Xavi’s long-awaited return, now as a coach, does not only bring excitement; what it also brings is change. Drastic change.
The remodelling in question is far from just tactical. What is currently underway is a thorough systematic overhaul aiming to foster Barcelona’s rehabilitation. Tactically and mentally, the garnet and blue are bound to be influenced by the 41-year-old’s arrival.
The primary demand undeniably is enhancing collective performance and optimising the team’s approach. With fresh ideas and an ideology much better formulated compared to his predecessors, Xavi will undeniably be up to the task. Firm in his beliefs, compelling in his discourse, the Catalan’s competence on all fronts is beyond any doubt.
Yet, a collective-oriented approach generally insinuates a boost in some individuals’ efficiency, too. With the introduction of a new philosophy and methodology, some players are rightly expected to break out of their shells.
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Equally, others will inevitably tumble down the new manager’s pecking order and may soon be flirting with an exit. So, who will gain and who will hit the skids under Xavi’s helm?
In this article, Barça Universal explore the potential winners and losers of Xavi’s advent as the new Blaugrana manager.
Understandably, up until this point, Ousmane Dembele’s troublesome name instantly springs to mind. Xavi has often expressed his fondness for the 24-year-old and has manifested a certain penchant for players of his profile. The arrival of the former midfield leader could prove to be Dembele’s saving grace.
“Dembele, well prepared, can be the best player in the world in his position, he has the qualities to make a difference at Barça and to become a world star.”
Xavi during his presentation
Not that it is difficult to understand the Catalan’s liking for Dembele. Xavi values the advantages that maintaining width offers.
Throughout his stint at Al Sadd, the wingers often stretched out and pushed back the opposing defence. Now, at Barça, the quality of options out wide is richer while still being far from ideal, which suggests that he is almost certain to opt for wide forwards.
When providing breadth, Ousmane Dembele is almost unrivalled — at least at Barça. The Frenchman thrives when glued to the touchline, from where his ostentation and rapid change of pace and direction never fail to place the defender on the back foot.
The spectre of Dembele’s monstrous acceleration helps repel the opponent’s backline as well, thus generating plentiful space between the lines.
Evidently, Xavi has got a gargantuan task in extracting the most out of the former Borussia Dortmund man’s potential. His maturity and in-game discernment have rightly been perpetually deplored.
Dembele has thus far not shown any signs of tactical and mental growth, making the mission of successfully accommodating him into a system an utter headache.
It is worth mentioning that with the coming of new medical staff, there is hope that the Frenchman will get to spend an adequate amount of time on the pitch rather than in injury rehabilitation. Physical setbacks have been a primary hindrance for him, and implementing a more purposeful and challenging training regime could do the trick.
For players of his price tag, the performance of intricate duties on the pitch is a prerequisite. Dembele, however, has shown an incapability to master the simplest of tasks. Can Xavi nurture his delayed tactical, physical, and cognitive development? Only time will tell, but the circumstances are in his favour. Do or die for the 24-year-old.
Frenkie de Jong
At long last, the odds are in favour of a breakthrough season from the flying Dutchman. Frenkie de Jong has so far endured a turbulent stay in Catalunya, as none of his coaching tutors have managed to avail themselves of his seemingly boundless potential.
The degree to which the former Ajax man has lived up to expectations has always been a catalyst for debate. But Xavi’s arrival is what could, at long last, help him blossom.
Bringing the best out of de Jong is tantamount to boosting collective performance; such is his influence and bountiful quality. The 24-year-old is a jack of all trades, operating exceptionally in all aspects of the game.
Keen to receive the ball in the earliest moment possible, his flawless body placement, coupled with dazzling awareness and ball control, mould an enviable ball progressor.
In tight spaces, de Jong is unstoppable, gliding past defenders using his remarkable speed of thought and vision to find his partners in space. Even further up the field, the Dutchman excels in his orientation and perfectly-timed arrivals into the penalty box.
Xavi should, and hopefully will not build a team around de Jong. If the right conditions are met, the team will build itself around him.
He possesses a unique quality, highly uncommon in the modern-day: he is a player that defines Barcelona’s system. And if the team inadvertently revolves around him, the Blaugrana will soon be reaping the harvests of the €75 odd million invested.
One after the other, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, and Ronald Koeman have failed to construct a system in which Frenkie de Jong would constantly flourish.
On some occasions, his movement was restricted by the absurd duties of his teammates; on others, he was handed the freedom of motion, but the incorrect positioning of those around him would often block any favourable passing lanes.
If there is anyone capable of resolving the issue, it is Xavi. A pace-setting 8 by nature himself, he knows how much weight the systematic accomodation of Frenkie de Jong would carry.
Everything indicates that this is the time to shine for the number 21. A player of his calibre is capable of making quantum leaps, and it looks inevitable that the Frenkie de Jong will soon fully spread his wings.
Formerly a castaway, now with a genuine shot at mounting a starting XI challenge — Riqui Puig’s curious case has often caused an uproar from the club’s supporters.
The 22-year-old spent the past two years languishing on the bench, with no backing whatsoever on Ronald Koeman’s part. But now, everyone will have to gain the manager’s confidence from scratch, which could bring him on par with his midfield competitors.
It is not difficult to understand why so many people demanded more involvement for the club’s new number 6. No matter what the in-game context, Puig brings energy and constant action, speeding up the tempo and being a continual nuisance for the opposition through bold and incisive line-breaking passes.
But for Ronald Koeman, his strengths were not convincing enough. The ex-Oranje manager often emphasised that Riqui did not have the qualities to challenge for a starting spot.
To a certain degree, this was, in fact, true, yet no problem can be solved without a mutual desire to do so. The coach showed little to no interest in the youngster’s development, thus condemning him to two seasons of absolute insignificance.
Truth be told, Puig did not make things easy for himself, especially this season. In comparison to de Jong and Pedri, he never provided sufficient balance, as if he always was in a rush to complete each action.
That, however, is justifiable — with opportunities being sparse, it was logical that the 22-year-old always tried to extract the most out of the given minutes. These desperate attempts to convince Ronald Koeman only further hindered his chances, though.
This is where Xavi’s appointment could come to his rescue. The 41-year-old has claimed that previous performances will be of little importance. This means that everyone will now have an equal crack at a starting spot.
Can Riqui Puig manage to dislodge either Pedri or de Jong? It seems unlikely. And even if he does, Nico Gonzalez and Gavi will be there to contest his spot.
Still, this blank sheet approach is bound to hand the La Masia graduate an opportunity to shine. Without time and excessive expectations to deter him, Riqui Puig could now finally shoot up.
Memphis Depay is widely regarded as a signing completed purely out of Ronald Koeman’s will. While the now-former Blaugrana coach was the main instigator of his signing, the acquisition of the 27-year-old made perfect sense from a strategic standpoint, too.
Depay’s skill-set is quite unique. He possesses flair and ostentatiousness but combines that with mature discernment, sublime vision, as well as a deadly finish.
He can operate in all offensive areas: between the lines, out wide, in the half-space or as a focal point. This suggests that the Dutchman should, as a priority, be the mover and shaker of his team’s actions.
Nevertheless, Memphis has had a tempestuous start to life in Catalunya. Ronald Koeman would frequently deploy him as an out-and-out striker, but that came at the expense of his main qualities.
The concept itself was not the crux of the problem: to put it simply, it was the careless implementation of it that hampered both the individual and collective. The Dutchman’s performances may have been drab but through almost no fault of his own.
Similarly to the players mentioned above, Memphis Depay now looks set to obtain a role better tailored for his qualities. His ability to create danger out of nothing could match up to Xavi’s tastes, as the presence of a universal game-changer is always welcome.
The coach’s proclivity for fluidity implies that the number 9 will get to operate in the most favourable zones, functioning as a build-up reference point but also drifting in and out when needed.
Memphis Depay has rightly been tipped for success at Barça; it is just the circumstances that have so far prevented him from making an outright breakthrough. Under the correct management, it is inevitable that he will make strides in parallel with the rest of the team. Not long until the lion roars.
The young Austrian has undeniably endured a dreadful dawn to his Barcelona career. Languishing at the deep end of the bench, Demir’s future is already in jeopardy. But with Xavi’s advent, Lady Luck may, at last, have sided with the youngster.
Ronald Koeman initially manifested genuine faith in the 18-year-old newcomer, and rightly so. Yusuf Demir is a top-notch talent with skills tailor-made for positional play.
Predominantly a no. 10/second striker, he is a savvy creator with an eagle’s eye for the unexpected. Demir couples that with excellent technique and ball control to back it up. A player that, albeit not mature enough to cement a starting spot, merited sufficient opportunities.
However, the Austrian playmaker has not been entrusted at all. In stark contrast to preseason, chances have been scarce, with severe repercussions following suit.
Even when granted the opportunity, Demir has looked like a shadow of his former self. His case is increasingly reminiscent of Francisco Trincao’s: shattered confidence eclipses talent. And with the teenager only on loan from Rapid Wien, his continuity arouses doubt.
The arrival of Xavi is Demir’s best shot at gaining a second wind. Much Puig, a fresh start, plays into his hands, bringing him on par with the competition. His creativity and multifunctionality are bound to accord to the manager’s liking, guaranteeing numerous cameos and even starts for the youngster to prove his worth.
Not being tied to the club for the long term, it is certain that Yusuf Demir will be clutching at straws in order to secure a multi-year contract. Xavi’s mid-season appointment is a chance like no other. After all, there is some bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Coutinho’s Barcelona career has been utterly disastrous, and that is a rather euphemistic way to put it. The €135 million that went down the drain with his signing have caused colossal damage to the club, while the Brazilian has done little to nothing even to justify a quarter of that price tag.
The general impression is that no matter who is in charge, the 29-year-old is living on borrowed time.
Undeniably, the signing of Coutinho was a basic strategic error. Still, that does not relieve the player of any responsibility.
Although he was often compromised by managerial decisions, one can hardly recall a couple of genuinely top-class performances on his part. The former Liverpool leader was no longer a headliner in Catalunya, which took its toll on his confidence.
In accordance with previous seasons, Coutinho has gone through a deplorable start. His analogy of performance is approximately one decent outing to multiple abominable ones. His signature was a pricey luxury, yet he is now nothing more than a castaway.
If his salary and price tag were the only deterrents to his departure, it is difficult to imagine Coutinho lingering at the Camp Nou for much longer under Xavi.
The new manager looks set to introduce even more players to first-team football. The paths of many rookies are bound to interfere with Coutinho’s spot in the team. That said, if one is to trust his recent form, it shall not be challenging to knock him off his perch.
Luuk de Jong
Luuk de Jong and FC Barcelona is a match made anywhere but heaven. Signing such a single-profiled player, even on loan, was unthinkable either way.
Yet, for Ronald Koeman, there was something appealing in his game, hence the signing to begin with. Unfortunately, the Dutch manager might be the sole person to hold his role in the team to high regard.
Luuk is 31, yet throughout his entire career, there has not been a single indicator of him being suitable for Barça. A classic target man, there is just one truly standout attribute in his game – physical and aerial dominion.
That, in large contrast, falls short of the intricate and highly demanding role of a positional striker.
His career to date was already sufficient to predict his impact, or the lack thereof, on Barcelona’s game. Needless to say, nine games at the club have indeed validated previous concerns.
The Dutchman was mostly used as a last resort when the team was on the back foot, thus avoiding falling back on his non-existent contribution on the ball. Even when it came to goalscoring duties, Luuk loanee faltered under pressure.
Unsurprisingly, everything points towards departure for the 31-year-old. His spell in Blaugrana colours was meant to be brief either way, yet the possibility of immediate departure cannot be excluded. The countdown has begun; Luuk de Jong’s days are numbered.
The exact same conversation is being held every year: when will Gerard Pique be replaced, and by whom? And every single time, the 34-year-old extends his tenure at the club. Credit where that is due, the vice-captain has maintained a commendable standard to preserve his starting spot. However, now seems like the moment where the page is turned.
Pique is one of the best defenders in recent history, and that feat is not to be disputed. Yet, the attributes that set the Catalan apart from the rest are no longer difference-makers. It is a part of a natural decline that cannot be averted. A harsh reality, but one that the club will need to come to terms with.
No longer the proactive defender that he used to be, Pique is afraid of leaving his side vulnerable on the counter, he rarely steps out of line to prevent the danger. The 34-year-old also struggles in his pursuit of the attacker, often losing touch with his man and leaving acres of space wide open. While he has retained his renowned defensive craft, he can no longer execute some basic duties.
The younger and more proactive Eric Garcia has already put Pique’s spot on a hair-trigger this term, and he is not the only one knocking on his door. Barcelona possess a vast array of young, promising centre-backs that could be ready for their opportunity. Given the vice-captain’s injury woes, it only seems like a matter of time before he is displaced.
With regards to Xavi, there is no doubt that, if needed, he will be ready to remove Pique from the starting lineup. He perfectly comprehends the importance of laying the foundations for a better future. Making way for the next generation is a part of the process, whether the one affected likes it or not.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Once an ‘untouchable’ and an invaluable asset for the Catalans, ter Stegen has endured an excruciating downfall during the past few years. So much so that his unscathed starting spot in the team could be under threat with Xavi’s arrival.
It might seem like a far-fetched suggestion, but there is every reason to believe that the German’s value for the team could drop even further.
Meritocracy is a value that has been long lost at Barça, for many players have had their role firmly solidified. This is something that has hampered the team’s progression, placing unnecessary self-restrictions. To a certain degree, MATS has also relished an untroubled tenure. But now that he no longer delivers, could that change?
Two consecutive knee operations are most likely the main culprits behind his downfall, but ter Stegen has already had sufficient time to return to his best. Right now, it simply looks like a complete comeback is out of the 29-year-old’s reach.
He is no longer a reliable presence between the sticks, and his gravity-defying performances have drastically decreased in number.
Inaki Pena and Arnau Tenas, two of the most talented goalkeepers that La Masia has produced over the past decades, are yet to debut with the senior side, and without a reconsideration of ter Stegen’s role, this will not happen soon.
Xavi’s evaluation will be based on pure merit, which means that competition will be in abundance. It is now or never for the German.
Controversial though it may seem, Xavi’s appointment could prove to be Ronald Araujo’s – at least temporary – undoing. That, however, is not down to quality but managerial preference. And while the fans do not like it, profile and suitability stand above quality.
Xavi has clearly demonstrated a propensity common to all practitioners of positional play: a disposition to proactivity. This virtue is only present in certain players’ repertoire, but it is an invaluable one.
It is exactly what permits teams to prevent the danger and anticipate the opponent’s attacks. Pressing is also fueled by proactive thinking, as it limits build-up options and closes down space.
Unfortunately, a lack of proactivity has been Araujo’s most significant issue so far. He belongs to a different bracket, as he uses a combination of physicality and positioning to intercept in the nick of time.
The Uruguayan boasts qualities that allow him to tread on thin ice, hence his unwavering reliability permanently. Nevertheless, this might not be a convincing enough argument for Xavi.
Curiously enough, it is proactivity that emerges as the main strength of Ronald Araujo’s competitors. La Masia has always moulded proactive defensive entities, while the 22-year-old was raised in a polar opposite footballing bubble. While he could still improve in that facet, it is also highly likely that the Uruguayan will spend some time in and out of the team.
Undeniably, this is only a theoretical assessment. The coach is the one entitled to evaluate his players’ progress and worthiness of an opportunity.
One thing is certain: Xavi is bound to mix up the pecking order upon arrival for various reasons. Those on the verge of departure could resurge, while others will inevitably lose in value. An exciting inner revolution of roles is taking place.
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