After Xavi

Is it time for Spain to phase out their most important player?
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The prologue of Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s magisterial history of soccer tactics, begins with a drunken argument in a bar in Portugal following England’s 3-0 victory over Switzerland at Euro 2004. A spirited (and spirit-aided) debate erupts when a British journalist argues that England’s tactical formation had nothing to do with the result, and that only the players fielded matters when considering the outcome of a match. This comment inspires an admittedly soused Wilson to accuse his colleague of soccer philistinism. Thinking she has come to Wilson’s rescue, an Argentinean colleague interrupts the spat to tell the British journalist that, on the contrary, formation is the only variable of consequence in soccer. While largely agreeing with his Argentine colleague, Wilson cautions that these either/or opinions expressed by his peers regarding tactics or personnel obscure a more important truism: if you don’t have players to make the system work then tactics don’t matter, and if you don’t implement tactics that get the best out the players, personnel doesn’t matter.

This lesson seems especially relevant when considering Spain’s recent defeat to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. To be sure, the long and medium terms look rosy for the Spanish. They’ve captured the last two U-21 European titles, lost on penalties to Brazil in a U-20 World Cup knockout round match they dominated two years ago and put together a string of impressive performances before going out in extra-time in the quarterfinals to Uruguay in the same tournament several weeks ago. Furthermore, many if not most soccer pundits have expressed caution about writing Spain off on account of one result. Some also cite mitigating factors like Spanish fatigue and Brazilian home field advantage in a tournament with far less away spectators than a World Cup will offer. Nevertheless, as the Guardian’s Paul Doyle wrote in his post-match edition of “The Fiver,” Spain’s “defeat was so comprehensive that expressing doubts about their system and personnel is no longer enough to identify a person … as an ignorant crank.”

If nothing else, the loss to Brazil signaled that Spain are at a critical juncture in terms of their prospects for the senior World Cup next summer. Several issues they face reflect the central dilemma pointed out in Wilson’s prologue: tactics or personnel? Or more specific, given the current tactical trends and the likely strategies to be employed by Spain’s nearest rivals (Brazil, Germany, and Italy), what tweaks in personnel and tactics should be made to defend their title?

At the heart of this concern is Xavi Hernandez, the player who has defined Spain and Barcelona’s five years of nearly uninterrupted success, and arguably the man who more so than any other in the modern era has defined a single soccer style – tiki-taka, which is based on the constant creation of passing triangles, possession soccer, and aggressive defensive pressing. Xavi is what Sid Lowe has called the team’s key ideologue – a player who himself is representative of the relationship between players and systems – virtually a system unto himself. It wasn’t long ago that for these very reasons I wrote that Xavi deserved the Ballon d’Or awarded to the best player in Europe. But at risk of being accused of apostasy, Spain’s short-term fortunes might hinge on whether theirs and Barcelona’s midfield maestro accepts certain tactical requirements, regains optimal fitness, or retires from international soccer.

There was something breathtakingly gruesome about the manner in which Brazil swept aside Spain. Like hobbits being overrun by a cavalry of orcs, Spain couldn’t compete physically with Brazil’s mostly fair tackling and rapid counter-attacks. The ease in which Brazil was able to attack at pace between Spain’s midfield and defensive lines suggested both tactical and player dilemmas for La Roja: holding midfielder Sergio Busquets couldn’t by himself cover the space flooded by the Brazilian attackers in the final third, while the distance between Spain’s midfield and defense when they lost the ball meant Brazil often had unusually favorable numbers in attack, which explains why Spanish defenders often resorted to cynical last-ditch tackles. Apart from formation, the more robust Brazilian midfield consistently outmuscled Spain’s sprightly creators for the ball and attacked with a scalpel sharpness that did not so much substitute the stylish for the pragmatic as it made the pragmatic look stylish. There were shades of the Bayern Munich-Barcelona Champions League semi-final, which inspired Michael Cox to argue that German clubs are producing a winning blend of “intensity and intricacy” while the Spanish rely too much on precision.

Indeed, the impressive depth that we normally associate with Spain has to do with the staggering number of diminutive world-class number 10s (media punta) at their disposal: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, and Cesc Fabregas, not to mention aspiring senior-side players such as the impish Isco, who recently signed for Real Madrid, and the Bayern Munich-bound Barcelona product Thiago Alcantara. Spanish manager Vicente del Bosque’s decision to include so many players of a similar type in his squad is possibly reflective of a deep commitment to the style that brought Spain so much success. It’s also emblematic of a distinctive Spanish culture of soccer that has been developing since the late 1980s that prioritizes touch, vision, and creativity irrespective of physical size — soccer’s version of “small ball.”

In a fascinating article on Spain’s integration of the number 10, Jimmy Areabi explains that the Spanish national team has traditionally been defined by the culture of soccer of the Basque region of Spain, which took its cues from Britain in emphasizing passion, power, and pace. Things began to change with the import of large numbers of Latin American players in the 1970s – particularly Argentineans – who filled the creative midfield roles for many clubs in La Liga. The more crucial moment, however, came in 1988 when the legendary Johan Cryuff returned to Barcelona as manager, reconstituted the youth training facilities, and implemented a Dutch system of development based on possession soccer and a fluid 4-3-3 system. In his book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Graham Hunter tells us that fan culture at the Camp Nou prior to Cruyff’s tenure as manager was such that fans jeered and whistled if the ball wasn’t booted forward from defense quickly enough. The success of Cruyff’s tactical revolution eventually won fans over, as did the Dutchman’s integration of several Catalan youth players to the first team, particularly a young, slow-footed, reed-thin deep-lying playmaker by the name of Pep Guardiola. His visionary exploits at the base of Barca’s midfield would serve as the inspiration for the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas, who emulated their predecessor in terms of both style and commitment to playing a particular brand of soccer based on the intelligent use of space. While Barcelona’s template and players have always influenced the way the Spanish national team plays, this current incarnation more than any other took them as its model, with Barcelona players making up between six and eight starters during the Confederations Cup. More critically, Spain’s midfield was identical to Barcelona’s first-choice trio of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. Those who argue that the Brazil game was a one-off miss a fundamental point, which is that a very similar Barcelona team was undone in very similar fashion by Bayern Munich and a fast and athletic Real Madrid in the second half of the season.

Spain, however, have the kinds of players necessary to compete physically with the world’s more athletic sides. In our awe of Spain’s chorus line of nimble creators, we tend to forget that they have produced world-class players at other positions who offer more varied skill sets. Consider Bayern Munich’s box-to-box power midfielder Javi Martinez, who was central to Barcelona’s undoing in the Champions League; Juventus’s battering ram center forward Fernando Llorente; Manchester City’s turbocharged classic winger Jesus Navas; and even Fabregas, who, as his Barcelona teammates and coaches often point out, offers something more anarchic and direct than the typical Spanish playmaker. Details aside, Spain have the personnel to play a more varied tactical game based around the brawn and technical intricacy we now associate with the best German clubs (and, as of the conclusion of the Confederations Cup, the Brazilian national team) without necessarily sacrificing the measured control they exhibit in their best moments.

This brings us to other tactical considerations. The double pivot of two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation that made so many Anglo-American spectators and pundits complain of a boring Spanish style was replaced by a 4-3-3 formation with one holding midfielder due to an injury to Xabi Alonso, which meant that Spain were more exciting but more open as well. While the this most recent tournament offered a period of competitive experimentation with a three-man midfield, the degree to which it was bypassed by Brazil, Italy, and even Nigeria suggest it’s perhaps time for del Bosque to part with the experiment. If Xabi Alonso cannot be counted on for either physical or personal reasons, del Bosque should consider pairing the more dynamic Javi Martinez with Busquets. Busquets’s lateral movement and ability to anticipate and breakup attacks has earned him the nickname “the Octopus of Badia” (which is either the current best or worst sports nickname), while Martinez’s boundless energy has prompted Adidas to include the big Basque in their lineup of “Engine” players who cover the most ground per match according to Opta statistics. What Spain will lose in Xabi Alonso’s range of passing they gain in defensive cover and speed on the break — Martinez in particular bounds forward with great vigor — which will be more important as more teams lose their fear of being picked apart and push forward to attack Spain.

At the heart of these tactical personnel considerations is Xavi, who through success, force of personality, and slow but sure decline as a player has emerged as the single most important variable concerning Spain’s short term fortunes. As Sid Lowe’s postmortem article on Spain’s immediate outlook points out, Spain and Barcelona must plan for a future without their co-captain, or at very least ensure that his conditioning regime is such that he is able to turn up in big games fully fit. Not all of this is directly Xavi’s fault, as a chronic Achilles tendon problem has hampered his ability to snap into tackles when pressing and made him slightly more ponderous offensively. But the Xavi issue transcends questions of fitness. Though del Bosque has played down rifts with the Barcelona legend, if rumors are to be believed, one of the reasons Spain played with only one holding midfielder is that Xavi strongly suggested they do so. His preferred position is slightly deeper, where he sees more of the ball. At Barca, Xavi starts closer to the center circle, gradually tiki-takas his way up the pitch, stops somewhere around the penalty area and sometimes ghosts into the box to score goals. This is fine when he is playing in a 4-3-3, but in a 4-2-3-1 he is the middle of the line of three advanced midfielders much closer to the forward line, where he gets fewer touches and is much less effective. (There were even rumblings last summer about dropping Xavi for a player more comfortable playing in the final third of the field.) Either way, he is less happy and less effective in a system that — it must be repeated — yielded a European championship and World Cup. If returning to a double pivot is a nonstarter for Xavi, his place in the first team ought to be questioned.

This suggestion is not meant to demean his place in history. Lowe’s characterization of Xavi as Spanish football’s chief ideologue was not meant to be derogatory. In fact, given the tremendous amount of success spearheaded by him for his club and national team, it was probably meant as a compliment. He is a player that almost breaks down the dichotomy between players and tactics. It’s slightly too early to tell if Spain and Barca’s success is coming to an end of a cycle, but it would do no harm to emphasize that Xavi is more than a card-carrying member to Cruyff’s finishing school; he is a zealot defender of the faith. If systemic changes, as modest as they may be, need to be made for next summer’s World Cup, Spain would do well to remember that zealots rarely do well as innovators. 

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