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The present and future of Barcelona, de-Xavi'd

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There's not doubt Xavi Hernandez makes Barcelona better, but with the midfielder having missed that last couple weeks with a hamstring injury, it got me thinking about how different Barca look statistically with him on the pitch.

David Ramos

Xavi Hernandez's recent hamstring injury has given us a chance to view this current Barcelona side without their wizardly midfield maestro. At the age of 33 there's no doubt that Xavi still has a few good years left but we all know there are more years behind him than in front of him...probably. This brings up an interesting question: What will this Barcelona team be like once Xavi decides to hang up his boots, or is forced into a secondary role by injury or a drop in productivity?

I decided to crunch the numbers from this season and try to get some idea of how Barca fared statistically with Xavi and without him. I also threw in the matches in which he was a second-half substitute for good measure.

Before I get into the data, it's important to preface this information with a couple of notes. Barcelona have played 39 matches so far in the 2012/13 season. Xavi has started 29 matches and been brought on as a substitute in four matches. This means that what I'm about to discuss is not written in stone; it's simply a quick view and what we could possibly expect in the future when Xavi is no longer a first choice starter or has retired.

Please don't go crazy running around the Internet telling your soccer loving friends that Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura should be benching Xavi because of some stats you read about on SB Nation. This is just for fun, a chance for us to see if Barcelona are growing accustomed to, or if they're already capable of, playing without Xavi. It's an important question both long term and in the short term as Xavi's status for Wednesday's Champions League match against Milan is still up in the air. Hamstrings are tricky things and he could end up missing more games. There are two more editions of El Clasico on the horizon as well.

Alright, enough preface, let's look at the numbers.

Games Played Goals Per Game Possession%/Game Shots on Target/Game Shot Attempts/Game
with Xavi 29 2.93 67.3 6.3 13.9
without Xavi 6 3.16 67.1 8 17
Xavi subbed in 4 2.75 65.5 8.25 14.25

Based on this information we can see one immediate difference between a Barcelona that starts the game with Xavi versus one that doesn't have him for the entire match, or at all. They shot more. A lot more.

Without Xavi, Barcelona averages nearly two more shots on target per game and just over four attempts more per game. Given the small sample size and the quality of the opponents in the matches without Xavi, this could be an anomaly, but it could also show us that there is a difference in how Barcelona goes about their play without Xavi controlling things in the midfield. There's nothing truly concrete here, but it's something to think about.

The possession numbers are only slightly lower without Xavi, which means that Barca's ball control system appears to function just fine without him.

In the past two league games since Xavi's injury, Vilanova and Roura have put 21-year-old Thiago Alcântara into Xavi's midfield role. Both games have seen Barcelona record over 70 percent possession and double-digit shot attempts. They've also scored eight goals.

Does that mean that Thiago is the long-term answer to replacing Xavi? Probably not. It seems more likely that if Xavi were gone long term, we'd see Andres Iniesta move back into the midfield playing alongside Cesc Fàbregas. Cesc has been the consistent choice to play alongside Xavi this season, a position he's thrived in.

It's nice to have so many options.

Here's few more facts about Xavi's impact this season:

  • All three of Barcelona's losses occurred in games that Xavi started.
  • Barcelona have been outshot in eight matches this season. Xavi started six of those games, subbed in one and did not play in one.
  • Barcelona failed to score in only one game this season (12/5/12, vs. Benfica). Xavi did not play in the game.
Take that information how you will, but for the moment I think it's safe to say that Barcelona are perfectly capable in the short term of dealing with life without Xavi. Not having him around would be a blow, but there's no doubt in my mind that Barca would quickly adapt and barely miss a beat.

For more on the Cules, head over to FC Barcelona blog Barca Blaugranes.