It’s sometimes stunning how fast things can change in soccer. It’s not the style, speed or level of player that truly dates the events but the players themselves. When Pep Guardiola's Barcelona beat Juande Ramos’ Real Madrid 6-2 in May of 2009, Arjen Robben was still at the capital club. Though to be fair, he looked as he does now. Sergio Ramos had long hair and played at fullback. Gonzalo Higuain had long hair. Lassana Diarra was starting. Iker Casillas was still one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure, and Dani Alves were happy at Barcelona and were yet to be mistreated. Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both made appearances for Los Merengues, and Royston Drenthe was on the bench.
Back then, which seems so long ago, Xavi was the best midfielder in the world.
After leaving Barcelona in 2015 and a few years of playing in Qatar, Xavi is retiring. The act of recollection often makes events sweeter than they really were. We remember how things felt, the wonder of it, rather than the details of the event and it’s easy to take that forge that feeling into a myth. So Xavi no longer becomes Xavi, but the romance of watching Xavi play. Highlights work in service of this by reducing performances to only the good, to an appearance of flawlessness.
Neither the myths or the highlights will show Xavi committing a foul because he was too slow to the ball. Marcelo may have dived as well. They won’t show how opposing players ran by Xavi as he lunged at the ball, not having the speed or agility to keep up with the dynamism of his opponents.
What would get lost in the condensing of events is how Xavi would mitigate his lack of athleticism with his reading of the game. There are too many non-events in soccer that are important, like the deterrence of an attack. Xavi scanning the field, knowing the available passes and shuffling into a lane to prevent a dangerous ball forward. So the midfielders can play the ball out wide or dribble past him and to a trap, rather than getting the ball into their forwards. Sometimes he would win the ball back with this knowledge of where a pass should go.
One of Xavi’s most famous performances came in that 6-2 win over Madrid.
For Barcelona’s third goal, Xavi dispossessed Diarra in Madrid’s defensive third. When Casillas pushed the ball in search of a pass, Xavi was some distance away from Diarra. But before the ball was played, he was sprinting towards his opponent, so that when Diarra received the ball, he had it poked away before he could take a second touch to turn.
What I really loved about watching Xavi was that he had a feel for the game that bordered on having a supernatural gift. He checked his shoulders obsessively, and maybe it’s because he seemed to do this more than anyone else that he could beat multiple defenders by checking to the ball and then letting it run past him and against their momentum. That he could a push to the side to beat a man completely, but it was more than what he did when faced against a defender. The game moved at whatever speed he wanted.
After Madrid scored their second goal, Xavi turned up the tempo. He started playing quick little exchanges with Andres Iniesta and Yaya Toure, trapping the Madrid players in tiring triangles. It looked like a training ground rondo game and it restored Barcelona’s confidence, keeping the ball away from Madrid when they should have been threatening again. Their moment passed because Xavi wanted it to.
Then he restored Barcelona’s dominance. Madrid had an attack that ended in Victor Valdes coming out and gathering a long through-ball right underneath the edge of his box. When the run of play started, Xavi was in the attacking third. When Valdes gathered the ball, Xavi was right in front of him to receive the ball. He took one touch, looked up, and played his own through-ball for Thierry Henry, who was on the shoulder and in the nightmares of Ramos at the time.
The ball was perfectly weighted and angled that it lured out Casillas, who could only clatter into Henry in an effort to stop the inevitable goal.
The fifth goal, Lionel Messi’s second, is great because Xavi showed off his signature move. Every player has a signature move, the habit that they fall back on to create space, beat an opponent or score a goal. Iniesta has his croquet; Zidane, the roulette; the Brazilian Ronaldo did a stepover with his right and went to the left; Robben cuts in and shoots; Toni Kroos takes a deep touch to lure in a defender then pushes the ball forward against their momentum; Kevin de Bruyne plays a hard low cross from the right; and Henry stands up his defender on the left wing before sending the ball past them and beating them with pace.
Xavi takes his opponents for a spin. Defenders get close, grab him, and he puts out his left hand while keeping the ball on his inside and rotating counterclockwise.
For the goal, Xavi was the highest Barcelona player. Even Samuel Eto’o, the striker, was deeper than him. Messi was underneath the midfielder and sent the ball to him for a give-and-go. When Xavi got the ball, the two centerbacks pounced on him. He spun them around and returned to where he was initially facing, except when he came back, he had their attention and the attention of the defender who should have tracked Messi’s run, leaving the Argentine free to run in on goal. It was like Xavi had hypnotized them, while buying time and space for his teammate. The pass went and Messi faked out Casillas to score.
The assists were superfluous. They are one of the parts of the game that can be tracked, but what Xavi did was make sure to set the foundation for Barcelona to succeed. He played at jogging speed, because it was never necessary for him to sprint. He was in the spaces that made it possible for everyone else to do their jobs well. If Iniesta or Messi were dribbling, he sagged behind them so that they could always find him, or if they lost the ball, it would fall to him. He took away passing angles and pushed opposing midfielders into Yaya Toure, and later Sergio Busquets.
When he was on the ball, the passes went to the right person and to the feet that allowed them to either go forward faster or get out of pressure more easily. It’s one thing to play a through-ball, it’s another to play one that forces the keeper out but that Henry would get to and have time to shape his shot.
What Xavi engineered was trust. There was an old video that showed how him and Iniesta were so linked that they made the same gestures on the field. When Xavi was at his best, he transmitted that to all of his teammates. His Barcelona were so devastating because it seemed like they didn’t have to look to pass the ball, everything moved so fluidly because players could touch the ball into space knowing that their teammate would be there, or on the way there. It was like one brain and soul divided into 11 bodies, and Xavi was the beating heart of it all.
Xavi could be annoying in his criticisms of grass height or other styles of play that weren’t Barcelona’s, but it may have been because of this dogmatism that he embodied the essence of pass and move better than anyone else I have ever seen. When he was on the field, the game had to run through him, and when he was at his best, Barcelona were undeniably the best team in the world.