When you fire up a movie you’ve seen before, or happen across it while channel surfing and stop, it isn’t because you’re lazy. It’s because sometimes, you just want those feelings again.
Manager takes over a Barça team in disarray, works wonders with the psychology, instills a tactical sense and the team takes off like a rocket. You could say it with Guardiola, could say it with Luis Enrique, and now you can say it with Xavi.
Managers can make a difference, even as it’s also crucial to note that managers also need stuff to work with. Xavi had the team playing better before the January transfer window. But the additions of Torres, Aubameyang, Traore helped this team take off like a rocket. Adding to that is getting a fit Pedri and Dembele back just in time.
But only a churl would take anything away from Xavi, whose most illuminating moment might have come late in the match, when Pique made a pass that he shouldn’t have and Xavi flew into a red-faced fit of apoplexy on the sidelines. Having perfection as an ambition is nice. So is having it as a goal. The challenge is what does a team do to make that goal achievable, measurable steps that go into working toward building something exceptional. It starts with doing everything right, all the time.
Xavi inherited a team that was a mess. Injuries, psychology, a group playing like it expected something bad to happen and was rarely disappointed. He had a lot of work to do, and he started, strangely enough, with something that many appreciated for the gesture that it was — he brought back Dani Alves.
As a right back, Alves was toast. But as an icon, a catalyst, a psychological driver toward building something, he was the perfect addition to the team at that moment. And almost immediately you could see the effects, building toward what we saw today.
Even at 0-4, the match wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. It was as complete a dismantling of a Real Madrid team in a Classic as we have seen in a while. And even as psychologically, the Xavi Show feels like a rerun, it’s worth noting that tactically he’s a lot closer to Tito Vilanova than Guardiola with a pressing, dynamic, vertically unafraid style that always seeks to put the opponent under pressure with or without the ball.
It still isn’t perfect. Lots of work to be done and more than anyone, Xavi understands that, which likely explains why he was still yelling, still managing, still coaching deep into the match. Winning is a habit built from doing the right things, time after time. Even things such as when Nico Gonzalez laid into Vasquez after the Real Madrid man gave Gavi a needlessly hard foul late in the match. You don’t let that go.
As a concept, a team is a weird thing. It’s usually folks playing for pay, united by a shirt and a signature of their pay packets. A team is a thing, an organism that is united, that works and fights together, works and fights for each other. When one player is chasing a ball, a teammate has his back. A true teammate. A player in the same color shirt watches, and hopes he can make the play. The distinction is small but significant.
Xavi has built a team. Sporting excellence is psychological. The best aren’t just the best because they are the most skilled. They’re the best because they believe it, they know it. And psychology is fragile. PSG went from a strutting cock of the walk to eliminated by Real Madrid, getting booed at home then losing 3-0 to Monaco. All the signs of a psychological mess are there, just as the signs of a psychological phoenix are there for Xavi.
Yes, he did tactical stuff. Alba’s renaissance has been a delight to watch as Xavi has made him start doing something that many have been calling for, which is act like an attacking fullback instead of a winger. This means he’s out of position less, and can make more plays.
Aubameyang has added something active and lethal up front, a 9 with drive, an ability to make and capitalize on space and put balls in the net. He’s scoring for fun now.
Torres, in his most frequent spot on the left wing, adds danger in his movement, scoring capabilities (clears throat) and willingness to work like a dog. He’s still a work in progress, needing effort to clean up his finishing, but also needing to get firmer physically. He loses too many physical challenges for a player of his caliber.
Pedri as a reference makes everything calmer in midfield, and Dembele on the left wing is a capricious force who has gotten a lot more pragmatic off the ball, sensible on it. He has also discovered the appeal of defending.
Yet anyone who believes that Koeman, given all of those things, would be reaping the same results needs to reconsider. The psychological damage done to the team by the Frowning Dutchman was nigh-on incalculable. That Xavi was able to get things turned about so quickly had a lot to do with the work he put in, and the work that he makes the team put in.
Graham Hunter, in an excellent read, laid out a lot of the team-building work that Xavi has been doing in training. Each and every time we worry about a test for Xavi’s team, they go out and knock four goals past the opponent. Real Madrid is just the latest victim to the effort, unison and movement of Xavi’s team. The same individual deficiencies are still there, but the unit work to keep a teammate from being isolated and vulnerable can effectively not only camouflage weaknesses but make the entire unit more effective. It’s absolutely stunning to watch.
The most optimistic culer still wouldn’t have foreseen what happened in this Classic. Yes, Xavi was doing good work, no Real Madrid isn’t that good a team and worse without its best player in Karim Benzema. But Barça is also a work in progress, a project but a few months in process but already showing signs of becoming something extraordinary.
Even as there is still much work to be done. The best part is that the person who is most responsible understands that more than anyone. The “Barça is back” talk has started. But Xavi knows how good those teams were, knows how good he wants his team to be, understands that he doesn’t have the raw materials to build a team that good. Yet. Summer and hard decisions beckon.
But for now, a 4-0 that was kept from being a cricket score only by an excellent match from Thibault Courtois, is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s a psychological rerun that makes us feel warm inside as we settle into the sofa. Yeah, we’ve seen it before. And it’s still a four-star view.