Barcelona isn’t going to win La Liga. They’re already out of the Champions League, too.
Right this second, they shouldn’t care.
Barca hammered Real Madrid 4-0 in Sunday’s El Clásico at the Santiago Bernabeu, their first win over their bitter rivals in any competition in more than three years. The visitors ripped Real Madrid to shreds, gratefully accepting the space left in the wake of indecision as Real Madrid struggled to organize without star striker Karim Benzema, who missed the match due to a calf injury, spearheading their formation.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened the scoring in the 29th minute, set up by a cross off Ousmane Dembélé’s brilliant 1v1 play out wide, a goal that had been coming for basically the entire match. Ronald Araújo doubled the lead not 10 minutes later on a free(ish) header. Then Ferran Torres opened the second half with a third goal to extinguish any comeback hopes. Then Aubameyang scored again to shift embarrassment to agony.
Barca was up for it right from the opening whistle, unperturbed by both the moment and the opponent.
How very Xavi Hernández of them.
Back in early November, when Barcelona hired the club legend as manager following a drawn-out dalliance, the whole idea felt more like fanfic than reality, didn’t it? Barca was flailing in its first season post-Lionel Messi, a downward slide that stretched back years, and needed a jolt in the right direction.
Nobody disputes the legacy of Xavi, maestro of Barcelona’s 21st century revival, as one of the best midfielders of all time. Everybody disputed his credentials, having spent barely 100 matches over less than 30 months in charge of Al Sadd, the Qatari club where spent the twilight of his playing career, too. He won seven trophies with a team structured to boss (that’s literally their nickname) a relatively fledgling league.
Maybe it’s time to start looking at those achievements a little differently, though. That Xavi walked in and didn’t screw up the operation seems to say something. What he’s now doing with Barcelona says even more.
Barca has won 11, drawn four and lost just once in La Liga since Xavi took over. It isn’t all rosy; Real Madrid is already too far gone atop the league to catch. Plus, Xavi oversaw the last two games that wrapped Barca’s plunge out of the Champions League, and he lost his first Clásico in mid-January in the Spanish Super Cup.
That loss, however, as illustrated by The Athletic’s excellent John Muller, demonstrated just how much both Barcelona and Xavi had grown in a short period of time. He still preferred a 4-3-3, but it resembled little of the formation he governed from the center of his park during his playing days. No, in this setup, the center mids operate like auxiliary strikers; and the wingers stretch the field with their abilities to draw one defender upon gaining possession and another once they dust the first; and the team thunders backward in transition as much as it thunders forward, often because the fullback positions the rest of the world loves to fire upfield stay in safer, inverted cover in this system.
In a sense, manager Xavi is similar to midfielder Xavi. Everything springs out of his vision. He sees more than what is, he sees what can be. The game is always evolving, so Xavi did too. He’s not content to lounge around with the same tactical mind he had as a player. He looked at where the sport is, and more importantly, where it’s going. For years, Barcelona failed to stem a downward slide by throwing the managerial job at remnants of their own ideology. In a fit of indelible irony, one of the remnants appears set to save them.
Xavi believed he could, but didn’t rush into it. He reportedly turned down Barca’s initial overtures with less than a year’s experience as a manager. Perhaps one of the reasons was more time to grow. His name would only get him so far while instilling discipline, overhauling strategy and wiping clean the slate of an entire dressing room of high-paid players. That’s not easy, no matter your iconography.
But it’s a task he’s imparting with aplomb thus far at the Nou Camp. Players are buying in all over the pitch, from decorated veterans who played with Xavi like Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, to the youngsters charged with restoring Barcelona to the top of the sport. The most recent transfer window already appears to be a success, with Aubameyang, Torres and freight-train winger Adama Traoré arriving from the Premier League. Each player has a role, a place in the puzzle, a chunk of eyesight in the vision.
So when Barcelona doesn’t raise the La Liga trophy in May, or the Champions League trophy in Paris, keep in mind: They’re not at that point of their rebuild yet. Everything else is ahead of schedule.
The hire everyone saw coming is working out like very few did.