For all that world football lauds, and rightly so, the astounding twin talents of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, neither of those two quite justify the epithet “changed football” in the same way as Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona and Spain’s favourite eldest son When people speak of tiki-taka as having ‘revolutionised’ football, to the point where short passing and striving to keep possession became the accepted mainstream the world over – even in countries as historically averse to it as England and Brazil – they speak of a revolution the axis of which ultimately consisted in a single, prodigiously gifted footballer.
Xavi’s peerless ability to keep the ball, with his possession statistics rarely ever below ninety percent at any level of competition, served quite simply to starve all opposition; to weary them so much that when they did steal it back, exhaustion and panic contrived for them to hand it back once more – allowing Xavi to initiate what Sir Alex Ferguson famously described as the passing “carousel” all over again.
Some were critical, and found the ‘carousel’ which revolved around Xavi not the fairground fun it sounds, but ‘boring’. It is worth noting, however, that this criticism reached its zenith when Spain and Barcelona were at their most successful, during 2011 and 2012; something which testifies to the sheer success of the Xavi blueprint as much as it serves to highlight the brazen desire for constant obvious ‘action’ and ‘drama’ among many football fans.
To lay out the blueprint further: it is the sheer range of qualities needed to keep the ball as well Xavi does which truly serves to astonish. Vision is the obvious one. But also, two footedness, supreme technique in striking the ball (even for the innumerable five-yard passes so apparently effortless), a first touch which doesn’t simply control the ball, but positions it in such a way that the consequent pass is as simple to execute as possible, physical stamina, spatial awareness, anticipation of others’ movements, confidence in always demanding the ball, whatever the situation, clear and quick communication with team-mates regarding space (or lack of it), and perhaps above all in today’s hyper-athletic game, the ability to consistently “find space” – the quality which Xavi himself defines his game by.
Xavi mastered them all, and for all some fans may justifiably claim his style lacked the all-action, goal-laden qualities of Ronaldo and co., the fact remains that footballers the world over are now very much disciples of Hernandez’s way.
Tiki-Taka could only survive with Xavi, its death is therefore his greatest legacy (and what enabled him to be great)
Attempting to reflect on a man whose career is still active is a difficult task, many eulogies have been written prematurely, excluding one last triumph. From the tennis world, Pete Sampras would be the ideal example, Zidane would have been another, but for his infamous headbutt on Materazzi. Fortunately, we are aware that Xavi will have no last hurrah on the international stage, retiring after 133 caps for his country.
His legacy is summed up by the ideology to which he was central, tiki-taka. Indeed this will be the central lens through which he will be remembered, as the consistently moving, forever thinking, persistently circulating midfielder of the most successful International team ever, and of Barcelona’s greatest team. This is quite right, his qualities, both on the ball (his assist totals were remarkable), his touch, the intelligence with which he selected the pass to play. As important was his movement after he made the pass, the way in which he constantly moved into the correct place to receive the ball again. So much of what he did was so simple to do, but when it is done consistently correctly, it becomes a perfectly perfected art. This is not to talk about the difficult things that he is expert at, so much so that he makes them look easy. His drifting long passes to the flanks, his incredible touch, letting players think they can take the ball of his toes, then touching the ball around them, exploiting the space behind them. Nor was he merely a silky playmaker, he ran more than any other player in Barcelona’s team.
But to view Xavi through the lens of tiki-taka is not the most provocative way of looking at him. To analyse Xavi though his contribution to Tiki-Taka runs the risk of forgetting that he was age 28 when he won Euro 2008. He had the supposed ‘prime’ of a players career behind him. It is runs the risk of forgetting that until 2008, he had not been radically successful, nor recognized by public opinion as an incredible player. Indeed, that most successful of indicators of public opinion, the Daily Mail, believed he was overrated for quite some time. To view him purely through the prism of his successes also makes you forget how peripheral Xavi was at times before 2007, he failed to start the Champions League final of 2006, selling him was investigated as a genuine possibility in 2004, at the same time as physical midfields such as those found at Chelsea were prevalent. Indeed, in the Champions League tie between the two in 2004, he was dispossessed by Lampard in the build up for Gudjohnsen’s opener. Deco, Ronaldinho, Van Bommel, Marquez and (surprisingly) Edmilson were more important for Barcelona, certainly in Europe. For Spain, it was the arrival of Marcos Senna that was typified as allowing Spain to work, for allowing Xavi to dictate games without exposing the structure of his team, or being overrun in midfield. Yaya Toure supposedly fulfilled a similar function for Barcelona in 2009.
Yet taking this perspective is also narrow, for his early career was defined by the same astute passing and moving that came to become predominant in his career, seen early by a man good at nurturing young talent, Van Gaal. He was the replacement of Guardiola, later to be his greatest manager.
Perhaps the best way of reflecting on Xavi is to view the teams in which he played, for this is the only way of gauging his influence upon them. The early Van Gaal team was one based around passing, moving, absurd amounts of possession, width. He was integral, but very deep, the Busquets role in Guardiola’s philosophy, though he was closer in style to Schweinsteiger this summer. The team failed, and was reconstructed. In this reconstructed team of Rjikaard, he was peripheral, his lack of physique mistrusted wherever it could be exploited. His impact is defined almost by the identifiable lack of flaws he displayed, with Xavi, his flaws (physically weak and unimposing, his inability to shoot effectively) only emerge if he is actually influential (how can your bad shooting be exposed if you don’t horde the ball, how can your susceptibility to aggressive physical challenge be displayed if you don’t possess it as much). As his career reached its’ peak under Guardiola, based around everything Xavi stands for, short passing, dictation of tempo, control of the ball and space, defending through pressing, not challenging, he became integral, indeed, he came to define the team. He was central to everything. It was Xavi who put in the wonderful ball for Messi’s header in the Champions League final of 2009, consistently assisted the most goals for Barcelona, controlled every single match, domestic, continental and international. All these facts omit his influence over the clasico, which he dominated for 4 successive years. For Spain, he dominated 2 international tournaments, and even in his quietest (Euro 2012), he was the most effective player in the final. His incredible qualities effectively made Spain and Barcelona great.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that Xavi can be given is that it was he who allowed (and forced) Tiki-Taka to emerge. Its’ dominance only ended when he entered decline.