There’s no hiding, not after yesterday. Not after Barcelona, just months ago the biggest figure of fun in world soccer, waltzed into the Bernabeu, and kicked eight different kinds of shit out Madrid to the tune of 4-0. It could have been 8-0 or 10-0. It probably should have been 5-0 or 6-0. This was probably a bigger slice of rubbing a team’s ass in the moonshine than anything the Messi-era Barça had produced in Madrid. Yeah, Madrid contributed to their own destruction by having their give-a-fuck meter decidedly at zero. But it wouldn’t have mattered. Without Karim Benzema, who apparently has been carrying an Atlas-like weight when he’s on the field, Madrid were chum.
And you can thank me. I did this. I did this when I wrote this. I guess I’m flattered that Pierre-Americk Aubameyang reads this site. I motherfucked Barcelona. Just like I did the Canadiens last spring.
Is it the height of arrogance to claim dominion over Barça’s turnaround ahead of Xavi, the new manager, who has lost one match since the second week of December? It may look that way, but that is just the power of the motherfuck. But let’s cede the stage to Xavi for a bit, and try to figure out how he’s completely revitalized a moribund team that still might only contain one or two world-class players (and one of those is in goal).
While Xavi is seen as the symbol of Barça’s and Spain’s tiki-taka excellence from the previous decade, that’s not exactly what he’s doing now that he’s in the driver’s seat. Although he is taking a page from Barcelona overlord Pep Guardiola. As was on perfect display yesterday, Xavi has Barça in a 4-3-3 that looks a lot like Manchester City’s. In the front-three, Xavi has been able to resuscitate Ousmane Dembélé’s career on the right, where he stays as wide as possible and uses his speed. So does Ferran Torres on the other side, who just happened to be imported from City. With those two forwards staying wide and stretching a defense, those half-spaces between and in front of opposing fullbacks and centerbacks are wide open for midfielders Frenkie De Jong and Pedri, or Gavi on other days, to charge into and run wild. Barça end up with that front-five when they have the ball that City use to turn opponents into dust.
And this is Spain, where no one plays with any pace. No one presses. Barely anyone ever sprints. WIth speed demons like Dembélé or Torres or Adama Traore on the wings, no one in Spain really has the players to deal with such speed on the wings. And defenders Gerard Pique, Eric Garcia, or Sergio Busquets, under no pressure, can ping passes out wide to those wingers.
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The speed problem for everyone apparently spreads to midfield, too. The Madrid midfield has been using a walker for a couple years now, but because the play in Spain is so slow, it hasn’t cost them. Until yesterday that is, where De Jong and Pedri were happy to sprint past Toni Kroos and Casemiro with impudence and glee, to the point where they’d so scarred Kroos he had to be hauled off at halftime.
All of it has turned Aubameyang into some sort of Hulk-Ares mash-up, as he’s got nine goals in 11 games with Barça since he turned up at the end of January. He had two goals yesterday, and probably should have had three or four. Are there marks of his original Arsenal heater that he couldn’t repeat and probably can’t sustain now? Of course. He’s not going to get 65 percent of his shots on target for the rest of his career. He’s not going to score on 54 percent of his shots on-target either. The 35 percent of his shots that are going in is high as well, though it mirrors the 32 percent rate he managed in his first season in North London.
What is eye-popping is that his shots and shots-on-target per 90 minutes have nearly doubled in Spain. Again, the step down in speed in Spain is soma to a pacey forward like Aubameyang, even in his 30s. The entire structure of playing the entire width of the field and having midfielders join in support is built to funnel the ball to a forward like Aubameyang. But hey, you gotta get there and you gotta finish when you do.
Xavi’s run as manager has been nothing short of glorious. The plus-23 goal-difference since he took over is good enough for second in La Liga by itself. They’re plus-18.2 expected GD under just Xavi would also be good for second on its own. That’s just in 17 league games
Beyond the numbers, he’s been able to find something within Dembélé that the club had been searching for for four years. Some of that is health, some of that is playing for a new contract either with Barcelona or elsewhere, but Xavi has been able to get Dembélé’s head in the game in a way no one else has whether or not he has his bags packed. Torres was very much on the fringe at City and is now central to Barça. De Jong had only flashed brilliance in his two previous seasons there, until Xavi carved out all this space for him.
The win is obviously more foundational for Barça than it is destructive for Madrid. The latter is still going to walk to the league title, though that might be more a commentary on the state of La Liga than anything else. It certainly puts a different light on their chances against Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals, as the English side are no less packed with direct, fast wingers than Barça are. This has always been the story with Carlo Ancelotti managed teams. When they face an organized, quick, and pressing team, his go-out-and-play leanings tend to get exposed when the talent gap is neutralized.
For next year and going forward? There are few landmark games, but it’s hard to see La Liga’s quality jumping up that much in one summer. And Barça will add, no matter the bookkeeping antics and wheel poses it will take (AS spouting of Mo Salah rumors in 3… 2… 1…). But if Xavi can rouse this from a team of good but few great players (De Jong and Pedri would be in the latter, Aubameyang only moonlights as one from time to time), Barça’s prospects are that much brighter. Especially while still maintaining Champions League income.
As for Madrid, none of this was really news. The midfield needed an overhaul long before they were turned to rubble on Sunday. Mbappe will certainly greatly aid Vinicius Jr. and Benzema, but Benzema is going to be 35 next year. How much longer can he maintain this level? It’s pretty safe to say Madrid will not have an easy stroll to the title next year, even if that’s the only pace they can play at.