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Xavi Hernández

Al-Sadd, 2019–

If Pep Guardiola was considered the long-term successor to the late, great Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, there are those who hope that Xavi Hernández will prove his. The retired midfielder, who while in Spain won not only numerous Spanish Ligas, Copas del Rey and Champions Leagues, but the World Cup and two European Championships, was reported to have rejected an offer to succeed Ernesto Valverde before Quique Setién’s appointment, believing the time not to be right.

He is regardless expected to be in contention whenever the time comes for Setién to depart, and by when he will have significantly more managerial experience, having accepted his first role in the position in May 2019 at Qatar Stars League club Al-Sadd, who he joined in 2015 when he finally left Barca. Equally significant are the influences he has had. Joan Vila, a mentor at Barca, is prominent among them. “He knows more about ‘Cruyffism’ than Johan Cruyff himself,” Xavi once said of Vila. “A scholar who instilled in us a new way of understanding the game.”

Playing style
Xavi’s faith in attacking football is underpinned by the belief that the longer a team has possession, the closer to victory it will remain, but he respects other approaches and has demonstrated an understanding that, during matches, his team needs to be able to adapt. Al-Sadd have so far largely been organised into a 4-3-3 formation that has occasionally become a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 while they have defended.

If their opponents favour pressing with two strikers, Xavi’s team will remain in a 4-3-3; if they press with one, they will adopt a 4-2-3-1 to create a double pivot that means that they can consistently offer an additional number behind the opponent applying the press. During the first phases of build-up play, their two central defenders adopt wide positions to encourage their full-backs to advance beyond those in central midfield.

To that end, their two midfielders, Gabi and Tae-heui Nam, are often targeted by their goalkeeper if a passing line to those full-backs isn’t available, because it is then that they can then instead receive possession with increased time and space. Gabi, Xavi’s compatriot, is particularly influential; the responsibility for Al Sadd’s attacking and defensive balance is largely his; he is the first player their defenders attempt to play possession to, and he often dictates their collective tempo.

In the attacking half Akram Afif, once of Villarreal and Sporting de Gijón, is similarly influential, owing to the individual quality that contributes to him beating opposing defenders (below), providing assists, and scoring. Switches of play, mostly between their full-backs, are also used to stretch and test opponents and, should their attempts to advance possession via shorter passes continue to be resisted, they often play directly to central attacker Baghdad Bounedajh.

Pressing and defending
As did Barca, Al Sadd attack and defend as a team; their positional game demands that they quickly reorganise after losses of possession and again attempt to recover it. A high press is initially applied if they are close to their opponents’ goal, and a second phase prepares for if those attempts don’t succeed. That high press involves their attacking line attempting to direct pressure and adopting positions between opponents to discourage passes between central defenders, or the build-up of play via full-backs.

Should the opponent succeed in advancing beyond the first line of that press, those further back – led by Nam Tae and Gaby – instead engage. It is when opponents move both beyond the first phase of their build-up play and advance beyond the halfway line that their 4-3-3 becomes a 4-1-4-1 (below) intended to restrict passing lines and the progress those opponents have been making. When possession is regained, they are equally prepared to launch an attack, through their spatial awareness and the positions they adopt.

That Xavi was also close to the late Luis Aragonés, and worked under Louis van Gaal and in successful teams led by Frank Riijkard and Vicente del Bosque, before those particularly successful years with Guardiola, can perhaps also be detected in his start to management. He prioritises communicating with his players in a one-on-one environment, ultimately in his pursuit of managing their personalities and their training sessions. He considers his squad’s sense of emotional important, believing it can make a significant difference at the highest level, and to the extent that it is as much a consideration as their technical ability, tactical awareness, and physical conditioning.

“Pep has made us all better,” Xavi said of Guardiola, who was also a predecessor in Barca’s midfield. “He teaches you the reasons for everything; he communicates a lot. Besides, his understanding of the game is Barcelona’s way. He has been the most influential person in world football in recent years.”

Xavi Hernández

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