As sad as it is, the end of Xavi Hernandez’s glorious career at Barcelona is coming sooner rather than later. Although nothing official has been announced, and Xavi himself denies it, speculation suggests the Spanish maestro will spend his twilight years in sun-soaked Qatar or stateside in Major League Soccer.
If that is the case, a hole will be left in Barcelona’s squad; the perfectionist who defined an era of domination for club and country will be missed.
The search for a replacement within the club’s famous youth academy, La Masia, may yield few, if any, results and with a transfer ban imposed on Barca this summer, it prohibits millions from being spent on an immediate successor.
That doesn’t mean auditions for the Xavi role will be cancelled altogether and on Tuesday Barca won’t have to look far at one potential replacement; he’ll be on the pitch against them for Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Camp Nou.
Marco Verratti’s rise as one of the best young midfielders in Europe has been marked as it has been rapid. The Italian is no stranger to Culés having stood out in nearly all of the recent fixtures between the sides. Two years ago at the same stage in the Champions League, his performance at Camp Nou was outstanding.
At just 20, he bossed the midfield, breaking up the home side’s play, denying his Barca counterparts space and time; it was the performance that put him on the map. In December 2014, he was excellent once again, displaying his qualities on and off the ball and in the reverse group fixture the previous month, he managed to get on the scoresheet in a 3-2 win.
Last week, the Parisians could have done with the suspended Verratti’s tenacity and enthusiasm but were second best in the middle of the park, lacking the intensity needed to beat Luis Enrqiue’s side. It’s a tall order for PSG to turn around a 3-1 deficit but Verratti will undoubtedly be going all out to provide the spark that gives them a glimmer of hope.
The search for balance between a controlled-based and direct style has been somewhat achieved by ‘Lucho’ Enrique since the turn of the year but has come with much controversy. Accusations of discarding the philosophy that gives Barcelona identity has upset many fans and still presents problems on the pitch.
It’s become increasingly clear that this is a team of the forwards who need to be given the ball as quickly as possible with Barca happy to entertain a ‘toe-to-toe’ approach which means there’s no room for Xavi.
Despite a terrific run of form in 2015 which has seen Barca win 22 from 25 matches, when the midfield is put under pressure, games become hectic which makes the team shaky.
Look no further than the Sevilla clash a fortnight ago, despite being in cruise control at 2-0, after conceding on the stroke of half-time, the league leaders spent the entire second half struggling to marry control with attacking intent. Xavi was subbed on with 15 minutes remaining to wrestle back the initiative but to no avail as the Andalusians netted a late equaliser.
Even in the first leg, between goals one and two, a similar negativity creeped into Barca’s play which made them vulnerable. This time when Xavi was introduced, proceedings slowed down to the Catalans’ advantage.
A young, fresh and positive midfielder with the Xavi profile is what Barca need to execute both styles on the pitch, offering some versatility they could do with. Verratti fits that mold.
While the 22-year-old won’t follow directly in Xavi’s footsteps or even build a legacy that will stand the test of time, he is the ideal candidate to fill the void that will be left by Xavi’s departure. He possesses qualities similar to Barca’s club captain; he takes on the responsibility of dictating games, increasing or slowing the tempo with his passing and technique – taking control.
He plays 86.8 passes per league game according to WhoScored with a pass completion rate of 91.2 per cent a game, that’s higher than Xavi, Paul Pogba and Koke in both respects, plus he plays more accurate short passes than all three by some way (74.4).
In his 27 matches in Ligue 1, Verratti has five assists and contributes 1.2 key passes a game, although he does fall slightly behind than the other three when it comes to this category. Given Barca’s shift to a direct style, a key stat that sticks out is the number of long balls each player makes per game – Xavi in his 25 league appearances averages 3.1, Pogba 3, Koke 1.7 while Verratti plays 4.8.
The stats show there are similarities and of the players likely to succeed Barca’s iconic number six, Verratti can best dip in and out of both intricate and direct styles. PSG’s encounter against Chelsea in the Champions League round of 16 didn’t need a statistician though.
Over both legs, Verratti was head and shoulders above everyone else, taking the tie by the scruff of the neck, especially at Stamford Bridge in the return leg when the French champions had their backs against the wall. He was composed under pressure, used the ball immaculately and was the driving force behind their tremendous comeback with ten men. He dragged his team through the game and into the next round.
Then there’s the extra attributes that make Verratti ideal for Barca. His dynamism is unrivalled, whether it’s pressing opponents, circulating the ball at top speed or dribbling. Defensively he’s very sound; he positions himself well, makes important tackles, is very tough – always up for the physical battle – and in transition he recovers very quickly. It makes him the perfect all-round midfield package.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever taking over from Xavi and experiencing the success he’s achieved. Most appearances for Barcelona, most La Liga titles and joint most Champions League titles, all done in his own unique way. But Barcelona need new blood and Marco Verratti possesses Barca DNA.