Erik Ian Larsen: Xavi
Written by Erik Ian Larsen on June 15, 2011 19:30
I used to think Barcelona’s Xavi was a bit of a bastard. From his cocky swagger, his vocal pursuit of Arsenal Captain Cesc Fabregas last summer, and that frustrating half-man, half-boy haircut, my impressions of Xavi were outlandishly one-sided. I thought he was the scourge of the footballing world; a loud-mouthed spigot who exemplified all the grace and beauty of the technical side of the game and all the idiocy and arrogance of “players these days.”
In the open international market, players come and go from clubs like pigeons fluttering about a city looking for the next discarded French fry. The stability, the loyalty that once brought fans and players into the cohesive ecosystem of “club” is now almost always a handshake with fingers-crossed behind the back. Cesc came to Arsenal from Barcelona as a teenager, and now Barcelona is anxious to have that package returned to sender. Xavi has been a media mouthpiece for that movement, saying Cesc belongs at Barcelona, and I’ve always interpreted that as just another blustering footballer who can’t keep his mouth shut.
“Players these days” seem to lack respect for the game, for the fans, and for the history of the clubs they’re playing for (outside of the brochure they’re given to study up before their first club interview). The broad brush is often the quickest to cover the canvas—it’s easy to lump players together, especially when they’re outwardly trying to recruit your captain—but I’ve smudged over a lot of the intricate details along the way. I really didn’t give Xavi a fair shake. I was hurt about the prospect of losing Cesc, hell, I’m still hurt over the prospect, but the reasoning behind Xavi’s statements—that Cesc fits the Barcelona style that very few players can fit—is sadly true. Cesc is more like Barcelona than he is like the current Arsenal side, and that’s not because of anything Barcelona’s done really; it has more to do with the disintegration of the talent pool at Arsenal and the club’s swirling identity under Wenger.
Xavi is, in fact, not a bastard. He’s a dreamer, a romantic, and a brilliant football mind that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated in this day of “manager-led” tactics. Players control far more than they’re given credit for, especially in football where you don’t have 400 timeouts and commercial breaks and free throws and dead balls. After having read an interview with Xavi, given to the Guardian in February of this year just before a round of 16 Champions League match against Arsenal, my impressions of the man and the footballer were turned on their head. Xavi speaks like a manager, like a strategist, and he speaks passionately about what makes the culture of Barcelona produce such jaw-dropping success on the pitch.
I read that article from the perspective of an Arsenal fan, from someone who wants to see Arsenal win trophies and get back to the level the club was at five, six years ago. Xavi speaks about “identity;” about the persistence and passion of Barcelona’s players for a common purpose: Attacking football. As Xavi says, “You pressure, you want possession, you want to attack. Some teams can’t or don’t pass the ball. What are you playing for? What’s the point? That’s not football.”
In response, I searched my heart to come up with a word or phrase that encompassed Arsenal’s identity, but it was surprisingly more difficult than I’d imagined. My first instinct was to throw out the cliché expression that’s always been used to describe Arsene Wenger’s style: The beautiful game. But that knee-jerk wasn’t accurate; there’s nothing beautiful about the current Arsenal squad or the way they play football. This isn’t the same team that featured the likes of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp tormenting defenses, this is a confused, mentally-stagnant, anxious squad of players (mixed with a handful of frustrated veterans) who can’t quite figure out how to attack or how to defend. Arsenal’s identity is not Barcelona-style attacking football anymore. No. It’s passing football. And that fundamental difference is what sets the two clubs so far apart right now.
“Arsenal are a great team,” Xavi said in February. “When I watch Arsenal, I see Barça. I see Cesc carry the game, Nasri, Arshavin. The difference between them and us is we have more players who think before they play, quicker. Education is the key. Players have had 10 or 12 years here. When you arrive at Barça the first thing they teach you is: think. Think, think, think. Quickly. [Xavi starts doing the actions, looking around himself.] Lift your head up, move, see, think. Look before you get the ball. If you’re getting this pass, look to see if that guy is free. Pum. First time.”
The ideology that Barcelona and Xavi employ is the ideology that Arsenal used to have, the one that Arsene Wenger both brought to the club and has now discarded from the club. There are elements of Barcelona within the Arsenal style right now: The element of touch-passing, of technique over brute strength, of loading the box and trying to attack fluidly. Those are all great building blocks for a successful side, but they aren’t truly an identity. Barcelona, as Barca winger Dani Alves said of his teammate Xavi, play “in the future.” That’s their identity. They don’t wait for the ball, they hunt relentlessly for open space, for room to operate in, for gaps in the defense, with the single-minded purpose of attacking the opponent. They are incessant in their pursuit of space. Not of the ball, not of goals, but of SPACE. It’s so brilliant in its simplicity, but it’s also so obvious that Arsenal don’t play like that.
A lot of it has to do with pure talent. Arsenal have cast aside some of the best and brightest footballers in the world in the past decade for squad players and inexperienced youngsters. It was motivated by the financial needs of the club and Wenger’s insistence that any player over 30 has one foot in the grave (I think Xavi would disagree). The “beautiful game” identity isn’t fundamental to the Arsenal style anymore. There are a lot of conflicts within each match: Players like Cesc and Nasri and Wilshere who want to attack and play with their heads up. Players like Arshavin and Theo Walcott who want to put their heads down and run at defenders. Players like Gael Clichy and Abou Diaby who appear to be stuck in limbo between attack and defense, good at both but not great at either. And then a whole host of players who seem like they shouldn’t even be wearing an Arsenal jersey.
“They make it easy,” Xavi said about his Barcelona teammates. “My football is passing but, wow, if I have Dani, Iniesta, Pedro, [David] Villa … there are so many options.”
But not so many at Arsenal. I’ve said that Wenger’s sole responsibility this summer is to dramatically renovate the squad. Not in bits and pieces, but with a chainsaw and an axe. Leave nothing but the core, the few players left on this club who fit the true identity of the club, and replace the rest with fresh, hungry, and capable blood. Wenger needs to re-establish his strategic identity at Arsenal—at every level of the club—the one that made him one of the world’s greatest managers, both in theory and in practice.
Arsenal is not simply a passing team, it is a team that flourishes in attack, that’s rampant in the counter-punch, that defends with speed and precision over brute strength and aggression, and that punishes every little mistake through unyielding possession and clinical execution. That is the Arsenal identity, the one that made this club feared around the world, and it’s time for Wenger to bring that back. And in order to do that, he has to bring in the right players. Don’t just look in the clearance bin; don’t worry about preserving a principled legacy of dumpster diving glory, find players who fit. If that means Arsenal fans have to wait another five years for those players to come through the academy and reserves, so be it, but make sure there’s a systemic identity coursing through the veins of the Arsenal family.
“Barcelona have a very clear style and not many footballers fit,” Xavi said. “It’s not easy. But Cesc fits it perfectly.”
I don’t believe Arsene Wenger is in awe of his team anymore. I don’t believe he sits bemused on the sideline watching his perfect machine execute on the brilliant program he’s written. He’s shown himself to be more frustrated and upset these past few years that anyone, including his own players, thought he’d ever be. I think it comes down to the loss of identity. Wenger is a philosopher, a pensive, introspective man, and he knows this Arsenal side, beyond a few spectacular outliers, lacks the talent and skill to implement his principal ideology. And he also knows that this club isn’t really a reflection of who he is and what he believes in anymore.
“Other teams win and they’re happy, but it’s not the same,” Xavi said. “The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football. You can do things really, really well – last year we were better than Inter Milan – but did not win. There’s something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy. Inter won the Champions League but no one talks about them.”
Wenger has tried to be flexible, he’s tried to put players in different roles, he’s tweaked his own ideologies and his squad to the point of rampant inconsistency, and that’s because he really does want to win. I haven’t given him the credit he deserves for that, and I haven’t considered the emotional toil he must feel for this existential crisis. But this is football, and it’s about results, and unless he can recollect the core identity of the club and bring in the right players to turn his philosophies into silverware, there’s no reason why Arsenal shouldn’t begin to think about the future.
“If you go two years without winning, everything has to change,” Xavi said. “But you change names, not identity. The philosophy can’t be lost.”