Last season saw Barcelona win their first La Liga title since 2018-19, with Xavi leading his side to glory with an impressive 10-point gap over rivals Real Madrid.
As Barcelona look to win back-to-back La Liga titles, we look at five key questions for the reigning champions ahead of the 2023-24 campaign.
Can Barcelona’s Defence Remain as Solid In 2023-24?
Barcelona won La Liga with the best defensive record across the top five European leagues last season. They conceded just 20 goals as they won their first La Liga title in the post-Lionel Messi era at the club; an average of 0.53 goals per game on 0.88 expected goals against per game. Those figures were both by far the lowest in the league and almost historically so. Only Jan Oblak during Atlético Madrid’s 2015-16 season and Francisco Liaño of Deportivo la Coruña in 1993-94 conceded fewer goals (18) in a 38-game season.
It was the best defensive season in the club’s La Liga history too, beating the 2011 and 2015 versions of Barca. Both of those sides conceded 21 goals under Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola, respectively.
Marc Andre ter Stegen had a historically strong season but relying on such overperformance is not a sustainable business model for future success.
Excluding own goals, Barcelona conceded 17 times In La Liga last season. When looking at the quality of opposition shots faced (33.6 xG), Barca overperformed more than any other side across the top five European leagues by conceding 16.6 goals fewer than expected.
That said, they were still elite defensively and they have added Iñigo Martinez from Athletic Bilbao and Oriol Romeu from Girona who will give them an even sturdier spine than last season. They also added İlkay Gündoğan, who should add more control and creativity in the middle, while freeing up Frenkie de Jong to improve again on what was one of his best seasons at the club.
Jordi Alba has joined Messi in Miami, after Alejandro Balde assumed complete control of the left-back position and Sergio Busquets has taken his talents to South Beach too. Maybe the new faces could make them even more stingy at the back than they were last season.
Can Xavi Improve Barcelona in Europe?
It might seem unfair to suggest that Barcelona’s defence over-performed last season in La Liga given just how dominant they were. The cognitive dissonance arises from their performance in Europe, which were less than stellar. Both Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique’s sides won La Liga in 2011 and 2015 as mentioned earlier but, crucially, they maintained that level in Europe winning the UEFA Champions League too.
Granted, Barcelona played against eventual finalists Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in the group stage before being knocked out of the UEFA Europa League by an improving Manchester United side. But Xavi’s record in Europe is the one remaining blemish on his copy after what has been a relatively stable and successful 18 months in charge.
His objective remains the same: return Barcelona to greatness on the European stage.
How do they do that? Improving defensively is the first step. Xavi says “I’ve often heard that we are a defensive team,” Xavi said. “I find that mind-boggling. We are the most attacking team in Europe, along with Manchester City. We are the most attacking, we take the most risks. We want to win the ball back in the opposition half, we want to have possession.”
It’s a small sample size (six games) but Barcelona’s 1.57 expected goals per game conceded ranked 17th in the Champions League last season. That’s almost double their 0.88 xG against per game in La Liga. They conceded almost a goal every other game in La Liga while in the Champions League and the Europa League they conceded two every game on average. Xavi’s Barca dominated domestically in Spain last season, but he’ll have to get the balance right to make sure they can reach the same levels in European competition.
Where Will Ilkay Gündoğan Play?
“I’m ready to play wherever the manager asks me to,” Ilkay Gündoğan says. “I can also play in a more defensive position like the pivot, and I have shown in the last few years that I am flexible.” The pre-season is the pre-season and Xavi must find a way to replace Sergio Busquets, but Frenkie de Jong played in the pivot against Real Madrid with Oriol Romeu slightly further forward while Gundogan played as a number 8 alongside Pedri.
The good news for Barcelona and Xavi is that they have options now in midfield. Any one of the three – De Jong, Romeu or Gundogan – could play in Sergio Busquets’ role in theory but the bad news is that none of those players can do exactly what Busquets did. There is going to be a period of adaptation and we might see some mixing and matching in central midfielder before Xavi strikes the right formula.
During the 2022-23 Premier League season, Gundogan played in defensive midfield in 27% of his minutes. The German is 32 years old now and while his physical attributes might be waning, but his mind is as sharp as ever and that’s the one thing that separated the spindly Busquets from the rest.
Can Pedri Become the Complete Midfielder?
Barcelona have often been criticized for their over-reliance on Pedri, but when a player is as good as he is, regardless of his age, it would be counter-productive to do anything but plan around him. He’s only 20 and still developing but Barcelona are an entirely different proposition with and without the silky-smooth Spaniard.
There is just one thing missing from his game and it’s something his manager is trying to improve; getting into the box and scoring more goals.
“Xavi always tells me to get into the box and shoot more, to take risks and take people on,” Pedri said after he was involved in the game-winner against Atletico back in January. “I feel more comfortable now getting forward and Xavi is responsible for that goal today.”
He has improved in that area but might take another step forward yet. Last season was the best of his Barcelona career with 0.23 xG per 90. He also improved his touches inside the box (2.8) and shots inside the box (0.7) on a per 90 basis.
The loss of Busquets shouldn’t hurt Pedri with Gündoğan and Oriol Romeu joining the midfield ranks. This means Pedri doesn’t have to worry as much about getting involved in ball progression around the middle and even build up. He can now set about improving his involvement in the final third.
If Pedri can become a consistent goal threat, Barcelona might be closer to returning to the European glory days than we think.
Who’s Going to Play Right-Back?
Barcelona were left stunned when Paris Saint-Germain launched a an offensive for Ousmane Dembélé just two weeks before the start of the La Liga season. To be fair, it wasn’t as much an offensive as a phone call to inform the Spanish club they were triggering the French winger’s €50 million release clause. Dembélé wants to leave, and all Barcelona had to do was sign the paperwork to complete the deal. There was nothing they could do.
It leaves Barcelona’s entire right-hand side of the field compromised. Xavi added another starting level centre-back to the dressing room in Iñigo Martinez this summer. He joins Ronald Aruajo, Marcus Christensen, Eric Garcia and Jules Kounde. The right-back problems remain unresolved with none in the current squad who Xavi believes in. Sergi Roberto has become more of a midfielder in recent seasons and Sergiño Dest is fighting against the current as he tries to convince the coach of his worth to this squad. Kounde can play there but really doesn’t want to.
Against Real Madrid in pre-season, it was quite clear what the plan was, and the solution kept everyone happy. They played three central defenders with Alejandro Balde pushing out into a left wing-back role and Ousmane Dembele occupying that same area on the right. That plan falls to pieces in the absence of Dembélé.
Raphinha will presumably fill that spot for now but the Brazilian and the French winger play two different styles. Dembélé completed 3.3 dribbles per 90 last season compared to Raphinha’s 1.8. It’s that ability to beat a man and cause chaos that defines Dembélé’s style. Even if every other aspect of his game is mediocre, losing those dribbling skills turns Barcelona into a flat, lethargic version of themselves. Raphinha can’t do what Dembélé does. Few can.
There was a feeling that Barcelona might sell a winger this summer to raise funds but PSG came for the one Xavi didn’t want to lose. And the one with a clause in his contract that means Barcelona only get a fraction of the €50 million PSG will pay to get him. This is the worst of both worlds.
Everyone knows Barcelona are desperate for a replacement now and they don’t even have the funds to swallow the premium most clubs will ask for to even schedule a meeting. Nobody will know better about Xavi’s urgent need than Pep Guardiola. Reports say they have rebuffed Barcelona’s first offer for Bernardo Silva but we can expect more.
Xavi won La Liga last season comfortably but his record in Europe is what will define his spell at the club. So far it has been disastrous and between losing aging superstars of previous eras and the club’s perilous economic state, it always felt like things were being held together by matchsticks, chewing gum and rubber bands.
PSG have just come in and bulldozed Xavi’s delicate creation. They have no other option but to start again. For Barcelona and Xavi, that sounds like a tractable, almost noble, problem to sit down and try to solve. The problem is they only have a few short weeks with only matchsticks, chewing gum and rubber bands as their tools to do it.
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