Even while Real Madrid have been imposing a magnificent stranglehold on LaLiga’s title race, it has been fascinating to see and hear Xavi Hernandez’s early attempts to coax and even taunt a reaction out of Barcelona, as they languish seven places and 18 points behind their eternal rivals. To put it mildly, Xavi has been daring, even high-risk, with his vocabulary.
When Bayern thrashed Barcelona in Munich last week, sending the Spanish giants from the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since 2003-04, they were done an important service when Thomas Muller spoke the unpalatable, but pinpoint, truth that the Camp Nou squad aren’t in physical or athletic shape to play the brand of football needed at the elite level right now. The irrepressible, haughty, ultra-demanding World Cup and Champions league winner commented: “Barcelona can’t withstand our intensity of play. In terms of technique they’ve still ‘got the lot,’ great players at both a technical and tactical level. But they are incapable of competing with the maximum intensity at the most demanding level of European football.”
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It was not only a plain and simple fact; it also gave Xavi an olive branch. The incoming Barcelona coach could have said something along the lines of: “I’ve inherited a squad that’s had both injury and fitness problems; I’m reshaping our entire approach to competitive intensity; I’ve already upgraded our medical department significantly … but to expect a huge change in physical preparation mid-season when we’re playing three times a week, most weeks, is unrealistic.”
Instead, he flat-out disagreed with Muller and began to unpack his feelings about a lack of psychological strength, confidence and attitude among some of his players.
Dangerous, dangerous ground.
Having given an absolute rocket of a lecture to the squad both at half- and full-time in Bavaria, the Catalan coach spoke ahead of Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Osasuna about having seen a “lesser” Barcelona against Bayern, and about how he felt he was fighting against “defeatism” becoming instilled at his club.
“There’s a better level here in my squad than we’re showing,” Xavi said. “I’d followed Barcelona’s season before I joined, but now I’d say that the players are more down in the dumps than I’d believed. It’s more a psychological problem than a football one. Excellence is needed here, not 6- or 7-out-of-10 performances. Against Bayern there were football failings, but I think what weighed upon us most were psychological aspects.”
Then, after a hugely improved performance against Osasuna in Pamplona when (it’s also true) Barcelona relinquished the chance to win and, according to their coach, ignored specific tactical demands he’d drummed into them on Friday and Saturday, he resumed his theme of players shrinking under the ongoing stress.
“We’re in a negative dynamic,” Xavi said, “one that it’s going to cost us to escape. The positive, and at the same time negative, aspect is that it was players of 17, 18 and 19 who were making the difference here. They were the ones putting in huge shifts for us, so we have to be much more demanding of some other players.”
It’s an interesting discourse from the fledgling Barca boss, one that undoubtedly describes some of the difficulties Frenkie de Jong, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Oscar Mingueza, Philippe Coutinho, Sergino Dest, Luuk de Jong and others are going through right now. But the risks of highlighting problems of confidence, or hinting at his team’s fragility, are significant.
To tell the players, as a group, that they are shaky psychologically carries the threat of some of them, out of pride, switching off completely; it also runs the risk of sinking some of the underperformers further into whatever subconscious funk they’re feeling. To say such things in public needs not to be a product of frustration and anger, and choosing which dressing-room “truths” to reveal in the media is a significantly treacherous path — one where the benefits, if you get the message, timing and impact right, are potentially catalytic (in a good way) while the negatives can be catastrophic, long-lasting and divisive, serving as nectar for your enemies.
For anyone who’s been watching either Xavi or Barcelona closely over the past quarter-century, this maelstrom of psychological revelations is doubly interesting.
Xavi burst through into the Barcelona team as a midfielder at 18, ultra-talented and just about to win the Under-20 World Cup with Spain in Nigeria. But his first club match was a Spanish Supercup defeat to Mallorca. His first Champions League campaign included exit at the group stage to Bayern Munich and Manchester United — echoes of this season — and while that squad, led by Louis van Gaal, won the Spanish title in Xavi’s first season, both he and the club then entered a negative spiral, with Barcelona not winning a single trophy for the next six years.
Just let that that figure roll around your brain for a moment. Six seasons.
Intriguingly, over the winter of 2002-03 the club’s managing director, Javier Perez Farguell, conducted an exhaustive internal audit that concluded that there was a “defeatist mentality” at the club. He also reckoned that “with a low-profile, low marketing and sponsorship impact,” players like Xavi were expendable. He even gave permission to at least one intermediary whom I know of to seek out a new club for the young midfielder.
“Defeatist mentality” is essentially a phrase from 2002 that has resurfaced this past week, summing up the malaise Xavi says he’s now trying to avoid/cure at the club he has inherited.
Meanwhile, as a player back then, Xavi had to suffer being booed onto the pitch when he replaced club hero, Pep Guardiola. The club atmosphere was toxic, the debt was growing out of proportion, and the first team was populated by Dutch and South American players whose time had come and gone, even though the club had done nothing intelligent to deal with this fact.
Remind you of anything?
The point is: there are parallels. Xavi has been in precisely this type of situation before, and he survived thanks to two central characteristics: he was hugely talented (like Gavi, Nicolas Gonzalez, Ansu Fati, Pedri, Abde Ezzalzouli, Ronald Araujo and Alex Balde), and he was so deeply stubborn that he simply refused to be pushed out of the club he cared about so much. We’re dealing with a guy who’s now not only a talented coach, a brilliant communicator and a disciple of precisely the brand of football his emerging youngsters have previously been taught to play during their academy years. But will his approach to the “shock therapy” of speaking openly about the psychological and confidence deficits in his squad work well?
There are scores of examples of how trying to deal with the mood/confidence/winning mentality of a group is fraught with challenges.
How about Xavi’s mentor, Guardiola himself? His point of view is essentially “I need time but, as soon as possible, we must create team spirit. That is the most important thing. Afterwards you can work on tactics, but first we have to create something special among ourselves.”
Unai Emery, winner of four Europa League titles at two different clubs (a competition in which it’s now imperative for Xavi and Barcelona to triumph this season, having been drawn against Napoli in the knockout playoff round — at two different clubs is a good guide.
Villarreal’s coach reckons that “the main thing is knowing how to earn the trust of the players: to lead, set an example, apply what you demand of them … dedication, commitment, respect, fair treatment … all that is leadership. Your players will trust, and follow, an idea if they are convinced of it. That implies management, teaching and discipline.
“Trust is built day by day. It’s very difficult to establish a climate of trust and, at the same time, it’s very easy to break. You do a hundred things where you generate trust, but with just one where you create mistrust, you can ruin the other 100.”
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Maria Ruiz de Ona was a sports psychologist at Athletic Club, particularly in their academy, for many years and is now associated with Aspire Academy in Doha. “The first important step, if we want to transform and improve an organizational culture, is having a common language: What does it mean to ‘compete’ in this club? What is ‘success’ in this club?” she said. “And that process doesn’t just emerge on the pitch, but also in the corridors of the club, the changing rooms, in meetings, in conversations between players and coaches.
“Football needs coaches who understand that their role is not to put 11 little ‘soldiers’ on the field, who understand that these ‘soldiers’ have emotions: that they think, decide, learn. That understanding from the coach will generate a different type of relationship.”
In terms of harshness of language and an unforgiving nature, Xavi is a few degrees less intense than his former teammate, former coach and long-time friend, Spain boss Luis Enrique. Throughout his successful career, The Red‘s coach has always kept a sports psychologist, Joaquin Valdes, quite literally by his side. Whether in training sessions, news conferences, interviews or meetings, Valdes is like an extension of the Spaniard’s personality — he’s always listening, assessing, advising and offering services to the players who will, or will not, make Luis Enrique successful.
The Spain boss himself reckons that “since Xavi took over, I’ve seen improvement — maybe not what the fans yearn to see, but that’s gonna take time. When you have a team where performance is so far from their potential, the principal cause is confidence. Xavi took over a team in which the players had very little of that because of the previous few months, and reinstalling confidence isn’t something you can prescribe a pill for: it takes time and patience.”
Wise words. And perhaps advice Xavi, patently shocked and publicly frustrated at the mentality of some of his new pupils, could do with digesting.