Xavi and the modern art of midfield dominance

Xavi and the modern art of midfield dominance

Illustration by Federico Manasse

Xavi Hernández departed the pitch for the final time as a Barcelona player, filled with emotion. It was bittersweet for the then-35-year-old, who departed for Qatar in 2015 having lifted the Champions League for the fourth time with victory against Juventus in Berlin. After 18 years of stellar service, more than 750 games, Xavi’s time had come to an end with the Catalan club. “It was clear I had to leave,” he later said, but clarity hardly made the occasion less poignant.

Xavi left Barcelona with his name etched beside the record for most appearances in the club’s history as well as the most trophies. Eight league titles, the first of which came in 1999, three Cope del Rey successes, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups and two Club World Cups lined his trophy cabinets, each sat beside his four European Cups; a record that exceeds even his former midfield partner Andrés Iniesta. But an extensive medal collection is not all that defines Xavi.

In many ways, Xavi represented the transformation of Barcelona on the pitch, the revolution that formed an identity and later an almost pristine footballing ideology. In that sense, hr was not just the playmaker but the ideologue; directing the workings of a philosophy with each perfectly crafted pass.

It was under the tutelage of his childhood hero Pep Guardiola that Xavi flourished and became the key component to that most fluid of sides. “If Xavi has a bad day then Barcelona do not play half as well,” said Johan Cruyff. “He is the one who dominates the rhythm of the game. His play allows the team to function. He is different.”

While Guardiola’s Barcelona were widely considered the best team in club football, so too were Vicente del Bosque’s Spain considered the best on the international stage. Xavi was equally instrumental in winning the 2008 European Championships, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros. The so-called tiki taka style of play was synonymous with Xavi’s measured composure; his gliding, elegant demeanour.

Though it was not his final game for the national team, Xavi’s performance in the 4-0 dismantling of Italy in the Euro 2012 final was typically superb and a fitting microcosm of the player’s prowess. His unerring ability to perform almost unperturbed on the biggest of stages was again prevalent as he controlled the midfield and it was yet another demonstration of his unparalleled impact on Spanish football.

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There was to be a decline after that victory but preceding it Xavi had been awarded the Golden Ball in 2008 and was nominated for the Ballon d’Or in 2010. For Barcelona and Spain, he was indispensable, irreplaceable, with the functional but expressive collectivism of both sides deeply ingrained into his intelligent footballing ethos.

Even the most ardent of advocates for Catalan reform will not have begrudged Xavi his success for the national team. His arrival, his paradigm shifting influence for both club and country, is unprecedented in Spanish football’s history. Often it is the coaches that are credited with the tactical implications at Barcelona and Spain but, as Guardiola puts it, “I did not teach Xavi to play.” Del Bosque, meanwhile, has admitted that Xavi was “more important than the coach”.

Xavi will be remembered not just as the best but the most historic Spanish player ever to play the game. He has earned iconic status in Catalonia, and indeed nationwide, yet there is no contradiction, no controversy; only respect and admiration. He represented the dramatic change at an underachieving Barcelona, and a notoriously underachieving Spain side, and provided the foundation for the work of the great coaches that championed those causes.

It is no coincidence that there has been further but notably less progressive change since Xavi left for semi-retirement in Qatar. Barcelona under Luis Enrique, to the disappointment of some, were more pragmatic, abandoning some of the ideals of previous sides, while Spain have regressed, underwhelming in both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships.

But Xavi’s influence on the game as a player has not yet had time to fully settle. He has already undoubtedly played a huge part in the careers of former teammates; the likes of Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Thiago Alcântara. And there will almost certainly be players belonging to the next generation that view Xavi as a footballing idol, whether that be in La Masia or indeed throughout the rest of Europe.

He left Barcelona with as many as 25 winners medals, and Spain with three, but Xavi’s legacy will represent far more than just trophies. For now, and perhaps always, Xavi is Spain’s greatest 

Writer  |  Callum Rice-Coates  

Editor  |  Will Sharp  

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