Joy and flair return under Xavi as Barcelona renaissance continues

Sports

There were times on Sunday night when Barcelona‘s football in the 4-0 win against Athletic Club was rapturously good. You know the feeling: when something happens on the pitch that’s so outrageously joyous that the senses take over, completely, from the rational mind — when football transcends your daily woes and your club allegiances. When the beautiful game isn’t just pleasant to look at it, but seduces you and promises to love you forever.

You can take your pick of the examples.

The moment when Ousmane Dembele scores, having once again been booed and whistled onto the pitch by his own fans as a second-half substitute, via one of the most sensational, powerful top corner finishes you’ll see? How about the ‘now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t moment’ on the right hand touchline (a moment Pedri later admitted he’d been “s—ting myself in case I lost the ball”) when the divinely talented 19-year-old takes a pass from Frenkie de Jong, turns his back to protect possession from Mikel Balenziaga, sorts out his feet and then stamps on top of the ball with the studs of his right boot so that it nutmeggs the Athletic Club defender while Pedri’s back was still turned? He then runs off the pitch, around the side of his opponent, and returns service to De Jong down the line.

All of which allows us to return the theme of pure, unadulterated joy. Dozens of people in the seats about 15 to 20 feet away from the piece of magic — which was straight out of any Pele, Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi playbook — involuntarily leapt to their feet, clasping their hands to their heads in disbelief and roaring in overwhelming ecstasy.

These are the moments, equal to any trophy-lift or winning goal, which sear football’s majesty in our consciousness forever. The moments which have always and will always, make football the greatest sport humankind has invented.

There were more, too.

How about Dembele again, with four seconds left on the clock, producing an amazing assist for 4-0? He renders his marker, Balenziaga, useless by crossing before the Basque can approach him. But when the Frenchman, so reviled and abused by the Camp Nou fans in recent matches despite Xavi begging them to cease their venom, crosses, he can’t even see his teammate, Memphis Depay. He literally can’t see Depay because he’s being so closely marked by Inigo Lekue and Dani Vivian just outside the six-yard box. There’s the narrowest of channels between that group and Athletic keeper Unai Simon, so Barcelona’s redemption man uses it to somehow curve his cross right onto Depay’s boot for a sublime goal.

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Depay went to celebrate by seeking out Dembele, pointing to him in a gesture suggesting “the credit’s all yours.” In fact, given that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was awarded a hat trick last week for a Pedri shot that took a micro-deflection off the striker’s back, this could be considered 99% Dembele’s goal, without argument. The assist was that good.

But we should take the Xavi position on the moment of all-consuming Camp Nou satisfaction. Pedri featured there, too, and it was glorious: pure footballing manna.

Nico nicks the ball off Unai Vencedor‘s toes, just as Athletic are about break forward with a three vs. three opportunity. Frenkie de Jong has to dive to keep the ball in play so when Pedri receives possession, it’s pressurised and threatening. Unless you are a little genius like this kid. With his controlling touch, back turned to the onrushing Vencedor, he kills the momentum of the ball dead using his thigh and, with a double-shuffle, sends the Athletic player one way while going the other with the ball.

Rivals queue up to knock Pedri over from there. A dip of the shoulder and now Inaki Williams is sold yet another dummy. The crowd is in paroxysms of happiness by this point. A flick of the ball to Luuk de Jong, whose one touch pass to Frenkie de Jong leaves space for an inside pass to Pedri, and suddenly, not only are Barcelona in oodles of space, but the 19-year-old — whom Xavi reckons is already the best in the world in that position — takes about 1.5 seconds to spot and pick out Dembele, 50-plus metres away, with a brilliant shift of play that completely splits Athletic’s defence.

“Far beyond the nutmeg he produced on Balenziaga, what stands out to me is how Pedri understands football,” Xavi confirmed later. “He finds space between the lines, he gets behind the back of his markers… I’d go so far as to say he reminds me of Andres Iniesta! I’ve seen very few with his talent in my career. Right now, you might argue that [Kevin] De Bruyne and [Luka] Modric have other characteristics but Pedri, in terms of pure talent, is the best footballer anywhere in the world.”

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It bears emphasising that when Pedri made the crowd swoon that second time, his pass to Dembele allowed the Frenchman to cross for Luuk de Jong and Barcelona to seal the win by imposing a three-goal margin.

“Just like the move when we got our third goal,” continued Xavi, “Pedri’s control of spaces and time on the pitch is perfection: He wriggles out of pressure situations when he’s surrounded by two or three opponents simply thanks to his immense talent. As a coach, on the sidelines, you see a way to produce a move, but before you’ve thought of it, Pedri’s already produced something better on the pitch. Priceless, literally.”

Well, not wholly priceless: Thanks to the club’s recent renegotiation of Pedri’s contract, the release clause if you want to sign him will be €1 billion. If you had the cash, and you were smart, you’d spend it. Not that this phenomenal kid was producing such chilling football all on his own.

Barcelona are now on a run of having beaten major rivals Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Athletic Club and Napoli — against whom they’ve mostly recorded draws and defeats earlier this season — 4-2, 4-1, 4-0 and 4-2 in their last five matches. This only happens if the vast majority of a club’s players are fit, sharp, happy, well-coached and unified in both purpose and determination.

Training, under Xavi and his brother Oscar, has been a revelation for weeks now. Recently, the 42-year-old put forth the idea that his first 100 days in charge of the club “have felt like 100 years.” The evidence suggests otherwise; at their Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training ground, Barcelona’s players, almost without knowing it, have been re-educated. Instead of long lectures and four-letter words screamed harshly at them, without dropping and humiliating “culprits” to try and encourage the whole squad, Xavi has taught his squad how to compete again without much fuss.

Daily work at the Barcelona training ground is filled with what looks like the kind of fun you see during school sports. Players are constantly split up into little teams of five, six or even 11 (if the squad is split in two) during contests that may feature a football, but which appear to have very little to do with that sport itself. There are tasks, there’s chasing, there’s coordination, there’s speed of thought, there’s teamwork — but every single “game,” and every single task, has been aimed to draw out competitiveness, unity, sharpness.

There’s a lot of laughter, there are protests about who really won, there’s a lot of leg-pulling and promises of revenge in the next day’s contests, but it’s an egalitarian, intense and energetic environment. And unlike in several recent seasons, it’s the coaching team — not the senior superstars — that’s wholly in control. Wholly.

It turns out that the prizes are enjoyment, match fitness, team spirit and, in due course, cosmically good football. And big-match wins. And by now, the zip, wit, inventiveness, “all for one, one for all” spirit this coach has engendered in training is in plain evidence every time Xavi’s Barcelona play a match.

Dani Alves is a good witness to all of this. “The objective has been to regain team spirit, to re-establish the FC Barcelona ‘house’ style so that our fans can enjoy themselves again,” he said. “We’ve been working at it really hard, everyone is delivering: we’re achieving our objectives.”

Xavi’s view is: “I’ve been expecting these types of results: we are training really, really well.”

Barcelona aren’t perfect — far from it. This team remains a work in progress. They may not even win a trophy this season: LaLiga isn’t quite out of sight, but it would be a Herculean test to catch and overhaul Real Madrid (even Sevilla). Winning the Europa League (at Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in May) isn’t a ludicrous idea, but it’s seven testing matches away. However, trophy or no trophy, this squad is currently in an evangelical state of re-discovery. Flaws, stupidity, laziness, personality deficits, crises of confidence — all of those negatives are being eroded, bit by bit. There’s an “X factor” again. Partly it’s Xavi, and partly the exuberant brand of football that, frankly, you can enjoy whether your loyalty is forever with Madrid, Manchester City, Milan or Marseille.

It leaves Barcelona president Joan Laporta to look both extremely short-sighted and visionary. Should things continue on this trajectory, it’s he who’ll be rewarded by history when it’s written: “Laporta, having instituted a Johan Cruyff brand of football twice previously, via Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, did it again with Xavi.” He’ll be recalled as a visionary.

More immediately, though, there’s no escaping his short-sightedness. How, for example, would this season have gone for Barcelona if, as anyone with half a brain could see, the moves to remove Ronald Koeman, install Xavi and replenish the squad had happened last May instead of doing so once things were already ruinously positioned domestically and in the Champions League?

It’s something Laporta refused to consider, stating that he feared Xavi wasn’t ready. That he believed Koeman deserved to stay on. We’ll never know. And what a mistake.

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