. It doesn’t matter what tactics a manager employs if the team doesn’t believe that good things can and will happen.
Luis Enrique rolled into Barcelona, taking over a damaged, broken team. He even went so far as to hire a team psychologist, with the same idea: the mind is the most powerful tool that an athlete can bring to any sporting competition. It doesn’t matter how much talent, how much tactics have been worked on if you don’t have that. His teams played with the swagger of their manager, pugnacious and off the front foot. And that team won a treble.
Want is a weird quality that is so often cited by sporting nerds, commentators, coaches and players. “We just wanted it more,” which means what, exactly? It’s not like the other team woke up, went to the match and said, “We don’t really care if we win. Not even sure we want to win.”
Is want a function of belief, of instilling knowledge and instruction? “If you do this, these things will happen.” Surely the opponents have also done that.
When Barça handled Valencia, on the road, no less, my reaction was that Valencia was kinda pants, and we would know more in the away leg with Napoli. The result was a 2-4 scoreline that wasn’t even as close as those numbers indicated. And the next day, everyone talked about “Xaviball” and its magic. From my seat, Xaviball is happening between the players ears first and foremost. New additions, not tainted with the damage of repeated, ugly failure, helps. To Adama Traore, this is a new opportunity. To Aubameyang, Anfield is just a place he used to play in England with his former club. Pedri wasn’t even born when Anfield happened.
A shooter in a slump starts to get out of it by hitting free throws. A team in a slump grinds out an ugly win and suddenly, the dressing room is feeling like good things are ready to start happening again. Even as everyone knows psychology is important in sport, it’s much easier to talk about the stuff we can see, formations, numbers, objective analysis that is “supportable” by data. How do we measure belief?
A tennis player hits topspin backhands up the line thousands upon thousands of times, until the shot is automatic. In their mind, when the moment comes to hit a topspin backhand up the line, it’s reflex. They have drilled belief into their minds — hopefully. We see players get the yips all the time, and suddenly their game is a mess. What happened? Same player. Ah, psychology.
Barça has spent years looking, and playing like it expects something bad to happen. It’s weird watching the current team, with many of the same personnel, playing with aggression, off the front foot of confidence. All the tactics in the world can’t make that happen. That’s the harder work on the practice pitch, the work, the drilling, the conversations about roles and structure, the mental building that results in a single idea: You gotta want it, and if you do what you are supposed to do, you will get it.
It takes a while for that to happen. Pique said after the Napoli match that good things are starting to happen, and that can be interpreted in many ways. But fools like me wonder if he’s talking about that feeling, that thing you can see as clearly as any formation. This team believes. Which means what?
Well, for one thing, Barça is fun to watch again. it isn’t the goals or the wins. At least not for me. They’re playing with joy, an aggression rooted in belief. They aren’t going to win everything, aren’t going to not experience setbacks. But to my view the biggest thing that Xavi has done is the main thing he rolled into the Camp Nou talking about: his team isn’t broken any longer. This isn’t to say that it isn’t still damaged, still in need of reinforcements at key positions, still deficient in quality at other key positions. Mind power can only go so far, after all. But you can see something cool happening. More crucially, so can they.