Barcelona blow out Real Madrid; Xavi hire train


Barcelona will not win La Liga. You’re already out of the Champions League.

In that second, they shouldn’t care.

Barca defeated Real Madrid 4-0 in Sunday’s El Clásico at the Santiago Bernabeu, their first victory over their bitter rivals in a competition in more than three years. The visitors tore Real Madrid to pieces, gratefully accepting the space that remained after the indecisiveness as Real Madrid struggled to organize without star striker Karim Benzema, who missed the game with a calf injury, leading their formation.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the opening goal in the 29th minute, set up by a cross from Ousmane Dembélé’s brilliant 1-on-1 game at the outside goal, a goal that basically fell all game. Ronald Araújo doubled the lead less than 10 minutes later with a free header. Then Ferran Torres opened the second half with a third goal to erase any comeback hopes. Then Aubameyang scored again to turn embarrassment into agony.

Barca were ready from the start, unfazed by the moment and the opposition.

How much Xavi Hernández of them.

In early November, when Barcelona hired the club legend as manager after a protracted game, the whole idea felt more like fanfiction than reality, didn’t it? Barca floundered in his first season after Lionel Messi, a downward trend that stretched back years, and needed a nudge in the right direction.

No one disputes the legacy of Xavi, maestro of Barcelona’s 21st century revival, as one of the greatest midfielders of all time. All disputed his credentials after spending barely 100 games in less than 30 months as manager of Al Sadd, the Qatari club where he also spent the evening of his playing career. He won seven trophies with a team structured to lead a relatively young league (that’s their nickname, literally).

However, perhaps it is time to look at these achievements a little differently. That Xavi came in and didn’t screw up the operation seems to say some. What he’s doing now with Barcelona says even more.

Xavi guided Barcelona to a 4-0 win over Real Madrid in Sunday’s El Clásico, their first victory in the rivalry in more than three years. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Barca have won 11, drawn four and lost just once in La Liga since Xavi took over. All is not rosy; Real Madrid are already too far away at the top of the league to be caught. Also, Xavi oversaw the last two games that sealed Barca’s relegation from the Champions League, losing his first Clásico in the Spanish Super Cup in mid-January.

However, as The Athletic’s superb John Muller illustrated, that loss showed just how much both Barcelona and Xavi had grown in a short space of time. He still favored a 4-3-3, but it bore little resemblance to the formation he ruled from the center of his park during his playing days. No, in this setup the mid-mids work like auxiliary bats; and the wingers stretch the field with their skills to win over a defender when they gain possession and another once they snag the first; and the team thunders backward in transition as much as it thunders forward, often because the full-back positions that the rest of the world likes to shoot up remain in safe, reverse cover in this system.

In a way, manager Xavi resembles midfielder Xavi. Everything comes from his vision. He sees more than what is, he sees what can be. The game is constantly evolving, and so is Xavi. He’s not content to loiter around with the same tactical mind he had as a player. He’s looked at where the sport is and more importantly, where it’s going. For years, Barcelona failed to stem a downward trend by throwing the coaching job at the remnants of their own ideology. In a fit of inextinguishable irony, one of the remnants appears poised to save her.

Xavi thought he could but didn’t rush into it. He reportedly turned down Barca’s first offers with less than a year of coaching experience. Maybe one of the reasons was more time to grow. His name would only get him so far while instilling discipline, overhauling strategy and wiping the slate clean of an entire dressing room of high-paying players. It’s not easy, regardless of your iconography.

But it’s a task he’s conveyed with aplomb so far at the Nou Camp. Players are buying in all over the pitch, from decorated veterans who played with Xavi like Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, to the youngsters tasked with bringing Barcelona back to the top of the sport. The most recent transfer window already seems to be a success as Aubameyang, Torres and freight forward Adama Traoré arrive from the Premier League. Each player has a role, a place in the puzzle, a piece of sight in the vision.

So unless Barcelona lift the La Liga trophy or the Champions League trophy in Paris in May, remember: they’re not at the point of their rebuild yet. Everything else is ahead of schedule.

The attitude everyone saw coming works like few.

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