Xavi Hernandez reached the pinnacle of football this summer when he raised the World Cup in South Africa, the ultimate justification for the intricate Spanish style embodied by Barcelona’s metronomic midfield general.
It is impossible to separate Xavi from Spain. He was central to his country’s first World Cup victory, and here the numbers do the talking. The most passes attempted, 669, over 100 more than his nearest pretender. The most passes completed, 544, 54 more than the runner up, Spain’s Sergio Busquets. 14 completed crosses, one of only four players to reach double figures, and the highest number yet again. Two assists, and Spain only scored eight times in their seven games, meaning Xavi was directly responsible for a quarter of their goals. He made 20 runs with the ball, the second highest for a midfielder, behind teammate Andres Iniesta, but Iniesta also played on the left of Spain’s attack. Xavi ran a combined 80km, the most of any player, marginally more than Bastian Schweinsteiger, and almost 6km more than Xabi Alonso, the next Spaniard on the list. Playing in all seven of Spain’s games, Xavi contributed more to the side than any other player bar David Villa, scorer of five goals, but the statistics suggest Villa would not have found the net so regularly without Xavi pulling the strings.
For Barcelona, too, Xavi is instrumental, and the Spanish Press fawned over Xavi after he orchestrated a 2-0 win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in April. El Mundo Deportivo wrote: “Xavi was gregarious, majestic, an exhibition, his football was a recital that never ends.” El Pais agreed: “He read the game like no one else. He carved out space, moved cleverly, and built football, as always.” In Marca, Miguel Serrano went further: “He ordered, he played, he directed, he slowed it down and sped it up. Every time he touched the ball, the very foundations of the Bernabeu wobbled.” Sid Lowe of The Guardian wrote on the player’s importance to his club and his international side: “Xavi is the man imposing the style on both the finest national team and arguably the finest club side Spain has ever had.” Lowe added: “Xavi is arguably the finest midfielder Spain have ever had.”
Restraining Xavi has become an obsession for opposition managers, equally as important as halting Lionel Messi. Ahead of last season’s Champions League semi-final between and Inter and Barcelona, zonalmarking.net wrote: “The key to nullifying Barcelona is surely to stop Xavi playing – Arsenal failed to do so and lost, Real Madrid failed to do so and lost.” Inter deployed a dogged, counter-attacking system in that game and won 3-1 – the BBC report of the game noted: “Inter…denied the influential Xavi the time to spray passes around,” and “Barcelona were flustered and even Xavi was misplacing passes.” In the return leg at the Nou Camp Inter went even further down the defensive route after being reduced to 10 men, and zonalmarking.net wrote this time: “(Inter) negated the ability of Messi and Xavi to create – without ever seeking to deprive them of getting the ball.” Inter lost that game 1-0 but reached the final on aggregate, and owed their success not to Coach Jose Mourinho, but to Mourinho’s ability to stop Xavi.
The impressive World Cup statistics, the lavish praise from journalists, the importance to Barcelona, the detailed tactical plans from managers designed to stop him effecting the game – Sid Lowe summed it all up when he wrote: “Barcelona are the best side in the world…without Xavi, they might not be.”