On October 2, Barcelona went to the top of La Liga with a win in their seventh fixture of the 2022/23 campaign. Just a few years ago, them doing so would barely have raised an eyebrow; it isn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary for the Catalan club to be top of the league. However, in October they made headlines because it was the first time in 833 days – a total of 91 fixtures – that they had gone top.
Xavi Hernández, who arrived at Camp Nou in November 2021, has been gradually building a new team in his identity. With a handful of big-name signings in the 2022 summer transfer window, including Robert Lewandowski, Jules Koundé and Andreas Christensen, he has reinvented Barcelona on the pitch and taken the club back to where many would have you believe they belong.
Barcelona are back in the hunt for major titles. They won the Spanish Super Cup in January and now, having racked up 53 points after 20 games in 2022/23, they are in contention to win their first league title since 2018/19. In this mid-season report, we have picked out five key tactics introduced by Xavi that have helped take the club top of the table.
Immediately after joining Barcelona, Xavi appeared to place great importance on his wingers consistently holding the team’s width, but this has changed over time. He still wants his team to have plenty of width, and on the right flank that is provided the winger – Ousmane Dembélé or Raphinha. On the left, however, he asks the left-back to push high up the pitch. Alejandro Balde or Jordi Alba do this job, and Xavi instead fields a fourth central midfielder on the left side of attack. Pedri or Gavi usually alternate in this position depending on the opposition, while the other plays in central midfield. This is similar to the role that Andrés Iniesta played for a time at Barcelona, when alongside Xavi in the team.
The left-sided midfielder starts on the flank but moves inside to create a four-player square in the centre of the pitch (below), which overloads most opponents’ central midfield. They will also move out to the left when the ball is over there, to create overloads alongside Balde or Alba. In other words, one of Pedri or Gavi operates as a false winger who converts into a number 10 to receive between the lines, turn, and provide a killer pass or get into the box to provide a goal threat.
Winning the midfield battle is an obsession for Xavi. With this midfield box, his Barcelona have consistently achieved his aim this season. The quality and versatility of the four players who make up the square – Pedri and Gavi are joined by Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong – gives them absolute control of possession in the centre of the pitch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barcelona average the highest possession in La Liga this season.
Although Xavi’s Barcelona line up in a 4-3-3 on paper, De Jong and Busquets often appear to play like a double pivot that gives the team great balance both with and without the ball. Busquets has benefited from having De Jong alongside him; when he played as a single pivot in years gone by, Barcelona were too often exposed on the counter-attack. With De Jong lining up alongside Busquets when the opposition have the ball, Barcelona are much more effective at forcing play wide. Both players also do good work in breaking up play, as well as competing for second balls after a centre-back has won the first contact.
This shape also benefits the team when they have the ball. The two number sixes rotate positions, creating passing lines from defence into midfield and between one another (above), allowing Barcelona to progress play fluidly through the centre of the pitch. The presence of two sixes helps attract the opposition's press, freeing up Pedri and Gavi further forwards.
Since his arrival at Barcelona, Xavi has used Dembélé frequently – and this vote of confidence has been repaid by the French international on the pitch. On the left flank, Barcelona attack with the left-back combining with Gavi and/or Pedri. On their right, by contrast, the team aims to create space and isolate Dembélé against an opponent, where they can make use of his speed. A natural winger, he is capable of attacking around the outside or cutting in to shoot with his left.
Barcelona's best weapon this season has often been crowding another area of the pitch and then getting the ball to Dembélé when he is one-on-one against an opponent. That is where his speed and ability to beat a player make him so useful, and Xavi’s Barcelona have been very successful in creating and exploiting these situations. There are few players with the Frenchman's ability on the ball, and under Xavi he has become more than just an alternative in Barcelona's squad.
Dembélé has had so much success thanks in part to the players behind him. Ronald Araújo and Koundé are both centre-backs with experience at right-back. As right-backs, both are comfortable staying connected to the centre-backs and rarely joining attacks. This can sometimes leave Dembélé isolated but, crucially, it means the opposition’s winger feels less need to retreat. This in turn means Dembélé is more likely to be left in one-on-one situations against his opponent (above).
Although Barcelona certainly don’t play on the counter-attack, Dembélé’s presence in the team gives them real threat with quick transitions after the ball is won back. With space on the right and the Frenchman's direct threat, it is common to see Xavi's team win the ball back and quickly move the ball out to the right to start an attack.
Centre-forward Lewandowski is often the first player the team looks for with a pass, which can drag a defender towards the ball. A ball can then be launched into the resulting space for Dembélé to chase. He is extremely effective when the opposition’s defence has been disrupted slightly and players are out of position. So far, he has had a great season in a team set up to get the most from him.
Barcelona’s incredible defensive record was not something many people would have expected from Xavi’s team this season. They have let in just seven goals in their first 20 league games of 2022/23 – an average of only 0.3 per game – and their solid defence is catapulting them towards the title.
The signings of Koundé and Christensen, the emergence of Balde and the improvement made by Araújo have rejuvenated a back line that, at the start of the season, still included older players in Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba.
Araújo’s rise has been particularly important. He has become a key player in Xavi's team, whether in his natural position at centre-back or playing at right-back to deal with a specific opponent. His speed, aerial play and ability on the ball are all proving crucial to Barcelona’s watertight defence.
Koundé has adapted brilliantly to Xavi's approach with the ball, having only joined in the summer but swiftly looking perfectly at home. He provides extra energy and defensive intensity, and his turn of pace helps Barcelona remain confident in their high defensive line (above). This high line increases the ability of the team to press high and win the ball in the opposition’s half.
Marc-André ter Stegen has also improved in the Barcelona goal. His passing helps Xavi’s team build up in exactly the manner the manager wants, but he is also back to his best in the more typical goalkeeping he has to do. He has made several saves that have almost directly earned Barcelona points, while he sweeps up effectively – another reason Barcelona can play with such a bold high line.
Lewandowski's presence as the focal point of Barcelona’s attack has given another dimension to the team. Xavi wanted a complete striker who was capable of receiving between the lines to help knit together his team’s attacks, but also someone with a penalty-box presence and goalscoring instinct. With his brilliant movement, perfect understanding of his role and deadly eye for goal, Lewandowski has played the role Xavi wants almost to perfection.
Most of Barcelona’s moves end with a shot for Lewandowski – or, at least, that is the intention. He is capable of finishing off one touch with great precision, and the width provided by Balde or Alba on the left and Dembélé on the right has led to more crosses for Lewandowski to attack.
Xavi has introduced a series of patterns in his team's play, with the Polish striker playing a key role in how Barcelona construct moves. These often involve a direct ball played up to the striker, who drops into midfield to receive and finds a third-man run – usually made by a number eight. This has proved a highly effective route out from the back when Barcelona are faced with a high press.
These five key components, added to the confidence that Xavi has transmitted to his players, have seen Barcelona return to a lofty position in La Liga. There is still more potential in this team, and also room for more growth. After a few difficult seasons at Camp Nou, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
To learn more about football tactics and gain insights from coaches at the top of the game, visit CV Academy
Author: The Coaches' Voice