Maybe Xavi Hernandez was right. Many took it as arrogance or accused him of exceptionalism, when he told the press that what was met with delight and eulogised at Real Madrid, would be met with derision in Barcelona. Winning is not enough, you have to win in it in the ‘right way’. What that way is, tends to morph to the needs of the person using the words, but even if you could find the answer to the impossible definition, that need for a degree of flamboyance has created a paradox.
Xavi has asked Barcelona fans, and the rest of the world to celebrate this title, to value it, stubbornly taking the time to ensure that everyone knows that even if the rest of world doesn’t provide the corresponding praise, internally they will do so. And yet finding people to tell you that Barcelona have met the standard of football that he maintains is essential, is impossible. Most of this La Liga title run has been neither pretty nor thrilling. As Barcelona belted out their songs under the Arc de Triomf though, the number of fans there would contradict that. Xavi’s own assertions, that victory without verve remains hollow in the eyes of Cules, do not add up to the festivities during their post-title week of ravenous celebration.
Perhaps it is a function of circumstance. The injuries, the financial issues, the holes in the squad, maybe it has all added up to a compromise. Not only from Xavi himself, who is not the pure idealogue many imagined, and perhaps even he thought, but also from the fans. Right now, after a three-year title drought, anything to quench the thirst will do. For now, intense and effective will do.
The crystal ball loses a lot of mystery when it ceases to be an abstract concept. It is really just a revision of recent Barcelona history, which hints that that might not be enough going forward. Ernesto Valverde survived two seasons at the helm with generally coherent football team, lit up by moments of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Enormously successful seasons too, securing three of the four major domestic honours in his two full seasons.
It might not be brilliant, what Xavi has built though, is a team. Forged out of veterans feeling the chill of dusk on their careers, glued together with slightly tender young talents, this Barcelona is chafed by its flaws, but it is a collective. The Blaugrana spent €118m net last summer, but given it was a squad in desperate need of a generational shift, one that had made a €37m net profit over the past two summers, it was by elite standards a soft rebuild.
One without a right-back. Barcelona have won the title with their centre-back for the next decade playing out of position. Two teenagers transformed the midfield, a 34-year-old made the difference up front, and their most exciting player is prone to missing three months of the season. Their other 34-year-old, the ‘finished’ Sergio Busquets, leaves as a title-winning captain. Their best player? Marc-Andre ter Stegen, for many an expendable asset the previous summer.
The numbers, in human terms, saw 13 players that contributed the previous season shipped out, and nine arrive (Alejandro Balde was promoted from Barça Atletic). It took time to build a unit, and after a 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, which saw Los Blancos edge three points in front, Xavi admitted to an ‘honest’ talk that took around two hours. The system changed, to a more conservative, asymmetrical midfield. The hatches were sealed over, and Barcelona became one of the best defensive sides in the history of Spanish football.
With the exception of their dodgy post-party attendance rate, for better or worse, Barcelona were the same in the morning as they were at night. Going six months with just a single loss after the Bernabeu. In those 21 games, they conceded just 5 goals. This imperfect, lopsided outfit, hustled, harried and fought, insolently taking points regardless of how they were playing.
All of this against the constant, incessant drumbeat of noise. Scandal after scandal has battered Barcelona’s hull over the past three years, and under Xavi, arguably the biggest of all – the Negreira case. For two months, President Joan Laporta allowed him to answer for it, which was just the headliner in a festival line-up of awkward institutional questions. His stature helped, his reputation shielded him somewhat, but where Xavi has maybe lacked tactically at points, he has made up for in mental resilience. Regardless of what has hit the headlines, the football team remained on an even keel.
This summer is set to be another operatic feature. The ins and outs of Barcelona’s business will be live-streamed, with villains cast and heroes lionised. At the centre of the chaotic transfer market are a group of people that Xavi will have to protect, and prevent erosion from that team ethos he has instilled. Perhaps just keeping the foundations in place is his biggest challenge. Ultimately, Xavi may yet find out as Valverde did that ‘just’ winning is not enough, if he is lucky. With time that impatience for quality entertainment that has been absent will likely creep back in – there has been a conscious acceptance of results without radiant football. This season though, he has shown that Barcelona too can value another way of winning.