This Sunday, the Santiago Bernabeu will play host to the 282nd installment of El Clasico; arguably the greatest football fixture in the world which pits rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona in a historic showdown that envokes the highest of highs and lowest of lows depending on which side you are on come full-time.
But though Real Madrid comfortably sits atop the La Liga table with a 10-point lead over Sevilla, bitter rivals Barcelona come into the gargantuan fixture full of confidence thanks to their resurgence under former midfield dynamo, club legend, and son of La Masia, Xavi Hernández.
It was all going wrong for Barça in the early doors of the current 2021-22 season under former Dutch icon Ronald Koeman after his return to the Camp Nou with the Zaandam native guiding the Blaugrana to a 4-3-3 record in the league while planting the seeds of a campaign in the Champions League that can only be described as an embarrassment which would eventually see them crash out of the group stage and dropping down to the Europa League.
Not surprisingly, Koeman was eventually stripped of his duties in the Catalan capital, but rather than go with a more seasoned head to try to guide the club out of the doldrums, they brought home one of their most storied sons after Xavi cut his teeth with Qatari outfit Al Sadd. It is a decision the club has not regretted.
The Xavi effect
From the outset, Xavi returned to his old stomping grounds as a man on a mission; to return Barcelona to its lofty perch where the club genuinely belongs as one of the titans of football not just in Europe, but around the globe.
He immediately maintained that only three players at the club were untouchable; La Masia graduates Ansu Fati, Gavi, and Nico González. A trio of players to build a future around while lifting up the identity of the club as a non-negotiable keystone of his managerial platform.
Building on that, the stubbornness of Xavi to not negotiate in how Barcelona was to comport themselves on the pitch has been at the very core of their success since his arrival in the latter part of 2021.
At the time of writing, Barcelona has been on an incredible run since his managerial debut for the club against city rivals Espanyol on 20 November that saw them run out 1-0 winners. All-told, Barça has posted a 10-4-1 record in La Liga since he has returned to the Camp Nou with credible results against Villarreal (3-1), Atlético Madrid (4-2), Valencia (4-1), and Athletic Club (4-0) coming along the way.
The data behind their performances have been impressive as well, and at current, Barcelona sits in the top-five in the three major attacking stat markers in La Liga this season; possession (1st; 61.5%), shots per game (3rd; 13.5), and pass completion rate (2nd; 88.1%). Thus far, the proof is very much in the pudding.
Barcelona tackle the Market
Notwithstanding Xavi's desire to rely on La Masia as he looks to push the club back to the dizzying heights they were accustomed to during his heyday in the heart of the midfield, the Barcelona boss was adamant in his desire to bring in attacking quality - and upgrades - during the January window that would suit his penchant for setting his team up in their vaunted 4-3-3 deployment to take advantage of wide areas as a source of creativity.
Deals for former Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Manchester City's Spanish starlet Ferran Torres, and former academy graduate Adama Traoré (on loan) were secured during the winter window with a clear intention by Xavi to focus on the club's inability to consistently control matters in the final third and regularly find the back of the net.
The revitalization of French international Ousmane Dembélé has also paid dividends as well at Catalonia, with the club now being able to bank on a cadre of attacking players that are not only interchangeable across the front three but are performing to an acceptable standard and then some.
How they have got on in Catalunya
Though on paper the business perpetrated by Barcelona definitely targeted improvement in the final third, there was no guarantee that the trio of attacking signings would play a significant role in a revival of fortunes this season; but they have indeed done just that.
Misfiring at Arsenal when he arrived in Spain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been a man on fire since settling at the club to the tune of 7-goals in 10-appearances which has included 5-goals in 6-outings in La Liga. The same can be said for Ferran Torres, who has contributed 5-goals and 4-assists in 13-appearances across all competitions since his arrival from Manchester City, while Adama Traoré has added a quartet of assists in nine appearances between La Liga and the Europa League.
What does the data look like? In a word, encouraging.
No other club in La Liga has scored more goals than Barcelona since 31 January when Aubameyang was brought into the club as the final piece of the winter market shopping spree, while no other side in the Spanish top flight has a higher xG and only Sunday's El Clasico opponents in Real Madrid managing to bag the same amount of points as Barça have across that time period.
Though Barcelona is likely to not arrest Real from their perch atop the table, the evidence continues to mount that Xavi Hernández was not only the right man for the job but destined to guide the club to success in the coming years which would undoubtedly cement his status as one of the greatest figures in the club’s illustrious history.