Striving to Reclaim a Sense of Self – The Quest for Total Football in Barcelona

A 97′ penalty sealed a much-needed 2-1 road victory for Barcelona against Celta Vigo in the latest installation of La Liga’s weekly opera. It was a welcome three points that allowed marginal breathing space between themselves and the imposing figure of Atlético Madrid in fourth position. But it was yet another goal conceded in a dramatically unfamiliar campaign for the reigning champions of Spanish football’s elite division. 


With 25 game weeks in the history books, Barcelona occupies third place in the table, two points behind the surprise package of Girona and eight behind their fierce rivals Real Madrid. With the recent news that Xavi Hernandez will depart the managerial hot seat at the end of the season, the club is enduring a period of uncertainty both on and off the field, with supporters nervously anticipating the next move. 


Further to the unsettling attempts to reclaim their domestic bragging rights, the side endured a quarter-final exit from the Copa del Rey at the hands of Athletic Bilbao. For the holders of the title of the competition’s most successful outfit (31 times winners), it was yet another disappointing pill to swallow in what has been a tumultuous 2023-24 campaign. 



With a temporary break from domestic action, the five-time winners of the UEFA Champions League are completing their final preparations ahead of a round-of-16 clash with Serie A side Napoli in the partisan suburb of Naples. The tie presents an opportunity for another memorable European Cup run, with their last victory in the competition coming in 2015. 


In many ways, perennial success – and nothing else – is a staple in the diet of this European powerhouse. But, despite a busy summer transfer window and a squad comprising some of the finest players in world football, silverware is anything but guaranteed. Considering all, what has caused this stark decline, and how can club-legend Xavi rectify these failings before his chapter ends at his beloved institution? 


Failure in attack


From a simplistic point of view, this side creates multiple opportunities while continuing to exhilarate spectators with a familiar brand of intricate passing and movement throughout transitional phases. Additionally, they have found the net on 52 occasions from their 25 league outings – a tally bettered only by Madrid (53) and Girona (54). The legendary figure of their Polish striker, Robert Lewandowski, presents the leading light in this bracket, contributing 12 goals from 23 domestic appearances. 


But when you dive into the statistical elements – focusing on the actual metrics in the final third and the overall output of their attacking philosophy: simply put, this is a side missing something in their final phases. Despite the previously mentioned goals scored tally, Barcelona are ranked eleventh across Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues for underperforming their expected goals (-6.2 G-xG). 


Financial Inadequacies and Inflated Egos – The Demise of FC Schalke 04


When considering a combination of both, it is fair to say that the manager’s tactical approach has achieved the desired attacking results. The many hours applied on the training field can only take the players so far. As per Sofascore, the side creates an average of 16.7 shots per game, with 2.7 big chances per 90 minutes. The worrying component is the figure of 1.5 big chances missed per 90′, a critical reminder of the fundamental issues at play.


In contrast, their title rivals in Madrid and Girona have excelled in these metrics and are reaping the reward of clinical composure when it matters most. Both sides are overperforming their xG, with Los Blancos ranked ninth across the ‘big five’ leagues (+7.4 xG) and the Blanquivermells topping the charts with a staggering figure of +11.4 xG. Sometimes, it is as simple as acknowledging that goals win games, and the side that wins the most will celebrate their honours at the end of the season.


Issues in defence


The glaring issues in the final third present only one side of the story – with significantly more acute concerns in the defensive structure. Astonishingly, the defending champions concede a staggering 1.10 xG per 90 minutes throughout the campaign, compared to a 0.87 tally during their title-winning run last season. 


When we dive into the numbers behind their 27th La Liga trophy, the side only allowed 20 goals in 38 outings, 13 fewer than third-placed Atleti. An understanding during defensive phases was evident and complemented an attacking arsenal that received widespread acclaim nationwide. The difference in less than a year is startling, with Xavi’s side conceding 34 times with 13 fixtures remaining. 



Under the guidance of their historic leader, this group cultivated a reputation of bursting out of the blocks and grabbing a fixture by the scruff of the neck. Interestingly, that is another factor that has fallen by the wayside, with the Catalans conceding first in 32% of their domestic fixtures this campaign. 


When factoring in the catalogue of defensive options at the club’s disposal, one would be forgiven for failing to comprehend this collapse. The summer arrivals of Iñigo Martínez and João Cancelo strengthened an already impressive group that included Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde – so where exactly has it all gone wrong? 


Total Football


Barcelona operates within the ideals of the legendary Johan Cruyff. Following his arrival from Ajax in 1988, the man who spent five years at the famous ground as a player installed a belief that superior technique outweighed every other attribute and harboured a passionate sense of positional importance. 


“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” 


Cruyff regularly discussed the logic in focusing on positional sense because he recognised that in occupying the correct areas, individuals could focus on breaking the play and utilising their superior technique to fashion transitional motions. He caused quite a stir when he promoted a young Pep Guardiola to his first team in the early 90s, with much suggestion that he lacked the abilities to function in his dream team. But it was within this selection that the future of this iconic club would establish an integral cog.


Alejandro Baldé – Do Barcelona Have Jordi Alba’s Replacement at Home?


In understanding the benefits of occupying the correct areas, a player with sufficient technical ability can supply a defensive shield ahead of the back four while allowing for increased possession and constant availability in the stages of transition. Pep supplied this very role for Cruyff, and the colossal figure of Sergio Busquets inevitably contributed a mirror role following his introduction to the first team in the 2008-09 campaign. 


Throughout a career that spanned over 700 appearances for the club, Busquets was ever-present in the iconic pivot at the base of the Barcelona midfield. His ability to accurately utilise his space and time while harnessing his scanning ability would inevitably produce an influx of the ball for his teammates – while consistently shielding his defence and supplying the confidence of his presence when dealing with defensive phases. 


Is it any surprise that following his departure to Inter Miami in June 2023, Barcelona have struggled to adapt to life without a particular type of player to occupy the pivot of their midfield? This squad is not without talent, with players like Gavi and Pedri representing two of the latest products from the famous La Masia conveyor belt. But these are different footballers to Busquets and Guardiola, as are Frenkie de Jong, Sergi Roberto and İlkay Gündoğan. 


The final months of Xavi and beyond


Following the 5-3 defeat against Villarreal in January, Xavi highlighted his disappointment in parting with the club he holds dear. He also emphasised the undeniable burden that comes along with the title, cutting the look of a visibly withered character. 


Sergio Busquets: The Immortal Metronome


“In Barcelona, you always feel like you’re not valued, you’re mistreated — that’s how the club works. From a mental health level, it’s tough too. I’m a positive guy, but the battery levels keep running out — and at some point, you realise there’s no point in staying.” 


While the dream reunion has failed to deliver a partnership to guide Barcelona into their latest era of domination, the building blocks for a successful side remain. The players can not alter the financial situation in the background, but they can still deliver a memorable season with opportunities both domestically and on the continent. 


The arrival of Oriol Romeu from Girona in July 2023 represented a vision of integrating a former youth prospect into a known system to harness the positional sense acquired from his early education. But there were realistic expectations about his role in the club, and at 32, few expected anything more than a fringe contribution. 


Oriol Romeu: Barcelona’s Short-term Successor to Sergio Busquets?


The task of replacing Busquets was always going to be difficult – particularly with the financial issues at the club. But it was the premier factor that required addressing in the summer, and Xavi was well aware of this. For many, a failure to tackle this inevitable void has inadvertently led to the collapse we are witnessing this season and the uncertainty surrounding the future of FC Barcelona. 


Only time will tell whether the perennial powerhouse of La Masia can supply another product of their Dutch creator as Barcelonistes pray for an answer to their shortcomings. With many mistakes occurring behind closed doors at this great club, they are becoming increasingly evident with every passing week on the field of play. In the words of the man who delivered their first European Cup: “Football is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins.”


By: Shaun Connolly / @shaunconnolly85

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Pressinphoto / Icon Sport

Subscribe to Shaun’s free newsletter here.