Xavi Hernandez going back at Barcelona is a moment laced with meaning. For a club that appears to have lost its identity, the return of the man who came to define the style of play for one of the world’s greatest ever teams is undeniably symbolic.
Lionel Messi might have been a god at the Camp Nou, but Xavi was the defender of the faith, always the most vocal advocate of the Barcelona way. Even as a player, he espoused the virtues of the passing game, the possession football honed under Pep Guardiola.
Everyone in Barcelona knows how Xavi sees the game. Fewer fans are aware of what a Xavi team actually looks like – but for the past two years, he has been in charge of Al Sadd in Qatar. Strip away the emotion and the sentiment and who is Xavi, the coach?
Speak to those who have studied his teams closer than anyone else and it seems that the 41-year-old Catalan has spent his time practising precisely what he has long preached.
Bjarki Mar Olafsson knows Xavi’s methods better than most. He is head of scouting and match analysis for Al Arabi in the Qatar Stars League. In December, Xavi’s side narrowly defeated Al Arabi in the final of the Emir of Qatar Cup. Olafsson did the analysis.
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“I have been here analysing and dissecting Al Sadd ever since he took over,” he tells Sky Sports. “I have put a lot of hours into watching his teams and his playing style.
“Just to follow his approach from when he started to where he is now has been really interesting because people do not really realise the work that he has been doing at Al Sadd.
“I think it is a major simplification to just talk about Barcelona and that tiki-taka football because what he is doing is quite innovative and really exciting in terms of his style of play.”
Xavi signed for Al Sadd in 2015, spending four seasons with the club as a player before taking over as coach. During that time, the team’s approach evolved considerably.
“I would not necessarily say they were a defensive low-block team,” says Olafsson. But what Al Sadd was before was a side that depended a lot on individual qualities to make the difference. As soon as he took over, what I liked a lot was that it was all about collectivism.
“At Al Sadd, he has the best players. But he is able to bring out collectivism in all phases of play and make the team work together. He is able to get the best out of every player and harvest the quality of every single one to work for the team. I really like that about him.
“You know how it is when someone transitions from the locker room to becoming a coach. He had to make a lot of difficult decisions but what he has been able to do is create a unit and manage the group really well. It has been fantastic to see.”
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Last season, they won the title by 13 points, scoring the most goals, conceding the fewest goals, and remaining unbeaten throughout. They also won both cup competitions.
“Al Sadd has gone from being a strong team to a ridiculously strong team.”
Image: Xavi has enjoyed remarkable success in Qatar with Al Sadd
Calling them a possession side would hardly do it justice.
“It is not just about possession,” says Olafsson.
“It is about absolute domination in every sense of the word. Dominating every single phase of play. When they don’t have the ball it is such an intense, high-pressing style. They just want to have the ball at all times. They are not all about keeping the ball.
“They are about tearing the opponent apart.
“His style of play is like a fast-flowing river. The water is flowing and if you try to put a rock there to block it, it will just find another way around it. That is what his attacking play is all about. He does not settle for a 1-0 win over the opponent. He wants to demolish.”
Image: Santi Cazorla continued to pull the strings for Xavi's Al Sadd side
Of course, it helps that Xavi has the best players. His former international teammate Santi Cazorla is still controlling things in midfield. Olafsson describes him as the best player in Qatar. But it is not just Cazorla, it is the whole Al Sadd squad that sets them apart.
“In Qatar, you are allowed to have five foreign players and the rest of the squad are local but just to put it into context, Xavi has 12 senior national team players of Qatar. He has all the best local players and he has most of the best foreign players in the league too.”
That brings challenges, however.
“When you have so many big stars, the biggest in the league, that’s when man-management kicks in,” adds Olafsson. “What Xavi has been able to do is keep everyone motivated and really focused on what they are doing. That is something I was sceptical about.”
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“I was not sure how he would fit what Xavi is doing but you can see now that he wanted to create those more synchronised movements on the right. That was something that was lacking before. It allows him to get even more out of his right-footed attacker on the left.”
Is the gulf in quality between Al Sadd and their opponents a reason to downplay his achievements? Perhaps. But there are echoes of Barcelona here. Even amid the club’s financial crisis, Barca will still have greater resources than almost all of their opponents.
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The challenge is to maximise those resources in a way that Ronald Koeman could not. Xavi would hope to do so by providing a clarity of purpose. His vision, much like Guardiola when he stepped up from the B team, is obvious – and there will be no compromise.
“When you play a Xavi side you always know what to expect, you always know what kind of movements there are going to be, what the activity of the team is going to be on the left side, on the right side, how they position themselves in the build-up, in the progression.
“I could explain every single phase of play of Xavi’s team. The principles are so clear. He knows what he wants from each player in every position. Even though they rotate, everyone is familiar with the responsibilities of that role. They just know the requirements.
“His sides want to win it back quickly so those moments are always key. You need to escape that press. It is the same when you lose the ball. You have to be organised because Xavi is so organised in chaos. When the game is chaotic, his team will win nine times out of ten.
“You can never over-commit against an Al Sadd side because once you over-commit they know how to find another weapon right away. If you over-commit, say you want to stop their wing play, they will punish you on the other side. It is all so precise, so fast.
“There has been a change too. When he first took over, he was constantly playing 4-3-3 but he was not satisfied. He thought he could utilise his attacking play even more by playing a 3-4-3 keeping to his principles but getting his key players in even more advanced positions.”
It all sounds very Barcelona. Very Xavi.
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“His style is really suitable for Barcelona, he knows the club inside and out and he can manage the group really well, so I cannot wait to see what he does there,” adds Olafsson.
“It will be interesting to see which young players he promotes because it is like he has a profile for every position in his head. He knows exactly what he is looking for.
“Obviously, Barcelona have quite a big squad with a lot of different players. How is he going to utilise the strengths of those players and what type of player is he going to bring in to get the best version of his play? And how will his playing style develop?
“That is something I like about him. It is not like he has his ideas and it just stops there. He has a mentality to seek improvement. He is obsessed with improving his side. He is constantly developing and I think that is a trait of a great manager.
“I think everyone in Qatar will be following his career and his development.”
Soon the whole world will be watching.
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