Barcelona have won their first La Liga title in three years on the back of a historic defence, but their style of play has left something to be desired. When Xavi took over as manager, he talked about returning to the glorious football of old and playing in the “Barca way”. However, despite their success this season, Barcelona’s performances have been mostly drab and methodical.

Xavi’s side has been compared to a Jose Mourinho team rather than a Pep Guardiola one, and his inability to deliver on his promise of playing in the “Barca way” has left some fans disappointed. While the team’s results have been impressive, there is a sense that Xavi has not been able to fully capture the spirit and style of Barcelona’s past successes.

As Barcelona look to build for the future, it remains to be seen whether Xavi will be able to deliver on his promise of playing attractive, attacking football. While winning is important, the fans of Barcelona have come to expect a certain style of play, and Xavi will need to find a way to deliver on both fronts if he hopes to truly win over the hearts and minds of the Camp Nou faithful.

A strong spine

Xavi does have to be given some credit. Barcelona have lacked a cohesive identity for some time, and at the beginning of this campaign, looked to be far behind defending champions and great rivals, Real Madrid. In a battle of pure footballing quality, at least in the Spanish sense, Barcelona were always going to lose.

The manager has responded by adapting. He quickly realised that he cannot beat Madrid by trying to out-attack them. Instead, Barcelona are solid, difficult and pragmatic. They keep possession well, and have shown that they can play some eye-catching football in moments. But this is a team built on its strong spine and defensive excellence. The Blaugrana have only conceded two goals at home in La Liga all season, while goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has set the league record for clean sheets.

Sergio Busquets, meanwhile, has endured something of a revival. After spending 18 months tracking back in a state of defensive recovery purgatory, he has been allowed to play deeper. The soon-to-depart club captain is simply being asked to intercept, tackle and pass. These are the things that he is very good at.

The evolution of Gavi has certainly also helped. The reigning Golden Boy winner is a confusing player, mostly because he is the antithesis of the Barcelona legends he has been compared to. The midfielder has so easily been likened to the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but in reality, he’s more like a shrunken, technically advanced Pepe.

This is a player who flies into tackles, kicks opponents relentlessly, and spends 90 minutes being a pest. It makes for fascinating viewing, this buzzing presence being a complete nuisance. But it works, giving Barca a much-needed midfield bite.

Even Robert Lewandowski offers a previously-missing physicality up front, the 6’1 Poland striker is unafraid to use his lanky limbs to bully centre-backs.

Improvement in unexpected areas

Xavi’s appointment was met with optimism for what it could mean for the development of Barcelona’s attacking players. It figured to be key in the technical improvement of Gavi and Pedri, and perhaps revival of Frenkie de Jong’s languishing tenure. And while all three have undoubtedly become more complete players, it is in defensive areas — Xavi’s most obvious weakness as a player — that Barcelona have seen the most development.

The most obvious beneficiary is Ronald Araujo. The Uruguay centre-back always had the physical tools to be a top-tier defender, but his instincts and technical ability had often been questioned. A patchy injury record, expiring contract and often uncomfortable relationship with passing the ball only added to the jeopardy. But he has since penned a new deal, stayed fit, and, far more importantly, become a markedly more composed player.

Araujo is, by this point, comfortably one of the best in his position in Europe. His pace and athleticism make him able to deal with a more direct game, while his ever-improving distribution has been him become far more press-resistant than in his early Barca tenure. There was always potential here – Xavi has just unlocked it.

The same can be said for Andreas Christensen. A player who Chelsea were willing to let go, Christensen has turned from a speculative free-agent signing to a keystone of this Barcelona back four. He certainly benefits from Araujo’s defensive presence, but his complementary passing ability helps balance the duo with aplomb.

There are, admittedly, some issues at the back. Youngster Alejandro Balde, so eager to get forward, is often susceptible to counter-attacks. Jules Kounde, a makeshift right-back, is often uncomfortable at the position — something he has openly acknowledged. Still, this is a back four, with Ter Stegen behind it, that has shown it is capable of winning a league.

Unrealiable going forward

It is not necessarily a great betrayal of the club ethos to be good at the back. Barcelona have fielded some memorable defensive units over the years, and have been home to some of the best centre-backs in football history.

But the Blaugrana aren’t legendary for their ability to keep the ball out. The renewed global interest in the club brought about by Lionel Messi prime years and Guardiola’s revolution was based on the principle of sublime attacking football. That’s a burden that every Barcelona manager, including Xavi, has to deal with. It is, after all, impossible to recreate Messi-ball without Messi.

As such, Xavi has tried to build a Barca attack in his own image. The results have been underwhelming. The arrival of Lewandowski last summer, in fact, saved what would have otherwise been a tepid attack.

There is a formula here. The Blaugrana rely on the one-on-on trickery of Ousmane Dembele for goals and service out wide. They can also count on Pedri and De Jong to thread line-breaking passes. And even though Lewandowski has not matched the goalscoring rate that he set at Bayern Munich, his movement and finishing ability is still elite.

But there are flaws, too. Barcelona lack a creative presence in the middle, and are often devoid of ideas when faced with the kind of low blocks that teams tend to deploy against them. There is also a lack of cohesion on the left wing. Although Balde makes plenty of lung-busting runs, he is yet to establish a true connection with either Lewandowski or whichever central midfielder Xavi employs on that side. On the right, Kounde is simply unable to offer much of an attacking option; he is still very much a central defender at heart.

The result is a handful of low-scoring but comfortable affairs. Barcelona have won 14 La Liga games by one goal this season; they average fewer than two goals per game; and they have consistently scraped wins against bottom-half clubs. In short, they are a convincing side on the defensive end, but immensely uncertain at the other.

The solution?

The natural response has been to turn where most of those associated with the club have turned to for the past two years. There is a real chance that Messi will be available to sign this summer, and despite the near-impossible financial task of creating space for his salary, it is possible that the World Cup winner could be playing at Camp Nou once again next season.

And going after the best of all time to solve arguably Barca’s biggest issue makes sense. Indeed, it is a logical reaction to bring in arguably the best creative player the game has ever seen to soothe one’s attacking woes.

But it is not, as Paris Saint-Germain have found, all that simple. Messi alone is no longer a guaranteed net positive as a player, especially in a side that already has its own collection of egos and personal priorities. He can, and will, do wonderful things, but it would require sacrifices of those around him.

It is impossible, then, to piece together Xavi’s allegedly pre-assembled tactical puzzle. And while the manager is a shrewd tactician, there is no obvious way to ensure balance while adding Messi to Barcelona’s current attacking threats. There is every chance, then, that Messi will offer a spark, but that will certainly come to the detriment of others.

The quality of football here is hard to predict. Still, there is no guarantee that Messi make Barcelona better as a whole — or even more watchable.

Next year?

But Barcelona will surely gamble on Messi’s influence. If they can make his signature happen, they are expected to do so.

Still, the Blaugrana now face the daunting prospect of other teams improving around them. Real Madrid are on the brink of signing Jude Bellingham, and more players might soon follow. Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Fede Valverde all figure to improve, too. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid appear to have found form in the second half of the season and should be a far trickier side to play next year.

So, the Blaugrana have to improve. This has been an excellent season, a title-winning campaign, one that has brought stability to a club starved of success and on the brink of financial ruin. Xavi has delivered on his first mandate and brought a major trophy to Camp Nou.

But his second task, his promise of fluid, identifiably Barcelona football, is nowhere near being completed. And that could be a real problem.

For now, Barca are pretty boring to watch, and their current style, their lack of attacking bite and swagger, is unsustainable. If they don’t find the Barca DNA that Xavi insisted he embodied, the Blaugrana might not be on top for long.

By Lylla

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