No player personifies the Catalan spirit at Barcelona more than Xavi Hernández. With 717 appearences in a Barcelona shirt, 130 appearances for Spain, and 10 appearances for Catalonia, Xavi is Mr. Barcelona.
However, under Tata Martino, there was no getting away from the fact that his role as an integral starter in midfield was diminishing. The stats will state that he only started twenty-six games in La Liga, which put in the context of the last four seasons, where he has failed to start over thirty La Liga games, is not particularly alarming.
The telling decision came in the final, must-win, game of the season against Atlético Madrid, where Martino left Xavi on the bench. With Barcelona flailing and chasing a goal, Martino neglected to bring Xavi on until the 77th minute, instead introducing Alex Song to replace Sergio Busquets.
Whether Martino's decision was a sporting one, or the final defiant act of a doomed manager is hard to tell. Xavi undoubtedly holds power within the Barcelona dressing room, and by dropping him, Martino may well have been punishing Xavi for a perceived lack of effort, and leadership under his reign.
Another perfectly plausible argument is that Xavi is no longer able to dictate the game when faced with a highly mobile, aggressive midfield opponent. Although never a prolific goalscorer from midfield, Xavi has been rightly lauded for his ability to assist teammates over the years. His tally of two assists this season is the lowest since the 2005/6 season, highlighting the fact that his positioning on the pitch has regressed into a deep-lying role.
As Xavi gets deeper and deeper, he becomes less of a threat. His ability to thread balls in behind full-backs, and operate in tandem with Lionel Messi, was most effective when he played further up the pitch. Now, Xavi dictated play from his own half, making him less of a direct threat. With Sergio Busquets operating in similar areas, Barcelona often lacked thrust from midfield, hence the inclusion of Fabregas in the Atlético game.
With Xavi's passing ability, he is perfectly suited to a deep-lying role. However, that would rely on having a box-to-box player alongside him, similarly to Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, where Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba allow Pirlo the freedom to dictate play. Whether this is possible at Barcelona is unclear, as it would mean dropping Busquets, which is unlikely.
Incoming Barcelona manager Luís Enrique showed a propensity for athleticism within the Barcelona model whilst managing at Celta Vigo. This allowed players like Rafinha, who possess both technique and brawn, to thrive. At thirty-four, Xavi is no longer able to roam about the pitch, and this could be his downfall under Enrique.
One particular transfer rumour that would make sense for Xavi, and his future within football, would be joining Manchester City, with a view to eventually playing for New York FC. Tixiki Begiristain is currently director of football at City, whilst Ferran Soriano is Chief Executive at both City and New York, so Xavi would have former Barcelona allies at both clubs.
It would be ludicrous to say Xavi doesn't have a future at Barcelona under Enrique, but what is clear is that, with Barcelona set to overhaul their squad in the summer, Xavi might have to settle for a diminished role. There is even a chance he could lose his captaincy, with Enrique allowing the squad to vote on their next captain.
Xavi has stated that he plans to retire at Barcelona, so a transfer away from the club would be unlikely. Even so, Enrique will be aware that the club need to plan for life without their midfield mystro. Although Enrique will be cautious of completely altering Barcelona's style, the addition of an energetic midfielder, in the mould of Pogba, or Koke, is necessary if Barcelona want to avoid becoming stagnant in midfield, especially if Fabregas is sold. They have lacked power and authority in midfield since Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita left the club, and the arrival of Pogba would reinstall midfield dominance.
An interesting summer of transformation awaits Barcelona. A changing of the guard has already begun, with club legends Puyol and Victor Valdes leaving the club. It would be a bold move, but if Enrique really wants to shake things up at the Camp Nou, replacing Xavi in midfield would be a tough, but potentially beneficial decision.
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