Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Footballer in Focus: Xavi

Credit: soccerxperts.com
        Being a football fan is a very difficult thing.  Unless you are lucky enough to live where the best football is being played and have your grandfather sign you up for tickets before you were born, in all likelihood you will not be able to see the best footballers of their generation have a kick-about on a regular basis, if ever.  Back 'till the late 90's you would be stuck to admiring them from a small grainy TV set, and in the internet age you can still get the same effect for free from a stream of your choice.  Honestly there is a certain unrequited love a football fan feels for a team and, more specifically, for a footballer.  That one footballer.  The one that you see week in and week out, and you can't help but keep your mouth open.  Like the girl you may know at your workplace, only casually, yet in your mind every single action she takes fits together so aesthetically, so perfectly.   But of course, she does not compare to Xavi.
          And how can she?  How can anyone?  There is no matching the poise he has on the pitch.  As the ball frantically bounces from one side to the other when it finally reaches his elegant touch it almost rests for a second, as if it were soothed like a lion meeting its tamer; then with one deft flick it heeds his command.  But Xavi's influence doesn't stop there.  Certainly each touch he takes on the ball is calculated, but there is a tenderness attached to that mathematical precision.  As he respects the ball, the ball respects him.  By virtue of a swift turn or change of feet, he rescues the ball from a rash tackle by a brutish defender.  With a soft touch he prevents it from straying away for a throw-in.  By putting spin on the ball for a pass, he really does makes his teammates better! Once they receive it, they don't even need a good first touch because the first touch was already provided by Xavi.
              But perhaps the most interesting moments in a match come when Xavi himself scores.  At once his goals are rare, yet watching a single one will make you wonder why he doesn't score more often.  As evidence in the 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid, Messi always looked the most likely to score from the kickoff, while it was a goal from Xavi which opened the floodgates on a truly spectacular evening.

            And what a goal it was!  The combination of Iniesta's perfectly angled through ball and Xavi's timed run left Marcelo completely for dead; then Xavi collected the ball with his backheel at full stride, flicked it over his head, and with the same right foot, lofted it over Casillas and into the net.  Of course Iniesta deserved the plaudits for the pass, but through balls are successful only when they beat the defense and the goalkeeper.  Even a forward like Villa wouldn't have had that soft touch that Xavi had to prevent the ball from being taken by Casillas.  The backheel was certainly a party trick, a bit of flair, but it was also absolutely necessary to score the goal.  In fact, with the ball arriving behind him it was about the only way that Xavi could have scored the goal.  We regularly praise forward players like Messi, Pedro, or Villa to be the flair players in a stacked Barca line-up, but looking at that goal you can't help but feel that Xavi has all the same tricks they have and perhaps some even better.
        So why then doesn't he pull them out of his hat more often?  Well partly it comes down to physical laws.  Xavi has never possessed the same pace as his teammates who play further forward, and with the sheer numbers which Barca devotes to the attack it would be congested to fit him into the front.  In fact for that first goal against Madrid, Xavi and Iniesta had cleverly switched the positions they normally occupy in order to stretch the defense. But going back to my earlier praise of him, the real reason Xavi rarely goes forward to score goals is because it would take away from that special control that he has in the match.  It is a control that he can exert only from being in the center because that is where he can observe and influence both ends of the pitch.
        It is true that had he been born even a decade earlier Xavi would have been deployed in a more forward band where he would work his magic.  Up until the 90s and early 00s, teams frequently deployed their most skillful players directly in the "hole" behind the strikers.  Classic players such as Ortega, Del Piero, Rui Costa, Zidane, Valeron, Gazza, etc. established the "number 10" to be a player who thrived in between the lines of opposition, using their dribbling, passing, and shooting solely to set up numerous goals; but Xavi operates a more busier role in the center of midfield. While one might argue that even better (and pacier) players like Messi and Ronaldo have emerged to occupy the attacking midfield band, while slower players like Xavi have lost out; this fails to explain why Xavi has won more trophies than both players and that those trophies were won without them.  The attacking players change and rotate for Xavi in Spain and in Barcelona, but his success remains.  In fact, Xavi's role has become the most important in football.
        Yet still, his role is poorly understood around most parts, although this lacking is somewhat understandable.  Because the work that Xavi performs is much busier and varied than his predecessors, the classic "number 10s", much of it can be easily lost or unnoticed.  Many observers will claim that most of the time Xavi only offers a simple pass, and when he does contribute an assist it is because another player darts across the pitch to expose an open channel.  Of course in a team with Messi, Villa, and Pedro even I might be able to provide an assist in the entire season.  When the entire team presses for the ball, anyone close enough might be able to get a hold of it after it pops off a teammate.  When five or six teammates make clever runs to find space, even a reserve player might be able to maintain possession without too much trouble.  It is just that when Xavi does all of these things he just does it better than anyone else can.  In fact, whenever Xavi does anything on the pitch, as simple or extravagant as it may be, he does it better than any other player.  If you want evidence, just look at more of his goals.
            Immediately you will notice that each touch he takes en route to scoring a goal is precise in its timing and execution.  Even when he has to beat two or three players he makes it look effortless by controlling the ball just outside of their reach.  He has the goal formulated before he even encounters a defender or goalkeeper, and often you'll see him wheeling away to celebrate before the ball has even crossed the line.  Each swivel, turn, touch, and nutmeg is deliberate.  He just has a knack for finding the most simple, elegant solution to a defense.  Xavi may not beat you outright with pace or acceleration, but his speed of thought is such that he does not need such bold advantages. In contrast, a player like Messi or Iniesta will often have a "spark" of genius, a burst of acceleration or sharp turn in direction.  Messi will frequently beat the same player twice in the same dribble.  That is astounding in its own right, but in a sense Xavi's play is more elegant, much more pellucid in its construction; and the fact that Xavi takes the shortest, most elegant solution on the pitch is ironic in the sense of people who claim his passing to sideways or  rudimentary.

         A more detailed inspection of his passing reveals the same qualities as those of his goals.  Xavi always knows when to implement the right pass, when to use his body to shield the ball, or twist and turn away from his opponents.  Each individual skill may not be as impressive as a mazy run by Messi or Iniesta or a walloping shot by Pedro, but it is the masterful synthesis of them through which he builds something truly magnificent.  It is easy to glance at his work and find it unimpressive, but then you are only focusing your eyes on him.  Only when you look at his play and the entire pitch, just as Xavi does, do you realize his genius.  You may label me and others who exalt Xavi to the status he deserves as "intellectuals", but I will hardly complain or disagree because to appreciate Xavi you do need to think a bit like him.  Only when you put in that effort do you realize that three or four runs are being made simply because of his positioning and passing.   Only then is it apparent that a 18 move session which resulted in goal was possible because of the six or seven touches he had.
           In a word, Xavi is the underpinning of Barcelona. He makes sure that Barcelona keep the ball moving from player to player in manner that makes sense.  Barcelona do play unselfishly, but everyone from Barcelona has a hunger for the ball as much as they do have a hunger to pass it. When Villa doesn't get the ball he'll run even harder to prompt a pass his way. When Messi doesn't get it he'll hassle the opposition midfielders and defenders even more. Whenever Xavi decides on a pass he keeps all of these variables in mind. On the pitch Xavi is as much of a manager as Guardiola is, and he is just as much of a manager as Guardiola was when he played in midfield.
            Furthermore, Xavi also makes certain that there are no gaps left in between the attack and defense.  Teams like Argentina at the last world cup and Inter Milan in this year's champion league have shown just how fatal error this can be.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error 10 or 15 years ago.  Perhaps this was not such a fatal error when teams placed their most intelligent footballer in the "number 10" slot.  But back in the early days of football the most important player in the team there was a breed of footballer not quite so unlike Xavi: the old-school centre-half. As Jonathan Wilson pens, "[The centre-half] was a multi-skilled all-rounder, defender and attacker, leader and instigator, goal-scorer and destroyer."  Perhaps with Xavi and with Barcelona, we are simply left feeling nostalgic for a style of football we never even experienced.


  1. I share your thoughts. He's the best player I've seen in the way he treats the ball. Before the ball arrives at his feet, he already knows where his first touch is going to be and where the ball is going to go. For all the talent of Messi and Iniesta, Xavi is definitely the brains behind this Barcelona side. The most intelligent footballer I've seen.

    Also, like it that you've drawn a quote from 'Inverting the pyramid' :-)

    Good article.

  2. Thanks Mohit!
    And thanks for the follow!

    More posts to come soon.