Xavi’s role shift
27 June 2012
By Dermot Corrigan
The 2008 European Championships was Xavi Hernandez’s tournament. Spanish coach Luis Aragones handed him the reins of the team and Xavi was central to everything Spain did as they won their first international trophy in four decades. As well as organising the game from midfield, he scored the opening goal in Spain’s 3-0 semi-final win over Russia and provided the pinpoint assist for Fernando Torres’ winner as Germany were beaten 1-0 in the final. The Barcelona man was generally taken to epitomise Spain’s tiki-taka style of play, and there was little debate over who was the outstanding player of the tournament.
Four years on, under current coach Vicente Del Bosque, Xavi is having a much quieter Euro finals. One reason is physical shape. As pointed out here by Miguel Delaney, he has played an average of 66 games each season for the last four years - six more than any other player at the tournament. For the second half of the current club season he was hampered by a calf muscle injury, as shown by Josep Guardiola regularly withdrawing him even when Barca were not winning. There was a chance to rest between losing to Madrid in La Liga and the Copa del Rey final, but the now 32-year-old still does not look 100 per cent.
Tactical reasons are however more important in Xavi’s more supporting role. Del Bosque’s team now play quite differently from Spain in 2008, or from Guardiola’s Barcelona. Then and there he played as an ‘interior’ (inside-forward) with licence to roam around the centre of the pitch and play short and long passes as he feels the situation requires. He gets a whole picture of the game in his head and can pick the right time to play the killer ball. At Euro 2008 this was often quick balls forward to begin counter-attacks. At Barcelona it means releasing an overlapping Dani Alves down the right wing, or springing Lionel Messi through the opposition defence.
Del Bosque’s Spain do not use interiores. The former Real Madrid coach’s first big decision after taking charge was to make Xabi Alonso - mostly a substitute under Aragones - an automatic first choice in deep midfield. First he played alongside Marcos Senna, then Sergio Busquets after Spain were caught on the break by the USA in the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-finals.
This pushed Xavi forward into a ‘mediapunta’ or almost number 10 role. Spain’s players do not often stand still long enough to be fixed into a particular shape, but they now play closest to a 4-2-3-1. Playing in the centre of that line of three means often picking up the ball with your back to goal, with an opponent close by. Xavi has no problems keeping possession in this position, but a more limited choice of pass. At Barca he often has four of five players ahead of him, with the current Spain side maybe one or two. A reason why some people (emphatically not me) think Spain are boring is that Xavi now often knocks the ball back to Busquets to keep possession and maintain control, not forward to Messi/Silva, Iniesta or Fábregas to quickly build an attack.
Sunday’s quarter-final victory over France showed how Del Bosque’s system is favouring other players over Xavi. On his 100th appearance for Spain, Alonso scored both goals, first making a rare foray forward to head in the opener and then finally clinching a semi-final spot with the late penalty on his way to claiming the official UEFA man of the match award. Meanwhile Xavi completed 88 of 91 passes attempted (not bad), but as you can see here many actually sent the ball back towards his own goal. His one attempted pass to reach the French area was a beauty which almost sent Cesc Fábregas racing clear - but this stood out for its rarity. It was no surprise that Monday morning’s El País match report was headlined ‘Less Xavi, More Xabi’.
On Spanish radio just after the game, current Sevilla coach and former Spain and Real Madrid midfielder Míchel argued for more recognition of how Xavi had adapted his game to the requirements of the side.
“It is not the same to play 15 metres further forward,” said Míchel. “There is a big difference. Xavi at Barca plays his football facing forward, but he is playing now as a mediapunta. So you see him less, but he is such an intelligent footballer and played some magisterial passes. If he plays an 8 out of 10 game for Spain, we think he has not played well.”
Others are less understanding, and even go so far as to say that Xavi could conceivably be dropped from the team:
“It saddens me to say that, for all these reasons, in this position, the team would probably improve without Barca’s number 6,” writer Rafael Leon argued quite persuasively in a recent article entiled “Xavi, the great victim” for the online Perarnau Magazine. “There are others like Cesc, Silva or Iniesta who are better in the mediapunta role, who have a greater capacity to make individual runs and/or score goals. Xavi is only better than these (for this role) in a defensive way, to be able to retain possession.”
The “defensive” interpretation of this role is now what Spain are using to control games and slow them them down when required. Opposition coaches have recognised that Xavi’s role is to keep possession, not really to hurt them. They are now concentrating on stifling Andrés Iniesta, with Croatia and France both fielding their first-choice right-back in midfield to crowd out Iniesta’s zone. This worked well for Slaven Bilic, keeping the game at 0-0 until he made late attacking changes. Laurent Blanc got a lot of stick for his decision, but it did make sense in theory, and he was a bit unlucky with Mathieu Debuchy slipping in the build-up to the key opening goal. Xavi and his team-mates could then concentrate on controlling the game without playing risky vertical passes for the remaining 70 odd minutes.
Leon would prefer a more proactive approach and suggests that if Del Bosque wants to keep Xavi in the team, he should leave out Alonso and play Athletic’s Javi Martínez who is more likely to break forward, thus leaving space for Xavi to play in. (Alonso did just that to score his header against France, but it’s not something which comes naturally to him.) Bringing Fábregas or Iniesta back into a Barca-style midfield three with Busquets and Xavi would be another option, but at this stage everyone around the Spain team, Xavi himself included, seems set on their current system.
Whether this is good or bad for Spain only the rest of the tournament will tell us. But it does explain why fewer people are excited about Spain’s football, and why Xavi’s been quieter, at this summer’s Euros.