Football Features

Five things you might have missed from Xavi’s first game as Barcelona manager

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:40, 20 November 2021


In a tense night of football, Barcelona beat Espanyol 1-0 at Camp Nou in the first game with Xavi as manager.

The Blaugrana were dominant for 70 minutes and survived a late flurry from their rivals to clinch a crucial win. What did you miss?


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1. The Wing Show

It’s hard to describe Barcelona’s positional structure in a succinct manner but the best way is probably with one word: wingers. Not just forwards who play wide, but actual honest to goodness wingers who hug the touchline.

Barcelona haven’t really played with true wingers since Luis Enrique’s second season in charge (2015/16), but Xavi had both of his high and wide to stretch Espanyol wide open. Gavi and Ilias in the first-half, then Gavi and Abde in the second. These wingers defined the game.

First Gavi was arguably the best player on the pitch for Barcelona, showing so much confidence and composure in possession and tenacity out of it. Gavi was the one whose reverse pass created the penalty for Barcelona, and Abde was himself a constant source of tension and creativity on the opposite flank. Abde’s pace caused Espanyol no end of trouble and he was unlucky not to force an own goal too.

Indeed, even Barcelona’s bad period in the game can be partly attributed to wingers, or the lack thereof as Coutinho replaced Gavi for the last 20 minutes and proceeded to move into strange positions and give the ball away repeatedly and wastefully while offering none of the defensive cover that Gavi did. As a result, Espanyol dominated the end of the game and could have stole it at the end!

2. Misspanyol

Espanyol should have at the very least picked up a draw at the Camp Nou, perhaps even they could have won it. Vicente Moreno has his men defend deep to stifle the Blaugrana for a long, long while. And for the most part they managed to do that. Then, when their hosts began to tire, Espanyol applied pressure to generate chances.

But they missed all those chances! Raul de Tomas struck the post twice, once with a free header 10 yards out! And even worse was Landry Dimata’s header from just six yards out as he headed completely wide with the goal at his mercy! Even at the end Coutinho chested the ball up and almost set-up a late Wu Lei volley, but the striker couldn’t quite connect!

3. Ter Stegen can save!

Nine times this season, Barcelona have conceded with their first shot on target. It’s been a staggering problem facing the Blaugrana where the German can’t seem to make the opening save of the match and so every moment out of possession is fraught as the Blaugrana scramble and often overcompensate to stop an opponent ever getting to shoot.

Barcelona prevented Espanyol from getting a shot on target for the whole first-half and, in fact, they had even taken the lead by the time the visitors managed to trouble Ter Stegen with a shot – but he saved it! Not only that but he also saved the second shot on target too! Slowly rebuilding Ter Stegen’s confidence is going to be crucial to any Barcelona success.


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4. Xavi can be ruthless

Anyone who thought Xavi was going to come in and be a lovely, friendly guy who struggled to impose himself and make tough decisions can rest easy. Not only did Xavi start youngster Ilias Akhomach in his very first game, but when the youngster wasn’t performing in the first-half he was hooked at half-time and Xavi brought young Abde Ezzalzouli on in his place. It was a ruthless call but the right one as Abde added more thrust and drive to the side.

5. Battered and bruised, but undeniably Barcelona

Now the Xavi era is well and truly underway, it’s clear that there is still much work for Xavi to do. The Catalan coach said “I feel like we suffered,” after the game, adding: “we really did struggle.”

And he certainly wasn’t wrong, Espanyol mangled the Blaugrana at the end as fatigue dramatically caught up with them. The physical exertions of the first 70 minutes caught up with them and they looked almost powerless to resist their great rivals.

However those exertions are what will bring hope to Barcelona fans. “I’m very happy with the attitude of the team,” said Xavi, post-match. And sure enough the players’ attitude and positional discipline for that opening 70 minutes was supreme.

Barcelona’s wingers were wide, their central midfielders played high, there was always one full-back “underlapping” into the half-space to form a back three with the centre-backs, usually Oscar Mingueza, in a move that prevented Espanyol from launching counter-attacks quite as easily as they had done on Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona. Busquets was protected and so was able to dominate the game.

The team pressed like maniacs, they ran off the ball, they exchanged short, sharp passes in and around the box. As much as the last 20 was horrible, that first 70 was as undeniably Barcelona as the club have looked in literally years.

It’s very early in the Xavi era and there is obviously much work to do (and injured players to recover – how different would this team look with Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé in it?) but even with just one week of training you can see the style Xavi has brought back to Barcelona. Now they just have to hope it’s enough to beat Benfica on Tuesday.

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