With the football Barcelona have been playing of late, it’s easy to overlook a small but growing concern. Age. Primarily that of the hugely influential Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol.
The Catalan giants have set the world alight again this season, both breaking records on paper and dazzling spectators on the pitch with their captivating ‘tiki-taka’ style of play. The epitome of this was their astounding 5-0 demolition of none other than Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, a side who at the time, were widely regarded as the second best team on the planet, behind Barça of course.
While the talismanic Lionel Messi has hypnotized the footballing world with his phenomenal goal scoring record (38 goals from 35 games in all competitions) an issue which seems to have slipped under the radar is the increasing age of two pivotal players who form the spine of the side. Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol will be aged 31 and 33 respectively by the end of the season.
Club captain Puyol is the lion at the heart of the Barcelona defence and supplies the team with much needed grit, determination and battling qualities amidst their elegance and technique. A glorious leader from the back-line, he encapsulates the passion of the Catalan faithful. Meanwhile, Xavi is the maestro in the middle of the park, he dictates the tempo of games and makes the side tick. His composure on the ball, vision and sheer technical ability make him one of the world’s best playmakers and arguably Barcelona’s most important player. Having been at the club since 11 years of age, Xavi wholly embodies the footballing philosophy of FC Barcelona.
To give a measure of the importance of the two Spanish internationals, Carles Puyol has been club captain since August 2004 and Xavi is second on Barcelona’s list of all-time La Liga appearances with 373 games, closely in pursuit of Migueli, who achieved 391 appearances between 1973-1988 .
This season the pair have been on top form along with their team-mates which has taken them to the summit of La Liga and a Spanish Cup final as well as the knockout stages of UEFA’s Champions League. However, Josep Guardiola must be beginning to look to the future and beyond these seemingly irreplaceable talents.
Many will argue that with the technology and science available to top clubs nowadays, players can play on until their late 30s and still maintain a high-quality level of performance. A good example is Paul Scholes at Manchester United who is 36 yet still starts for his club on a regular basis. However, the main difference with Scholes and Xavi is the teams in which they play, and more importantly, the systems employed by their managers.
Barcelona play a high-tempo pressing game when not in possession, whereby every player on the field, is asked to work hard for the full 90 minutes; shutting down opponents and limiting the space. Therefore Xavi’s required work-rate each game is far greater than that of Paul Scholes. The league holders’ playing style mean they certainly have no room for passengers and perhaps this is one of the contributing reasons why the languid Zlatan Ibrahimovic was shipped out on loan just one year after his mega-money transfer from Inter Milan. If Xavi can keep up with the necessary work-rate well into his mid-to-late thirties then a successor will be put on hold, but it is more likely that given the number of games he has played at such high intensity, he will hand over the reigns to a younger apprentice fairly soon.
Even though Carles Puyol, currently 32, will be in no hurry to hang up his boots, his partnership with Gerard Pique leaves the team with a central pairing prone to being exposed by pace and this can only get worse. Alongside a quicker centre-back for cover, the Spaniard would be able to maintain his captaincy for a few more years yet, but as Pique is only 24 years of age himself and already one of Europe’s best, it seems certain he will be a permanent fixture in the side for years to come, long after Puyol retires.
Eric Abidal seems to be Guardiola’s idea of a replacement for his captain having deployed him in the centre of defence a few times already this season . The Frenchman boasts many similar qualities too; strength, aggression, good positioning and a great reading of the game, as well as versatility. The only question is whether he would be a long-term replacement or a make-shift until the second richest club in world football decides to open its’ chequebook. As is always with a club of this stature, a summer of high-end transfer speculation awaits.
Regarding the heir to Xavi’s throne, Cesc Fabregas has been heavily touted as future Barcelona player for some time now. Players from the club have even spoken very publicly about a desire to welcome Cesc to Camp Nou, where he would certainly serve as an adequate replacement to Xavi in the future. However, in the wake of Barça’s defeat to Arsenal and previous reports that “any deal for Fabregas is dead”, jokes emanating from Spain were about the availability and price of Jack Wilshere rather than his team-mate. The Arsenal youngster can certainly be filed alongside Spurs’ Luka Modric and Palermo’s Javier Pastore as a ‘Barcelona mould’ player. All three have been in scintillating form this year.
So, whether Barcelona decide to invest in new talent or bring youngsters through their coveted youth set-up, the replacements of Puyol and Xavi will have huge boots to fill and will need time to develop. Could a transitional phase in Catalonia be Real Madrid’s chance to finally surpass their bitter rivals and win silverware? Or will a lack of stability (as always seems to be the case) hamper Los Blancos chances?
By Matthew Aquino – @ElevenAgainst11 – Luton Town fan