Barca destruction of Madrid shows progress under Xavi

Barcelona earned a first win over Real Madrid since 2019, dismantling the LaLiga leaders 4-0 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, with goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (two), Ronald Araujo and Ferran Torres. Here are three thoughts on El Clasico:

1. Xavi has turned Barcelona around

Xavi’s first game in charge at Barcelona was exactly four months ago, and in that time they’ve risen from ninth to third in LaLiga, but simply measuring that progress in numbers is understating the impact he has had.

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He took over a group broken in spirit and turned it into the confident unit we saw Sunday at the Bernabeu. It’s not so much that he preaches traditional Barca values of possession, creativity and the collective above the individual — plenty have done that before — it’s that he lives by it, while allowing himself space to make the sort of tweaks demanded by the modern game. Like playing a pure defender at right-back to contain the speedy Vinicius Junior rather than making the emotional choice of trotting out Dani Alves. Or playing wingers like Torres and Ousmane Dembele, who interpret the game — and the position — in radically different ways. Or rebuilding the confidence of a centre-forward like Aubameyang — who was suspended or unproductive since the summer at his old club, Arsenal — and turning him into an incredibly effective attacking threat.

All of this came amid resignations from club CEOs, doubts about whether the club will remain solvent and, most recently, news that the financial restrictions next season are likely to be as tight as they were this season, if not more. Never mind Barca, the man should run for public office.

2. Ancelotti thinks outside the box, and pays the price

With resident icon Karim Benzema unavailable, Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti had two broad options: He could keep his 4-3-3 setup and bring in another forward — whether a specialist striker like Mariano Diaz or Luka Jovic or an adapted one like Marco Asensio — or he could rip up his blueprint and throw Barca a curveball, conjuring up an entirely new scheme.

He opted for the latter, ending up a with an unusual diamond shape that kept his wingers (Rodrygo and Vinicius) wide and left Luka Modric and sometimes Toni Kroos as his de-facto front men through the middle. It was bold and it was original, and it was a disaster.

It made it far too easy for Barca to play through the first pressing line, handing total control in the final third to Xavi’s crew, playing directly into their hands. With a nine-point lead at the top of LaLiga and a Champions League quarterfinal against Chelsea in two and a half weeks, you can afford to experiment a little, but this backfired badly. And nobody will want to see this approach again.

3. Dembele decision as confounding as ever

For all of Barcelona’s dominance, it was Dembele who delivered the cutting edge. He set up the first goal, with a classic fake-inside-go-outside move on Nacho that left the defender rooted to the spot as he raced to the byline and delivered a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang. Araujo’s header for the second came from one of the Frenchman’s trademark laser-guided deliveries from a corner. He even had a hand in the build-up to the third.

When he’s like this, he’s close to unplayable. He’s one of the most two-footed players out there, with speed and quality galore. Of course, we also saw the downside, especially after he started flagging after the break: giving the ball away, not tracking effectively and getting an earful from Xavi before getting substituted. But sometimes, with superstars, you need to live with the flipside.

Dembele becomes a free agent on June 30. Negotiations are no further forward. Barca have a new financial reality they need to deal with, Dembele may feel he’s worth more and if he can deliver a first half every week like the one we saw against Madrid, he’s worth it. He’s 24 and, when Ansu Fati returns from injury, could be a one half of a devastating pain of wingers for the next decade or so. On the flipside, he has never made more than 22 league starts in a season, owing to a string of injuries, and you want to think long and hard before you make him the club’s highest-paid player. There’s a huge call to be made here and Barca can ill afford to get it wrong.


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