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Behind Enemy Lines: FC Barcelona

How much has really changed at Barça under Xavi?

Granada CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I always thought it was an exaggeration, but 2021 showed that Messi single-handedly maintained Barça as a Champions League level club. His departure has launched the club into complete chaos. Joan Laporta argues that the club will be a big player in the transfer market soon, but it's hard to believe this when Barcelona struggled to register their winter signing, Ferran Torres.

That being said, Barcelona does have the talent in the squad to be a Champions League level club again. Ronald Araujo can become one of the leading center backs in Europe. With young midfielders like Gavi Páez, Nico González, and Pedri, Barça could even sell the immensely talented Frenkie de Jong to prop up their finances and still have plenty of midfield talent left. And of course, despite his injury setbacks, Ansu Fati is a world-class forward supported by the versatile Ferran Torres.

The future looks bright for Barça, and their present could be too: this squad should get into Champions League positions this year with the right coaching. However, was Xavi the right person to lead this project, or was it too soon for him to lead?

What has changed? A look into the numbers

Comparison of Barcelona's numbers in this league season before and after Xavi took over.

I like to begin my study into an opposition team by looking at their underlying numbers to see if anything jumps out from the data.

In the offense, the numbers show little change in output compared to the Koeman period. Xavi's team generates less in terms of goals and expected goals (xG) created, probably because of all their injury woes in the forward line. Ansu Fati has been injured throughout Xavi's tenure, while Memphis Depay got injured at the beginning of December. The team is still underperforming xG created as it did under Koeman, confirming that the attack still lacks efficiency in the box.

In defense, there seems to be a roughly 20% improvement in goals, and xG conceded. The defensive structure under Xavi has improved a bit compared to the Koeman. Barça's defensive lines look more compact, and players like Piqué have improved under Xavi. However, their pressing is not consistently effective yet. Apart from Araujo, their defensive line lacks the pace to recover and chase opponents whenever they break through the midfield pressing line.

Barça players seem to play with more precise ideas than under Koeman. Still, the fundamental issues of this team continue: lack of pace in defense, inconsistent pressing, inability to control games and defend their lead, inefficient offense. Xavi still has a long way to go.

Ter Stegen and other defensive woes

I would argue that the most worrying aspect of Barcelona's squad, the one that needs the most extensive overhaul, is their defense. There's an accumulation of players who don't have the level expected of a Barcelona starter: Mingueza, Lenglet, Umtiti, Dani Alves, Eric García, and Dest. The only ones who perform more consistently are Alba, Piqué, and Araujo, and the first two are declining with age and should be replaced as soon as possible. So, all in all, Laporta should be a lot less concerned about signing Haaland because he has a whole new defensive line to sign.

Apart from Araujo, Barcelona's defense doesn't have the pace and 1v1 ability to defend open spaces against quick dribblers. In November, they made Alavés' Luis Rioja look like a superstar forward, as shown in the video below.

And this is not me nitpicking video footage; these issues have happened the whole season. The examples range from Rayo's Trejo and Falcao (33 and 35 years old, respectively) outsmarting their defense in transition play to Bayern's attack demolishing them at half-throttle in the most crucial game of the season.

To make matters worse, Ter Stegen suffers his worst season at Barcelona yet. After a brilliant 2017-18 season where he stopped shots at a world-class rate, he has gradually declined and is now among the worst shot-stoppers in La Liga. The recent game against Elche gives an excellent example of Ter Stegen's current shot-stopping woes. However, he has managed some major saves in the last two games against Mallorca and Granada, which should boost his confidence.

Gavi, Nico, and a midfield for the future

La Liga 2021/2022, FC Barcelona - Elche CF Photo by Siu Wu/picture alliance via Getty Images

Midfield, on the other hand, looks a lot more promising. As if Pedri's breakthrough last year were not enough, this season has seen the breakthrough of Gavi Páez and Nico González into the Barcelona starting XI.

Gavi is an enjoyable player to analyze because he has a mix of attributes that you don't expect to see in a Spanish midfielder. His 1.73 meters make you expect a player with great ball control and a quick turn, and he certainly has that. Taking the ball off Gavi is a challenging task. However, I didn't expect a player who also presses manically, tackles hard (sometimes too hard), and makes great runs into the opposition box that put him in a perfect position to shoot.

Like Camavinga, he's a midfielder almost custom-built to succeed in the age of pressing and transitions: his dribbling and ball control allow him to break through the opposition press, and his physical "engine" allows him to press opponents relentlessly, carry the ball over long distances in open spaces, and run into the box with great speed and timing. And just like with Camavinga, he's more of a progressive ball-carrier and dribbler than a progressive passer.

The one thing still lacking in Gavi's arsenal is more end product. He needs to sharpen his finishing and passing to increase his goal and assist output. Below is a radar that compares Gavi's 21/22 season data with Pedri's, just for reference.

Nico González has perhaps a lower profile than Gavi's, but he's also been one of the bright spots of the Blaugrana season. His 1.89m height and lanky frame inevitably remind us of Busquets, but make no mistake: he's also more of a dribbler and ball carrier than a passer. For example, he completes 2.2 dribbles per game, which is an insanely high number for a central midfielder (top 2% among CMs in the big five leagues). He can also make good runs behind defenses and into the box, which we could see in goals against Osasuna and Elche. I would argue that he has a more polished, consistent, and accurate passing game than Gavi. While Gavi seems better suited for close ball control and quick passing combinations, Nico seems better suited to the longer ball-carrying runs and passes.

As important as these two have become to the team, Busquets continues to be the leading passer at Barcelona and their midfield director, racking up the most passes and progressive passes among the team's midfielders. Since both Gavi and Nico still have to improve their passing game and they tend towards a higher tempo and riskier passes, it comes as no surprise that Barça often finds themselves unable to control and defend games via possession. This issue has led to many situations this season in which they cannot defend a lead.

Ansu, Pedri, and Memphis are back!

Ahead of this major Supercopa game, Xavi had received a significant boost as medical services have cleared several key players: Araujo, Frenkie de Jong, Ansu Fati have recovered from their injuries, while Ferran Torres and Pedri have recovered from COVID infections. The latter two did not feature in Barça's original Clásico matchday squad, but they might feature in the game.

Memphis Depay also recovered in the past week and played some minutes in the game against Granada. On the other hand, Eric García got injured in the Granada game.

I would expect Barcelona's lineup to feature a 4-3-3 shape with the following names:

  • GK: Ter Stegen
  • Defenders: Piqué and Araujo as center backs, Alves and Alba as fullbacks
  • Midfielders: Busquets, Nico González, Gavi
  • Forwards: Dembelé, Memphis, Abde. The forward line has the most question marks by far. Ferran Torres and Ansu will likely have cameos in the game, but we are unsure if they have the fitness to start. Meanwhile, Luuk de Jong has been on great form recently, so there could be an argument to start him over Memphis.

Key Matchups against Real Madrid

Ancelotti has no reason to change the game plan used in the last Clásico. The Blaugrana still have most of the same issues they did under Koeman, and their defensive line is still their weakest point. Therefore, it would make sense for Real Madrid to defend in a deep block once again, let the opponents come to them, and then hit back on the counter through Vinicius and Benzema.

With the recovered Carvajal and Jovic, we can expect Ancelotti to field his strongest possible XI, with the only doubts at the RW position, where he could rotate Asensio with Rodrygo. Given these lineups, what are the critical player matchups we should expect?

Busquets in the opposition half

Granada CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Busquets continues to be the Blaugrana midfield director, and whenever Barça have possession in the opposition half, he's one to watch. Busquets has a sixth sense to detect when his teammates are making runs behind the opposition defense, and he can quickly and accurately send them a pass. For example, Busquets can do a FIFA-style lofted through ball to Alba in his sleep, and that's one of the most dangerous passes into Barça's arsenal. However, he has more options than that, with Memphis, Abde, or Gavi also making dangerous runs. It will be essential to have Benzema or one of the midfielders stay with Busquets to prevent him from making those passes comfortably.

Alves and Piqué vs Vinicius and Benzema

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Barcelona's defensive line has major struggles to defend open spaces and quick dribblers, and Vinicius is arguably the most prolific and dangerous dribbler in the entire league. Since Vinicius has demolished Mingueza a few times already and Xavi does not trust Dest at right-back either, it seems that 38-year-old Dani Alves will be in charge of defending Vinicius. His defensive positioning and body orientation are better than those of Dest or Mingueza, but we'll see if his physique can handle tricky dribblers like Vinicius. He already suffered a bit with Darwin Machís in the last game against Granada, and it will only get worse this time around. Meanwhile, Benzema and Piqué will have yet another matchup in their decade-long series of duels. Piqué is a generational defender, but he always struggled against Benzema's mobility, which often forced him out of position and opened gaps in Barça's defensive line.

Dembelé and Abde vs Mendy and Carvajal

Real Madrid CF v Sevilla FC - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Ousmane Dembelé and Abde Ezzalzouli are Barça's most prolific dribblers, but they face a big test against two of the best fullbacks in 1v1 duels: Mendy and Carvajal.

Dembelé, in particular, might have a tough time because he's an overly individualistic player who struggles to play off his teammates. Week after week this season, Dembelé almost single-mindedly tries to dribble past his opponent, cut inside, and shoot as if he were a modern Arjen Robben. Sometimes this can be the only exciting thing happening in a stale Blaugrana attack, but the reality is that Dembelé would be much more effective if he combined with his teammates. Playing in such a predictable way can make him easier for Mendy to defend.

Abde (or Ansu Fati, if he starts) would be a more complicated challenge for Carvajal because he's a more intelligent player with more willingness to combine with teammates. And to make things worse, Alba and Gavi also play on the left and love to engage in these passing combinations. The Alba - Gavi - Abde (or Ansu) triangle will be one to watch, and it's arguably Barça's best bet to create chances against Real Madrid's defense. Carvajal will need some help from his right-winger (Rodrygo or Asensio) to prevent overloads on this side of the pitch.