Xavi, former La Masia graduate and one of the greatest central midfielders in football’s history, is Barcelona’s new manager.
Xavi played 767 times for Barcelona’s first-team, winning 25 trophies for them including eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues in addition to winning two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup with national side Spain. Simply put he’s an absolute legend and he was formed right at home in Barcelona at La Masia.
Given his debut at just 18 by Louis van Gaal, Xavi rose through the ranks quickly to supplant club legend Pep Guardiola as the midfield maestro. Now he hopes to again follow in Guardiola’s footsteps as the boss of the Catalan club, bringing that familiar Cruyffist style back to the fore and lifting Barcelona back to being one of the world’s best clubs.
To accomplish that massive task (Barcelona are currently nine points behind league leaders Real Sociedad) he has one of the most incredible group of young players to be found anywhere in the world. La Masia and some very judicious work in the transfer market has left Barcelona with an amazing list of wonderkids that truly turns the Camp Nou into Xavi’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Who are these youngsters fans will hope have a superhuman impact of Barcelona’s fortunes? We’ve had a look, filtered out anyone over the age of 20 (with apologies to Riqui Puig and Sergino Dest) and made a list!
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When you’re talking wonderkids at Barcelona the first name on your list has to be Ansu Fati. The 19-year-old is a miracle of a forward, a player of unerring confidence and goalscoring instinct. In fact Fati is the youngest player to score for Barcelona and the third-youngest to score in La Liga history, he’s also the youngest player to score in the Champions League and was the first player to score more than one Champions League goal before the age of 18. To cap it off, he’s the youngest ever Spanish international goalscorer too.
The records roll off the tongue and despite just turning 19 and having already missed a year of action through injury, Fati has scored nine goals in 18 games as a regular starter (17 in 51 including his debut season full of cameos).
Barcelona believe in him so much that when Lionel Messi departed the club, it was Fati who inherited the legendary no. 10 shirt. He is unfazed by pressure and seemingly capable of rising to any challenge. Now for the first time Fati will be playing for a coach who possesses the tactical knowledge to unlock his true potential and it should be enthralling to watch.
When Fati missed most of 2020/21 through injury, Barcelona were not short on a teenage wonderkid as midfielder Pedri stepped into the void to shock and astound everyone with his composure, maturity and skill. Originally signed as a prospect from Las Palmas for €5m, he emerged as a silky playmaker who was equally rugged enough to physically compete against bigger and better opponents in La Liga.
No one expected Pedri to be so good so soon. He established himself as a Barcelona mainstay to the point that he played almost every game in the season (missing just four out of 56 possible games for the Blaugrana) and became a regular for Spain as well, playing in both Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympic Games in one summer. Pedri played a whopping 73 times in his debut season and is injured now as a result.
However, under Xavi, his physical robustness will be just one of the qualities that should shine as the Catalan coach unlocks the upper levels of Pedri’s potential, using his dribbling, passing and maximising what the youngster’s vision can really do. Don’t be surprised if Xavi sets Pedri on a path to dominating every match he plays in for the next decade.
With Fati up front and Pedri in midfield, Eric Garcia should in theory be the defensive part of a wonderkid spine running through the Barcelona team for the next decade. And while that could certainly happen, right now Garcia is a long way short of fulfilling his potential.
However, playing for a team that presses high and dominates possession should go a long way to maximising Garcia’s strengths (reading of the ball, vision and distribution) and minimising his weaknesses (defending in physical duels). Will that be enough? Only time will tell, but for sure the potential is there, waiting for Xavi to unlock it.
Just when you thought Barcelona have one midfield wonderkid in Pedri (plus the world-class Frenkie de Jong at just 24) was unfair, along came Gavi. The 17-year-old shone in 2021/22 pre-season and has been rampaging across the pitch ever since.
Gavi is an immensely technical talent but also has a relentless fire and combativeness to his game that has seen him rack up an alarming number of yellow cards. However, under better management (i.e. Luis Enrique) he has shone for Spain, helping dominate some world-class opponents in the UEFA Nations League as the youngest-ever Spanish international. Now, with Xavi in charge at Barcelona, there’s no telling how far Gavi could go but a midfield trio featuring him, Pedri and De Jong seems almost unfair to everyone else.
You have to feel for Riqui Puig. In summer 2020 he was the saviour of the Barcelona midfield. Now, as we approach Winter 2021, he is at best the fourth-most exciting U23 midfielder at the club (and that’s only because Ilaix Moriba left this summer).
While Pedri and Gavi are much-hyped starlets, Nico Gonzalez has sort of emerged from nowhere to just sort of be really, really good. Son of legendary Fran Gonzalez (of Super Depor fame, ask your father), Nico is an athletic midfielder whose physical attributes allow him to really compete physically and then his passing, ball-carrying and vision take him over the top.
Given how much Xavi wants his team to press, Barcelona can’t play the same midfield every game so will have to rotate, and having someone as good as Nico available on the bench will be a boon to the Catalan coach as he seeks to re-establish midfield mastery in Catalunya.
The same summer Messi departed, Barcelona signed Yusuf Demir, a youngster branded the “Austrian Messi” and while that is a little far-fetched you can see why they call him that. Yusuf is a diminutive left-footed playmaker who enjoys cutting in onto his strong foot and after impressing during pre-season he was handed the no. 11 shirt. He’s found competitive action a little harder to get to grips with but his deeply technical skill-set should see him thrive under Xavi, albeit probably in a more central position.
Barcelona sold Marc Cucurella, a perfect heir to Jordi Alba, for €6m. Ordinarily such a stupid move would cost a club tens of millions to replace a legend like Alba, but thanks to Alejandro Baldé the Blaugrana may be able to do it for nothing.
This teenage left-back is ferociously fast and seemingly fearless. When he came on against Bayern Munich, even with his side trailing, he ran at the Germans over and over again. At 18 years of age he is almost perfectly placed to slowly replace the 32-year-old Alba, he just needs the right kind of guidance and Xavi will surely give it to him.
With Marc-André Ter Stegen looking wobbly in goal (the Blaugrana have conceded from the first shot on target nine times this season) Barcelona will want a contingency plan should Xavi be unable to reinvigorate his German goalkeeper. That plan is 20-year-old Arnau Tenas, a confident stopper out of La Masia who is ice cold with the ball at his feet. Ronald Koeman insisted the club retain Neto as back-up, but Xavi will surely put his trust in this young custodian.
Xavi loves wingers. He even said in his introductory press conference how his idea is to play with wingers high and wide to stretch the opponent. The Barcelona first-team has just two wingers: Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé, the latter of whom is tremendously injury-prone. The rest of the attackers do not have the pace, the intensity nor the inclination to play wide.
So Xavi might turn to Barcelona B and there he will find Abde Ezzalzouli, a young winger who has already made his debut for the club and shown promise in terms of his pace and dribbling skill. Obviously right now his head is always down when he attacks, but if Xavi can teach him to run with his head up then Abde could become a very useful presence for the first-team.
The day before Xavi’s official presentation he watched Barcelona B thrash Sevilla Atlético 4-0, and the star of the show was a quick young winger named Ilias Akhomach who scored twice. Blessed with sublime dribbling ability, speed and confidence, this young winger will have made an impression on Xavi and given how injuries in attack will limit the Catalan coach’s squad selection for his first game, it’s not impossible that Ilias could emerge as a genuine solution especially as he will probably have all of the international break to train with Xavi.