Football Features

What happened next? A look at the careers of players once compared to Xavi

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 16:30, 25 January 2022 | Updated: 13:57, 30 January 2022


Barcelona legend Xavi is one of the best midfielders in the history of the game.

As a result, over the years, scouts, coaches and pundits have frequently attached the ‘next Xavi’ label to a number of up-and-coming midfielders. And there is no greater desire to unearth the ‘next Xavi’, or temptation to see Xavi-esque qualities in youth players than at Camp Nou, the hallowed ground at which the midfield maestro spent his entire 25-year European playing (including youth) career, and worked his magic for more than a decade and a half for first team.

Of course, this is hardly a Barça-restricted issue, with clubs and academies the world over also involved in this unending, as-yet-fruitless search for the heir to Xavi’s throne. Like his predecessor in the Barça midfield before him, Pep Guardiola, Xavi is the man in charge at Camp Nou, himself hoping that the ‘next Xavi’ is somewhere to be found. And it’s easy to understand why.

Xavi’s calm, cool, controlled, technically perfect style – his unassuming majesty, if we may – was the very crux of the most spectacular period in the history not only of Barcelona, but club football in general.

Needless to say, it’s been a long and arduous quest, with far more pretenders than contenders than contenders for the throne. Here, we have a look at a number of players from recent years who’ve earned comparisons to Xavi. Some have fallen woefully short of expectations, while others have had spectacular careers in their own rights. However, as yet, none have fully justified the comparison.

David Silva

David Silva is one of the Premier League’s best ever foreign imports. His gift for reading and controlling the game led none other than Guardiola himself – Silva’s manager with Manchester City from 2016 until Silva’s departure from the club in 2020 – to note the similarities between Silva and not only Xavi, but also Andrés Iniesta.

“Xavi was a player with outstanding control and dynamic, he couldn’t lose the ball,” Guardiola said in May 2018. “He could control the game rhythm, reading perfectly when to accelerate… Andrés [Iniesta] is similar, but always changing the pace. And David Silva is a mixture between both of them.”

As Guardiola notes, Silva is more a mix of Xavi and Iniesta than a direct analogue to Xavi. Positionally, where Xavi tended to sit deeper in midfield, Silva plays higher up the pitch and has a more direct impact in the final third. That being said, he does share Xavi’s unerring composure and control of the ball.

Although not a perfect comparison for Xavi, Silva, one of the most consistent and technically gifted midfielders of his generation, built a career worthy of one recognition as one of the greats in the history of the game, with a World Cup winner’s medal, two European Championships and three Premier League titles among numerous other honours.

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Harry Winks

In September 2018, a series of impressive displays by a 22-year-old Harry Winks for both Tottenham and England led to then-Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino mentioning the midfielder in the same breath as Xavi.

“When we talk about midfielders, you like to use Spanish midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta,” he said.

“He’s like this type of player, this capacity, but please he needs to take in a very positive way my words. He needs a lot of work.”

Winks is adept, sometimes excellent, at receiving the ball and adding urgency and purpose to Tottenham’s play in the middle of the park. Like Xavi, he isn’t known for providing a goal threat – Winks has scored just five times in 190 appearances for his club –though he’s got no aversion to moving up the pitch into more advanced positions.

Sadly, injuries have limited his time on the pitch for almost the entirety of his career. While Winks remains a quality player for Spurs when healthy, we can pretty safely assume now-25-year-old is not Xavi’s heir apparent.

Toni Kroos

An vital piece of Real Madrid’s Champions League dominance in the last decade, Toni Kroos is one of the few players who’s drawn a comparison to Xavi… from Xavi himself.

“Kroos is the engine of Real Madrid’s game,” Xavi noted after Madrid secured the 2016/17 La Liga title. “The way he plays reminds me a lot about myself – you could say that he is my successor in this position.”

A Real Madrid player being recognised in this way by a Barcelona legend shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Each prefers/preferred to operate in a similar, deeper area on the pitch, and each man’s brilliance is sometimes a bit lost amid appreciation for higher-profile teammates – for Xavi, it was Iniesta and Lionel Messi. In the case of fellow World Cup winner Kroos, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric. In terms of style and impact, Kroos is probably the closest player to Xavi on this list.

Arthur

An unfortunate near-miss. Arthur drew comparisons to Xavi while he was still playing in Brazil, at Grêmio. So when Barça laid out €31 million to bring him to Camp Nou in 2018, it was assumed that he’s slot seamlessly into Xavi’s recently vacated spot and extend Barcelona’s period of dominance. Initially, that’s exactly how it went.

Few big signings have ever settled in at Barcelona as quickly as Arthur. In terms of temperament, tactics and the squad around him, Arthur seemed an ideal fit. In fact, so seamless was his transition into the Barça squad, that Arthur’s name was invoked alongside Xavi’s by a teammate who is more than qualified to speak on the matter: Messi.

“Arthur has surprised me, as I didn’t really know him,” he said in 2018.

“He is very similar to Xavi, as he likes to have the ball, play short, not lose it and is very solid. He surprised me. Arthur has the style we have here. He understood quickly in training.”

After a stunning performance against Tottenham in the Champions League in October 2018, the world’s media and millions upon millions of fans joined Messi in making the comparison. That he played for Barcelona, of course, only intensified those comparisons.

Unfortunately, the hype was woefully short-lived. By the following season, due to injuries and a reported lack of commitment to training and conditioning, Arthur was a fringe member of the squad and, in June 2020, was sent to Juventus in swap deal that saw Miralem Pjanić join Barcelona.


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Davy Klaassen

Two years before his passing in 2016, Netherlands legend, football innovator and Barcelona godfather Johan Cruyff heaped praise on Davy Klaassen, who was then a young player coming through at Ajax.

He said: “You must have strong positioning, ability to control the ball at speed and also have the technique to deal with the speed of it [in midfield]… Xavi, Toni Kroos and Davy Klaassen can do it.

“All three have perfect anticipation and they can play it both left and right excellently… You watch, when Klaassen plays from that position for Ajax, the tempo increases immediately. Moreover, he rarely loses possession.”

Klaassen left Ajax for Everton in 2017, for a fee of more than £23 million. Unfortunately, his style at the time, certainly, was completely unsuited to English football. In a lone season with Everton, he appeared in just seven Premier League games and 16 across all competitions, directly contributing to zero goals.

In July 2018, Klaassen was moved on, joining Werder Bremen for a reported £12 million fee. He regained his form in the Bundesliga, with 16 goals and 10 assists in all competitions over two seasons, before returning to Ajax, where he’s scored 19 and assisted on another five since the start of the 2020/21 season.

In the end, while his journey has played out nothing like Xavi’s storybook tale, Klaassen has managed to carve out a solid career for himself.

Frenkie de Jong

The latest jewel in the Ajax-to-Barcelona pipeline. Like Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ronald Koeman and Edgar Davids, Frenkie de Jong is seen as Barcelona’s long-term solution in the midfield and, of course, the Blaugrana’s ‘new Xavi’.

It actually didn’t take long for the comparisons to arise, with former Ajax manager and Barcelona coach Henk ten Cate comparing the two on the heels of the announcement of the £65 million deal that delivered De Jong’s from Ajax to Barcelona ahead of the 2019/20 season.

“It cannot be compared, De Jong can be a mixture of Deco and Xavi, but he is De Jong,” he said.

“It is always difficult to compare players. Both Xavi and Deco were from another planet, De Jong has the talent, but he must still prove it.”

However, as noted by Ten Cate, comparisons aren’t always helpful.

De Jong showed Xavi-like attributes at Ajax, and has certainly had his moments with Barcelona, but is still adapting his style to the Barça squad around him. However, under the guidance of the man himself, De Jong is a decent bet to come good – if not quite as GOOD as Xavi.

Carles Aleñá

If it hasn’t been already, the feverish heights to which the hype surrounding Carles Aleñá rose in December 2018, will soon be forgotten. It’s worth noting, however, that for a brief moment, there was a feeling bordering on certainty among the Camp Nou faithful, that the ‘next Xavi’ had not only been identified, but was already at the club.

At the time, Aleñá, who’d been nominated for the Golden Boy award just months earlier, was less than month shy of his 21st birthday. Every bit as important, is that he was a Barça lifer, having joined La Masia at the age of seven, playing 89 games over four seasons with Barça B, and having debuted (and scored) for the senior side as a teenager.

In that final month of 2018, however, the whirlwind descended on young Aleñá. On December 2, he came on as a substitute with 20 minutes remaining in a league game against Villarreal. Seventeen minutes later, he ran onto a characteristically perfect pass from Messi and beautifully dinked his finish over the ‘keeper – sealing a 2-0 win and securing both his first-ever La Liga goal and his first goal at Camp Nou. A mere two days later, it was announced that he’d been officially promoted to the first team.

Unfortunately, injuries and a period of near-constant upheaval at the club stalled his development. In December 2019, barely a year after Barça fans were planning his coronation, Aleñá was loaned out for the remainder of the season to Real Betis. A year later it was the same story, though this time the loan move was to Getafe. Finally, in the summer of 2021, Getafe reached an agreement with Barcelona to permanently sign Aleñá. The terms of the deal reserve a buyback option for Barça, but it’s unlikely that it will be used to bring the ‘next Xavi’ back to Camp Nou.


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Marco Verratti

In years past, Marco Verratti was frequently linked with a move to Barcelona as a successor to Xavi. The recent arrivals of De Jong and Pedri, and the emergences of Nico and Gavi, suggest that such a move may no longer be in the cards. However, that’s not to say that Verratti wouldn’t have fit in at Camp Nou.

In the words of ex-Barcelona midfielder Demetrio Albertini in 2015: “Verratti reminds me of Xavi, and I’ve told him that more than once. He plays like a Barcelona player would, by making short passes. He is different from Pirlo but he is still great.”

Verratti is part of the furniture at PSG, having made 363 appearances for the club, winning seven Ligue 1 titles, six French Cups and French League Cups, and – with a tactical role and an influence on the team similar to Xavi’s on Barcelona – helped lead the club to the 2020 Champions League Final.

Now 29, Verratti still has time to grow even further into his own version of a ‘next Xavi’. When all is said and done, it’s unlikely that his CV will mirror that of the Barça great, but it will almost certainly be eye-popping in its own right.

Jean Michael Seri

After Neymar’s record move to PSG in the summer of 2017, Jean Michael Seri was very nearly one of reinforcements brought in to soften the blow.

Beyond Seri’s obvious talent, interest from the Catalan club may have been stoked by Xavi himself who, in 2015, said, quite effusively: “When I was told that a player from Nice was called the ‘African Xavi’, I followed him very closely… I did not know him and I was stunned.

“I haven’t seen such midfield talent for a while. His short game, long game, tactical intelligence, distance shooting, personality, game organisation… Wow! He would go so well at Barça … He can play anywhere in the middle. Seri is fantastic. He has what is called Barcelona’s Barça DNA. Without any hesitation.”

In light of such an endorsement, Seri, who was then in his prime at 26 years of age and renowned for his athleticism, unselfishness, and work ethic, ought to have made his way to Barcelona. Instead, a year later, Seri shockingly left Nice and moved to London, joining Fulham in the Premier League. After a disappointing first season in England, Seri returned to France for a year, via a loan to Bordeaux, before spending much of the 2019/20 season in Turkey, with Galatasaray. He’s since returned to Craven Cottage, and is a fixture in the Fulham side in the Championship.

That Barcelona cruelly teased this young talent – who grew up idolising Xavi – with his dream move, but decided to spend four times as much on Philippe Coutinho, is inexcusable. Although, it must be said, given the quality of management during the Bartomeu regime, it’s not entirely shocking.

In light of how things have played out, it’s highly unlikely that Seri would have built a legacy even fractionally as great as Xavi’s. That he never even got the chance to try, however, is unfortunate.

Thiago Alcantara

After Silva and Kroos, the most accomplished player on this list. Like Xavi himself, Thiago is not only a product of the Barça youth system, but one of its glittering gems.

Thiago debuted with the senior team in 2009, at age 18, and was regular contributor to the 2010/11 side which won both La Liga and the Champions League.

Creative and technically gifted, with gifts for dribbling, ball control and precision passing, completely at home sitting deep in midfield and making plays but more than comfortable further up in attack, Thiago was a seemingly tailor-made ‘next Xavi’. That, from a young age, he was unflappable playing both alongside and against superstars only fed this notion, as did a substitution about an hour into the first leg of the 2011 Supercopa de España, against Real Madrid, when he came off for Xavi.

Thiago left Barcelona in 2013 with four league titles and a Champion League win to join Guardiola at Bayern Munich. In seven seasons in Germany, Thiago was a member of an awesome seven Bundesliga-winning sides. He’s since moved on to Liverpool, where he is in his second season.

Called “an extraordinary player” by Xavi himself, Thiago is a serial winner who has put together a truly spectacular career. Though he hasn’t quite reached the stratospheric heights of Barça’s legendary No.6, he has come about as close anyone to whom that heavy label has been attached.

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