With the ability to dictate games and control the tempo of them with consummate ease, Xavi effectively plays as the heartbeat of the greatest club side of the decade; it begs the question, is there a greater central midfielder in the world?
I’ll set my stall out straight away, he’s been my favourite player for around 5/6 years now and I admire the way he plays the game (perhaps a little too much for some of my friends). It’s fitting that Xavi is held in such high esteem nowadays, for the very qualities that we have come to hold dear and respect in his style of play have been present for over a decade now, it’s just that now with Barcelona having a better team, and people starting to wake up to the fact that he’ an integral part of the best national and club sides in the world for some time, he’s finally getting the overdue recognition he deserves. Barca keeper Victor Valdes can’t believe it either having said “He’s always been this good: it surprises it’s taken so long for people to discover him”.
We can all read into stats what we want, for one of football’s greatest aspects is that the sport is completely subjective, what one person sees another will not, or will even wholly disagree with. The role Michael Carrick plays for Man Utd will divide many, as will Heskey’s role for England and the countless refereeing decision up and down the country every weekend that spark such fervent debate, but let me just draw your attention to a few about Xavi, for it’s hard to argue against these.
Over both legs in the Champions League quarter final against Arsenal, Xavi alone had a pass completion rate of 93.9%, a staggering amount of completed passes, and out of his 244 passes, he only misplaced 15. Phenomenal. In last season’s entire Champions League campaign he had a pass completion record of 92% and completed 968 passes in total, his nearest challenger was Cesc Fabregas with 661, of which only 80% were accurate. He is not just confined to Europe either, last term he laid on 20 assists for his Barcelona team in the home comforts of La Liga, more than any other in the top five European leagues with the next highest being Sampdoria’s mercurial talent Antonio Cassano with 11. For the national side he’s equally proficient for during Spain’s friendly against Italy in 2008, Xavi had 105 completed passes in their 1-0 victory; the entire Italian national side had just 92. So that European, club and national football covered then.
He’s the metronome of Barcelona’s midfield, constantly probing, keeping things ticking over. As I said before, stats can be misleading and if used selectively, can be used to prove any argument, but it’s hard to question these. The sheer amount of chances Xavi lays on for his team shows he doesn’t just pass it sideways like a crab, a la Ray Wilkins or Lucas, they are match defining passes or even tournament defining ones such as the pass that led Torres goal in the European Championship Final. Without Iniesta they are less of a threat, sure, but without Xavi, they simply don’t play in the same manner or hold onto the ball in the same way, in short, they lose the very essence of what makes them Barcelona.
Much like has happened with Ryan Giggs, individual awards have been forthcoming, albeit much later than they should have been, except in Xavi’s case, the 30 year old actually deserves them now. Voted Euro 2008 player of the tournament, UEFA club’s best midfielder and 3rd place in last summer’s Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year Awards, he could perhaps even go one better this year.
To label Barcelona a one-man team, which many were doing after Messi’s exploits against Arsenal, is as frankly absurd as it is laughable. As Wenger alluded to in his post-match comments, Messi drifts in and out of the game, when he has the ball he is devastating to say the least, and the best player in the world undoubtedly (hopefully that will put an end to the silly argument about Rooney being the best player in the world now), but without Xavi he wouldn’t be anywhere near as dangerous. Ferguson said before last year’s Champions League final that “the way he finds passes; his movement and ability tio create space is incredible” before adding that he didn’t think central duo Xavi and Iniesta had “ever given the ball away in their lives”. It’s a hard point to argue.
There are other great central midfielders in the world, the likes of Iniesta, Essien, Pirlo, De Rossi and Alonso all have their pluses and are all world-class, but take them away from a side and although obviously to its detriment, would not noticeably entirely lose its ethos and style of play. With Xavi, Barcelona probably would.
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola once famously said in reference to both Xavi and Iniesta to Xavi that “One day you’ll retire me, but this kid (Iniesta) will retire us all”. But after playing in tandem with Xavi, and a tad further forward too, space has been found for both to be accommodated and they have developed into subtly different players. Iniesta has gone off the boil somewhat this term, disrupted by niggly injuries and indifferent form, but Xavi remains, and like any good metronome, keeps ticking away, quietly going about his way, picking sides off with ease.
What does everyone else think, is there a better exponent of the central midfield art than our fair Xavi?
Written by James McManus