Managing the decline of an aging superstar is one of the trickiest things a club has to do. After a certain age, it is almost impossible to predict when a player’s level will drop off significantly, and the decline often happens slowly, almost imperceptibly. The coach may notice in training, but when the graying star pulls off a vintage performance in a match, the chorus is always the same: “See? He’s still got it!”
Navigating this decline becomes even harder when the player in question has become a living embodiment of the club. A revolutionary player that led the way for the greatest club and national team of all time. This is the case of Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona.
It is impossible to overstate Xavi’s importance to Barça and Spain. No one has worn the blaugrana shirt more times than Xavi, and nobody has better personified Barça’s particular style of play than the little genius from Terrassa. Along with Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, he is the most important figure in the history of the club. In fact, he’s probably the most important player in the history of Spanish soccer.
His potential was apparent very early on. After leading the Spanish national team to the U-20 World Cup title in 1999 he was anointed to be Guardiola’s successor at the center of Barça’s midfield. But his earliest years coincided with a dark period for the club, which floundered under the disastrous leadership of Joan Gaspart. It wasn’t until Frank Rijkaard managed to take the club out of the wilderness that Xavi flourished.
In the run up to the 2008 European Championships, Luis Aragonés decided to build the Spanish national team around Xavi, implementing a radical new style of play based on possession. The decision helped Spain end a 44-year trophy drought, and Xavi was named best player of the tournament. Nearly 10 years after bursting onto the scene as a teenager, Xavi was now a bona fide force in world soccer.
Over the next four years, Xavi’s Barcelona won everything there is to win under his coach and predecessor Guardiola. Soccer fans around the world marveled at a player who never seemed to make a mistake, who could impose his will on an opponent with his ability to protect the ball under pressure and manage the pace of play with his passing. Xavi knew exactly when to speed it up, when to slow it down, when to give up on building an attack and start over again. He could not only read the game but execute as well, making the killer pass (see video below) over and over again. Spain would go on to win its first World Cup in South Africa, and in 2012, won its third consecutive major tournament by repeating as European Champions, an unprecedented accomplishment in modern soccer.
In the last three years, however, Xavi’s performances have at times been less impactful. Tito Vilanova decided it was time to shift the weight of Barça’s play away from Xavi and towards Leo Messi. Xavi’s fitness suffered and he was unable to dominate as before. He still had moments of brilliance, as in the Euro 2012 final against Italy. But those displays have become less and less frequent.
Now, after Barça’s annus horribilis under Tata Martino, the question of what to do with Xavi has become one of the most important issues facing new manager Luis Enrique (who happens to be a former teammate of the player). Last summer, Barcelona lost Thiago Alcantara, who many considered Xavi’s heir, to Bayern Munich. Had Alcantara played 30 more minutes in the 2012–13 season under Vilanova, his release clause would have risen to 90 million Euro. Instead, it was 25 million and, frustrated by the lack of playing time, he decided to leave.
Cesc Fàbregas, another player who was brought in to eventually take the role, hasn’t quite been able to establish himself in the center of midfield. In fact, there are strong rumors that the club is considering whether to sell him. Cesc is in many ways a very different player: more marauding, less disciplined than Xavi, whose trademark is precision, control.
How Luis Enrique chooses to proceed with or without Xavi will define his first months at the helm of Barcelona. The fundamental questions is whether he will phase out the midfielder but maintain the essence of Xavi’s play in the Barça’s system, or instead take the club in an entirely different direction. Lately, there have been rumors that Juventus’ Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal could come to the Camp Nou. Both players are world class but the addition of either would mark a significant departure from the style of play that Xavi has imposed in the last decade.
The upcoming World Cup looks like the beginning of the end of Xavi as an important international player. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque may be designing a reduced role for him in favor or younger players like Atlético Madrid’s Koke. Even if that is the case, Spain will only succeed this summer if the team can stay true to Xavi’s idea of how to play soccer.