A month or so ago, I was talking to someone who’s managed in the Champions League. He’d broken into coaching right around the turn of the decade, so naturally our conversation eventually took a turn toward Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, whose players were winning every loose ball, match and trophy in sight — and ruining soccer in the process, according to this coach.
Now, it wasn’t Barca’s fault; they were as brilliant to him as they were to you and me. It all peaked in 2011. Barcelona averaged an absurd 72% of possession en route to winning LaLiga that year, and then suffocated Manchester United, 3-1, in the Champions League final. “We were beaten — there is no other way to address the situation — by the best team,” Sir Alex Ferguson said after the match. ”I expected us to do better, but at the end of the day, we were beaten by the better team. They are the best team we have ever played — they are at the peak in this cycle of their team.”
However, he went on. ”Great teams go in cycles and the cycle they are in at the moment is the best in Europe, there’s no question of that. How long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at another point … they certainly have the philosophy.
This is what was driving the coach mad: Rather than recognizing that Barcelona’s never-before-seen style of pass-heavy dominance was likely the result of a never-to-be-seen-again combination of talent and coaching, the rest of Europe had, he felt, decided that the way to win soccer games was to copy Barcelona. In a sense, he was right. The style that eventually won out in the post-Pep-at-Barca years wasn’t pass-pass-pass, but rather a much more physical, fast-paced, transition-based game that focused on dominating territory rather than the ball.
In other words: the way that Bayern Munich, Barcelona’s opponents in the Champions League on Wednesday, play.
It’s only the fifth game of Xavi’s tenure as manager of the club he grew up playing for — and it’s by far his biggest. Win and they’re through to the last-16. Anything other than three points, and they’ll be relying on Dynamo Kyiv to get a result against Benfica to keep them alive. If anyone seems likely to attempt to recreate the lost glory of the tiki-taka times, it’s the guy who was at the center of it all.
But is that what he’s actually doing? And can it work against Bayern Munich?
Who is he playing?
Again, Xavi has coached four matches at Barcelona. Split out four-game samples from any coach, and you’ll be able to find a quartet of matches that allow you to convince yourself Jose Mourinho is a disciple of Jurgen Klopp, or that Marcelo Bielsa wants his teams to play like Sean Dyche’s do. A lot of random crap can happen over four games, and a lot of it is dependent on what the other team does, too.
However, the one thing that a manager truly has control over is who is on the field, and the biggest thing Xavi has changed so far is perhaps unsurprising: He’s no longer playing the gigantic, immobile Dutch striker who was pretty clearly acquired by Barcelona only because he’d played for former manager Ronald Koeman with the Dutch national team.
Pre-Xavi, Luuk De Jong played 34 percent of the available minutes in the Champions League and LaLiga. With Xavi on the sideline, he’s featured just two percent of the time. Only Sergino Dest has seen a bigger drop-off in playing time — 73% to 26% — but that’s only because he was out injured. Dest played every minute in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Real Betis. Elsewhere at the back, two Spanish youngsters, Oscar Mingueza and Eric Garcia, have both slipped out of the picture a little bit: the former dropping from 48% of the minutes to 30%, the latter from 69% to 50%.
Like every other Barcelona manager since Ernesto Valverde, Xavi also hasn’t been particularly interested in finding significant minutes for the most expensive player in club history, Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian has actually played slightly less frequently under Xavi this far — 24%, compared to 30% — than he did earlier in the season.
On the other end of the spectrum, the biggest beneficiaries have been a trio of teenagers and a 26-year-old French center-back.
Gavi, who still isn’t old enough to buy cigarettes in New York, has been on the field for 80% of Xavi’s minutes as manager, a figure that would be even higher if he didn’t suffer a head injury on Saturday. His comparatively ancient midfield partner, 19-year-old Nico Gonzalez, has jumped from a 37% minute share to 88%. Another 19-year-old, the Moroccan winger Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, must be loving the Xavi era, given that he’s featured 72% of the time after only playing 2% of the minutes before. Clement Lenglet, meanwhile, has taken some of the playing time away from Mingueza and Garcia, going from 26% to 47% of the minutes.
We’ll see if this same pattern continues, but at least so far there certainly is a pattern: experience at the back, wild and unpredictable youth everywhere else.
How are they playing?
The nadir of the Koeman era, that moment when it became impossible to ignore just how far Barcelona had drifted from that supposed ideal of 2011, was a 1-1 draw with Granada in late September. Barca attempted 55 crosses, their most in a LaLiga match since 2016, and their second most since the 2005-06 season. That, by itself, would’ve been bad enough, but then Koeman doubled down on the approach after the match, mocking those hoping for something different.
“There wasn’t space to play inside,” said Koeman. “There was more space out wide and we had to fight for the second ball in the box. It’s true we changed our style, but it’s what the game required. It depends on what we have available. How are we going to play tiki taki if there is no space? Look at the squad. We did what we have to do. Today’s Barcelona is not the Barca of eight years ago.”
Through four matches, Xavi’s Barca have, ironically, produced the exact same aggregate defensive and attacking performance as Koeman’s Barca did before he was fired: 1.8 expected goals per game, 1.2 expected goals conceded per game. While Xavi hasn’t disproved Koeman’s claim about the club’s quality right now, he has at least briefly proven that you could get the same results without crossing the ball so damn much. In Koeman’s 11 games this season, 15% of Barcelona’s final-third passes were crosses. Under Xavi, there’s already been a significant drop, down to 11%. Poor de Jong.
While that’s no real surprise, Barca have been way more direct … under Xavi. Some noticeable differences, per Stats Perform data:
- Percent of passes played forward: 28 percent under Koeman, 30 percent under Xavi
- Average pass distance: 16.3 meters under Koeman, 17.1 under Xavi
- Direct speed (meters ball advances toward goal per second): 1.33 under Koeman, 1.39 under Xavi
Beyond all of the board-room-level mismanagement over the past decade, the area where Barcelona strayed the most from their glory years wasn’t in their inability to keep the ball. Quite the opposite: they actually became too obsessed with keeping the ball. Over the previous five seasons, the number of possessions in a Barcelona match declined with each successive campaign. In 2010-11, Barcelona averaged 97 possessions per game. Last season, it was down to 84.
At their peak under Guardiola, Barca weren’t afraid to attempt dangerous passes in part because they had a generation of players who could complete dangerous passes at a higher clip than everyone else, but also because they were comfortable losing the ball, as they knew exactly how to win it back. Recently, Barcelona had devolved into the team that seemed scared of ever turning the ball over, so they pushed it up-field at the pace of a crawl and then pretty much just hoped that Messi would do something incredible. However, in the four games under Xavi, the number of possessions has bounced all the way back up to 96.
Whether it’s by design of not, the ball is suddenly up for grabs again.
Can it work against Bayern Munich?
Let’s just get it out of the way: No, it probably won’t. Even though Bayern have already clinched first place in their group and will likely field an under-strength lineup in order to rest some key players, the Pinnacle sportsbook gives them a 56% chance of winning the match, while a draw is at 21%. That means Barca have a 23% shot at winning the game. Not good.
Also, Bayern simply might be the best team in the world. They’re second-favorites to win the tournament behind Manchester City, and they’re just barely the second-best team behind City in FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model. They’re attempting 19 shots a game, generating 2.9 xG per game, and scoring 3.1 goals per game — all of which are tops across Europe’s Big Five Leagues. At home, even Bayern’s not-quite-first-choice squad would be favored against just about everyone.
Across 21 matches in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Champions League, Bayern have only failed to win three times: a 1-1 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach to start the season, a pair of 2-1 losses to Frankfurt and Augsburg, and a crazy 6-0 blowout against Gladbach in the DFB-Pokal. In those four games, Bayern’s opponents moved the ball up field 2.18 meters per second, played 48% of their passes forward, and averaged 20.45 meters per pass — all large increases on what Bayern’s opponents have averaged over the course of the season.
Of course, a David playing fast, vertical and direct against a Goliath is a pretty common game-plan. It’s anathema to the Barcelona ideal, but funnily enough, the club seem better equipped to play that way under Xavi than either of the previous two managers, who were both embarrassed by Bayern to varying degrees. Unlike the last two match-ups, thanks to a slight tweak in the way the team has played so far and the type of players Xavi is playing, we’re telling you that — yes — there’s a chance.
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