This is the tale of two Portuguese footballers who journeyed across Europe in pursuit of their footballing destiny. “Barcelona’s Nostalgic Crossroads: Restorative and Reflective Sentiments”Both of them began their careers at Benfica, encountered disagreements with coaches along the way, and ultimately found themselves at FC Barcelona on the same day, amidst a whirlwind transfer window.
In a recent interview with Mundo Deportivo, Joao Cancelo expressed his belief, saying, “I believe that winning the Champions League with this team is attainable.”
Barcelona’s Nostalgic Crossroads: Restorative and Reflective Sentiments
There are two distinct forms of nostalgia — restorative and reflective. FC Barcelona finds itself positioned at the intersection of these two sentiments.
Restorative nostalgia is fixated on reconstructing the past and filling in the gaps in our memories, with the aim of reviving the era of Total Football and the Cruyffian philosophy.
Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, resides in a sense of yearning and sorrow, a continual struggle with the imperfect nature of recollection. How can a club savor the present when they are constantly oscillating between dwelling in the past and daydreaming of a future that might recapture the glory days?
This constant cycle is both draining and unproductive.
At the heart of this narrative are two Portuguese footballers named Joao, but the supporting cast includes a diverse array of players seamlessly fitting into their designated roles, and a manager, Xavi, who is on a quest to find his identity in European football. He has already achieved success in Spain by dethroning Real Madrid last season.
The only missing element in this narrative is its conclusion. It will inevitably arrive, and it could either bring devastation or fulfill Barcelona’s wildest dreams. However, in the present moment, there is at least a glimmer of hope.
Since their arrival at Barcelona, Joao Felix and Cancelo have played alongside each other in two matches, both of which the Catalans won 5-0. This marks the first time since Lionel Messi’s departure from the club that everything seems to be falling into place.
Now, the question arises: How have the contributions of the two Joaos and the other signings at Barcelona led them to this juncture?
Barcelona’s Challenge in Maintaining Positional Play
Barcelona has faced challenges in fully implementing Xavi’s concept of ‘positional play’ to the desired level of proficiency. Positional play essentially involves the entire team moving cohesively, akin to a system of levers: if one player vacates a certain area on the pitch, another instinctively steps in. This approach results in optimal spacing and multiple passing options available at all times. When executed correctly, it becomes challenging for opponents to defend, and it also maintains a solid defensive balance. Overloads don’t lead to overcommitting, improving defensive transitions.
Barcelona held onto veterans like Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Piqué for as long as possible due to their deep understanding of Xavi’s requirements. Xavi himself acknowledged this when he mentioned, “I don’t have to say anything to Gündogan and Cancelo because they already had a coach [Pep Guardiola] who plays like us,” following Barcelona’s convincing victory over Royal Antwerp in the Champions League.
One player who frequently faced criticism in this context was Frenkie de Jong. His pivotal role in Barcelona’s system was perceived as part of the broader challenge with positional play. De Jong possesses the spirit of a creative midfielder but shines brightest when he can innovate within a structured system rather than being the sole source of creativity. He is disciplined but excels when he operates near the boundaries of positional play’s constraints.
Xavi outlined in his coaching Masterclass that his preferred formation includes a double pivot. Romeu and De Jong have occupied this role recently, with De Jong noticeably more involved, touching the ball more frequently in his first two games this season than in any single match in the previous season. He also attempted 11 take-ons in the first four games of the season, indicating a constant demand for him to create.
However, with the arrivals of Joao Felix and Cancelo, De Jong’s role has shifted. In the last two games, he attempted just one take-on, and his average touches per 90 minutes have decreased during this period. De Jong may no longer be the central figure in Barcelona’s tactical setup, but his contribution remains pivotal to the team’s success.
The Impact of Joao Cancelo on Barcelona’s Improvement
Despite playing only 197 minutes for Barcelona thus far, Cancelo has been remarkably involved, averaging 91.4 touches per 90 minutes. This places him among the top players in terms of touches, with only the two center-backs, Jules Koundé and Andreas Christensen, Frenkie de Jong, and Romeu averaging more. What’s particularly noteworthy is the advanced nature of these touches. Cancelo is averaging 47.5 touches per 90 minutes in the opposition half, ranking him fourth in the team, behind only De Jong, Romeu, and Gündogan in this aspect.
Since joining Barcelona, Cancelo’s touch map illustrates a player who, although primarily a right-back, has expanded his role significantly. Prior to his arrival, Koundé or Ronald Araújo often filled the right-back or center-back positions, limiting their flexibility beyond those traditional roles.
Cancelo now operates as a wing-back but also possesses the versatility to shift into midfield alongside De Jong, forming a double pivot, or alongside Romeu, with De Jong playing in a more advanced position, particularly in defensive situations.
Cancelo has seamlessly adapted to a dynamic and multifaceted role. In the current season, he has been part of 6.4 attacking sequences per 90 minutes, ranking sixth in the team in this regard.
Cancelo’s quality is held in high regard, with João Félix expressing unwavering praise: “He’s really good, in terms of quality, I think he is the best full-back I have played with. He has the quality of a 10 and he likes to play as a 10. When he finishes up, he says he wants to go and play as a 10 with the team in his hometown.”
Joao Felix in His Appropriate Role
Joao Felix, the other Joao, appears to be tailor-made for a team that embraces positional play, particularly when he occupies the role of the left-sided attacker. He recently disclosed to Mundo Deportivo that he willingly accepted a significant pay reduction to join Barcelona, where he could play his style of football and rekindle his joy on the field.
One of the primary reasons he faced challenges at Atlético Madrid was the lack of forward movement ahead of him, coupled with his role as a midfielder rather than a wide creator. In the Barcelona setup, he is granted the freedom (within the framework of positional play) to create opportunities for himself. This approach may seem more structured, but it renders him nearly impossible to defend against. If an opponent attempts to man-mark him, their defensive shape quickly unravels, resembling a pretzel within minutes.
Joao Felix himself acknowledges that things are progressing better than he anticipated, boasting three goals and an assist in a mere 142 minutes of play. This is a stark contrast to his previous season at Atlético Madrid in 2022-23, where he managed only five goals and three assists in 740 minutes over half a season.
Diego Simeone’s primary concern with Joao Felix appeared to be his limited willingness to contribute defensively. However, under Xavi’s guidance, there is an evident effort in that aspect, though it remains to be seen whether this commitment will persist with time. There are moments when he appears to momentarily switch off before swiftly regaining focus and sprinting back towards his own goal, haunted by echoes of Simeone’s criticisms.
The Ripple Effects
Possibly more significant than the contributions of Cancelo and Joao Felix is the impact they have on their surroundings.
Amidst Xavi’s continuous tactical adjustments over the months and years, Gavi emerged as one of the most affected players. This talented but occasionally perplexing central midfielder seemed misplaced when deployed as a left winger. However, with Joao Felix now occupying the left-wing role, Gavi can shift to his natural position inside, where he feels much more at ease.
Gavi’s natural inclination leads him toward the center of the pitch, where he can truly showcase his abilities. In central positions, he has the freedom to make late runs into the box and deliver precise passes in a crowded penalty area.
In contrast, Joao Felix prefers to avoid the congestion of the central midfield and thrives in a slightly different role. His strength lies in executing intricate give-and-go plays around the penalty area, often baiting defenders into trying to dispossess him. The subtle positional difference of just a few meters becomes crucial in how both players interpret the game.
On the opposite side of the attacking line, we can expect a collaborative effort for the right-wing position, featuring Raphinha, Ferran Torres, and Lamine Yamal. These three wingers possess some similarities but also bring different profiles to adapt to the game’s requirements. The role once occupied by Ousmane Dembélé now sees contributions from players who were previously more on the periphery. Robert Lewandowski has benefited from having Joao Felix alongside him in the attack, with Cancelo providing him with service.
In the match against Royal Antwerp, Xavi introduced a variation to his starting eleven compared to the lineup that dominated Real Betis 5-0 on Saturday night. He omitted Romeu and deployed De Jong as the sole defensive pivot, with Cancelo occasionally shifting inside to cover that space as needed. It seems Xavi believed that having both Romeu and De Jong on the team was redundant. This marked the first time this season that he fielded the same defensive lineup in front of Marc-Andre ter Stegen in consecutive games.
Moving further up the pitch, Xavi chose to deploy Gavi and Gündogan as the interior midfielders ahead of De Jong. The front attacking trio consisted of Raphinha, Lewandowski, and Joao Felix. Notably, Gündogan showcased his exceptional footballing skills with a breathtaking assist, delivering a precise pass to set up Joao Felix for the opening goal.
Despite these adjustments, Xavi maintains his preferred tactical structure, retaining the double pivot, ensuring width on the flanks, and deploying three attackers. This cohesive approach adheres to the revered 4-3-3 formation.
Barcelona’s Newfound Potential and the End of Nostalgia
Xavi’s tenure as Barcelona’s manager has been marked by an unending cycle of challenges. For the first two and a half seasons, he grappled with stringent financial constraints, so severe that even acquiring basic resources required permission, let alone building a squad capable of competing at the highest level in Europe.
However, the landscape has transformed, and Xavi now finds himself with a wealth of options at his disposal.
Remarkably, we’ve delved nearly 2,000 words into this article without mentioning Pedri, a player who elevates any team he joins. Barcelona anticipates his return for the Clásico on October 28, further intensifying the competition for starting spots. The midfield permutations have become increasingly complex, and the inclusion of Araújo in the team is pending. Additionally, in January, 18-year-old striker Vitor Roque, sporting a €500 million release clause, is set to join. This squad is now primed for competitive action.
At least when Xavi lays his head on his pillow at night, his thoughts are likely filled with the possibilities he can unleash rather than the constraints imposed by his squad’s limitations, both technically and physically.
The future has arrived for Barcelona, offering the promise of liberation from the shackles of nostalgia, even if only temporarily.