The great Xavi Hernandez recently gave an interview to the BBC (you can find it here http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/30058904) in which he spoke about his style of play and his favourite British players among other things.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Xavi has become synonymous with the so-called tika-taka style, based on short passes, constant movement and understanding of space, that Barcelona have made famous in his time at the club.
I’ve been privileged to watch Barcelona live three times (two of those games were competitive league fixtures). When I’m telling the grandkids about it someday they’ll likely be awed by the fact that I saw the magnificent Messi, and rightly so, but every time I’ve seen Barcelona Xavi has been the most important player on the park.
If Messi is the virtuoso violinist in the Barca orchestra then Xavi is the conductor. He sets the tempo and the pace and can vary it at will. It’s an extraordinary skill and incredible to watch. If genius exists primarily in simplicity (and I think that’s by and large true) then Xavi is the smartest player on the planet.
“I’ve been a passer since a young age,” he tells the BBC and it shows. Schooled at Barcelona’s La Masia academy since the age of 11, he learned his lessons well. The first time I saw him live I think he gave the ball away once in the entire ninety minutes. To do that while playing simple passes to your full backs is one thing (and he does some of that) but to do it while playing all kinds of inventive ones such as Xavi also does is something else altogether.
He’s been quoted before as saying: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day. Here? No. There? No. People who haven’t played don’t always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space.”
He looks for space more than any other player I’ve ever seen. He has an extraordinary awareness of space and he finds it more regularly than seems possible. He does it all with remarkable composure, seemingly never hurried.
It was recently revealed that Pep Guardiola had practically disowned tika-taka, or at least certain interpretations of it. He said: “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it, all that tika-taka. It’s so much rubbish and has no purpose. You have to pass the ball with a clear intention, with the aim of making it into the opposition’s goal.”
I don’t think Xavi has ever made a pass just for the sake of it. It’s always been with the intention of finding space, to clear a path to goal. If he can’t find the space he’s looking for he’ll aim to keep the ball – perhaps by playing back to one of his defenders – and then move and demand it back to resume his search.
Alex Ferguson had the best description of Barcelona’s passing style: “they get you on that carousel and they leave you dizzy.” That’s what they did to Ferguson’s team in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. The sides met again in the final two years later at Wembley. Before the game Ferguson claimed that he’d figured out how to stop the carousel but if anything his players came off even dizzier than in 2009. Xavi is the man that makes the carousel spin.
He’s done it for Spain and for Barcelona, winning every honour in the game. Messi is justifiably hailed as the best player in the world and arguably the greatest of all time but Xavi has surely been the most influential footballer of the last decade.
In the BBC interview he says that his favourite British players when he was growing up were Barnes, Gascoigne, and Le Tissier. Each of them had incredible awareness and each of them knew where to find space on a football pitch.
None of them found it as instinctively as Xavi though. He’s 34 now and retirement probably isn’t too far off. When he does leave the field for the last time, he’ll leave behind a space that will be almost impossible to fill.