El Clasico is the biggest football match in the world, and on Sunday evening it did not disappoint. Barcelona put in a stunning performance to beat Real Madrid 4-0, embarrassing their fierce rivals at their Estadio Santiago Bernabeu home.
In the context of the season the shock result may not matter too much; Real Madrid are still 12 points clear of Barca and currently hold a nine-point lead at the top of La Liga, while in Europe they have a Champions League quarter-final to look forward to. However, the gulf in class between the two sides on the night left little doubt that Xavi, just four months on from returning to the club as manager, is well on his way to restoring Barca to the top tier of European football.
That is brilliant news for them, but it is also good news for Manchester City. Barcelona had been on a downwards trajectory for years before things reached crisis level earlier this season.
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Gross financial mismanagement resulted in Lionel Messi leaving the club last summer and numerous players having to restructure their contracts, while on the pitch performances had been steadily drifting away from the famous Barca style of play. The golden generation coached by Pep Guardiola was never properly reinforced or replaced, to the point that under Ronald Koeman Barca played stodgy football with little direction or identifiable style.
Barca sat ninth in the table when Koeman was sacked at the end of October, but Xavi has done remarkably well to turn things around. Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid was a microcosm of the work he has done.
The former Barca captain has implemented a version of the style popularized during Guardiola’s time in the dugout, arguably the best period in the club’s history. Barca now seek to control games through possession and quick passing, while their pressing is just as good as Pep’s City.
Players who previously looked past it like Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba once again look right at home, expensive flops like Ousmane Dembele and Frenkie de Jong look back to their best and recent recruits, like Ferran Torres, are bedding in well. Xavi’s Barca utilize pace and counter-attacking more than Guardiola does, but ultimately the young coach is building on the style passed on to him by Pep.
City should take note for when Guardiola eventually leaves, whenever that may be. Everything at the club – from coaches to facilities to youth training – is geared towards how Guardiola thinks the game should be played. Everything is in place for City’s next coach to continue his legacy and ideals of him, but Barca have shown how easily things can be allowed to slide.
There are few things more alluring than an idea, and at Barca the evolution of their style is clear. Rinus Michels coached Johan Cruyff, Cruyff coached Guardiola and Guardiola coached Xavi.
For a few years, Barca deviated from this path, but Xavi appears to have them back on track. To avoid years in the wilderness when Guardiola moves on, City must bring in-or appoint him from within-a coach who will continue to practice his style and methods.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.