Xavi conducts the orchestra
JUNE 16 — Something astounding happened during Thursday night’s game between Spain and the Republic of Ireland.
Around midway through the second half, we witnessed a piece of action that occurs so rarely it made me double-take and stare at the television screen in jaw-dropped wonder.
Yes, that’s right: Xavi actually gave away possession after miscontrolling the ball.
Xavi! Miscontrolling the ball! For once in his life, the little master actually did something less than perfect! I’ve checked the record books and apparently the last time it happened was in Barcelona’s away game at Levante in September 2007.
Joking aside, what a performance from Spain and, in particular, what a performance from Xavi. The headlines might have been grabbed by Fernando Torres for his return to goalscoring form with two well-taken strikes but, for me, the man of the match was Xavi, the player who makes everything tick in the centre of the field.
I was first made aware of Xavi’s extraordinary talents around a decade ago, when I was working at Reading FC. I was talking to one of our midfielders, James Harper, a talented ball-player who liked to describe himself as a “director of traffic” in the middle of the pitch.
Harper was chatting about his position and how he liked to play, and revealed that the player he most admired, the person he tried to emulate more than anyone else, was an up and coming midfielder at Barcelona called Xavi.
Until then, I hadn’t seen much of Xavi because he had only recently broken into the Barca team and Spanish football wasn’t as ubiquitous on British television schedules as it is now. But I made a note of the name and resolved to keep an eye out for this young chap called Xavi – if a talented professional like Harper admired him so much, he must be worth watching.
And of course, in the years since that fleeting conversation Xavi has proven himself to be one of the greatest midfielders ever to have played the game. Now, it’s not just fellow professionals who recognise just how good he is; everyone with even a passing interest in football will readily acknowledge that little Xavi is a supreme talent.
But the phrase that Harper used — “directing the traffic” — doesn’t really do justice to the way that Xavi dictates the flow of a game. “Conducting the orchestra” might be more appropriate, especially when you consider the phenomenal individuals that Xavi plays alongside for both club and country. Likening them to cars and trucks just doesn’t sound right.
Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, David Silva, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas... that’s a pretty formidable bunch of players to be lining up alongside. Do they make Xavi look better than he is by receiving his passes and doing extraordinary things with them? Or does he make them look better than they are, by spotting their runs and immediately releasing them with a perfectly weighted pass?
It’s probably a bit of both. Good players perform at their best when they’re teaming up with other good players. Xavi is always available to receive a pass and has the ability to control the ball instantly even when under pressure, thus making things easier for his teammates.
On the other hand, Messi, Villa, Silva and co possess the spatial awareness to make the right run at the right time, helping out Xavi by signalling where and when he should make the pass. And on yet another hand, Xavi has the ability to reward the movement of his teammates by spotting and executing the pass before the defence has the chance to cut out the space — it’s a virtuous cycle whereby everyone’s the winner... except the opposition.
I would pinpoint three specific qualities that make Xavi such a special talent. The first is touch, allowing him to receive the ball at any pace or height, control it instantly and find space. The second is balance, aided by his low centre of gravity, which means he can twist and turn away from strong physical pressure and maintain control of the ball.
And Xavi’s third key quality is his variety of pass — long or short, aerial or along the ground, gently lofted or firmly driven, all manners of spin... he can deliver the ball in any conceivable fashion, meaning that he always has the appropriate means to find his teammate.
Of course, you can add many more qualities possessed by the little genius — there are plenty — but I believe those three — touch, balance and variety of pass — are the most important ones that set him apart from his peers.
The worrying thing for both Spain and Barcelona, of course, is that Xavi is now 32 years old. Maybe this will be his last major international tournament; maybe he will soon have to become an occasional starter for Barca rather than an automatic weekly fixture on the teamsheet.
Xavi’s style of play — restless, relentless, always on the move, always looking for the ball and constantly having to escape the attentions of desperate opponents — is physically highly demanding, requiring exceptional levels of strength and stamina.
The fact that he’s still playing so well at the age of 32 is creditable enough; whether he’ll still be able to do it at the age of 34 is questionable. And when that time comes for Barcelona and Spain, how on earth do you replace Xavi?
But let’s not worry about that for now; let’s just marvel at the genius conductor’s ability to control his orchestra while we still can. If you don’t enjoy watching Xavi play, you can’t enjoy anything about football... unless, of course, you happen to be Croatian and preparing to play against him.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.