Home NEWS Xavi ‘Real Madrid don’t want to play beautiful football like Barcelona’

Xavi ‘Real Madrid don’t want to play beautiful football like Barcelona’


Former FC Barcelona captain Xavi Hernandez was interviewed by Diego Torres for El País; translated by Diana Kristinne

Q: Where are we coming from and where is football heading to?

I think that the role of the coaches is sometimes excessive. We’ve improved so much from a physical point of view that right now it’s very difficult to dribble your opponent. Except for Messi or Neymar or the Luis Suarez’s out there, even Cristiano and Bale have problems dribbling their opponents, because physically we’re at a level that can’t be improved. We train with a chip on our chests, we adjust distances, count kilometers, measure top speed… It’s impossible to be better prepared physically.

Q: Don’t you think that Guardiola’s Barca is responsible for making that task even more difficult, because the spaces have become much smaller?

Exactly. The tactical aspect has also been exploited. Guardiola focused on the details. He controlled everything. I had never trained for a defensive throw in. He would tell you where you had to be even for that. The opponent would get a throw in and we’d all be perfectly positioned. And the guy on the other team would sometimes say: “Damn, what happened? I don’t even have space for this throw in!” Pep controlled everything. What happened? Some wanted to copy that a bit, like Low who studied us and then did what he did. And others went for the opposite of this, which is Simeone. He has talented players like Koke defending deep, closing down spaces, intending to unblock superiorities. Football has exploded in the physical and tactical aspects. Right now what we have left to exploit is the technical one, understanding why things happen, how to attack. That’s what talent is! And it isn’t developed enough. Because in football you have more Simeones than Guardiolas. You can see that in the Premier League. How many teams play like Pep’s? Three? Four? How many play like Simeone or allow you to dominate them? 70%. It’s the same in La Liga. And then you get the excuse of: “Oh, but I can’t compete with City or Barcelona.” But they do the same thing against Leganes too!

Q: Do you think the same thing happens in La Liga as in the Premier League?

It’s more pronounced this year in the Premier League because Guardiola went to dominate games and the others say “I’ll forget about the ball and stay deep.” And you don’t exploit dominating the game or being more daring. If I’m at a small team and play against Barca what I want to do is take the ball from them. The question is: how do I defend against Barca? Like Paco Jemez: I press high. If you let them play Ter Stegen passes to Piqué, Piqué drives the ball up into midfield and for me that’s already a predictable death.

Q: Teams that control the ball often found themselves stuck because then you have 22 players in 50 meters. How do you solve that contradiction?

We were already training for that in 2008. With Luis Enrique too: playing against two lines of four, with someone marking your pivot, you try to look for spaces fast by switching the ball to the other side of the pitch, not passing horizontally but switching play to our second or third line. Barca knows what it’s going to face. We work on the positional play, against nine defenders, where our central defender has to move up with the ball at his feet and break the lines, always in small spaces working on keeping the ball, positional exercises training how you control the ball with your first touch so that you can get away from your marker in two or three meters…

Q: But how many players are there who can play in such small spaces?

You can train it! But what do others do? Mourinho’s Madrid played directly to the space behind our back line. He told them not to pass the ball. Play fast and they had an outlet with Di Maria, Cristiano, Benzema… Now they have Bale and others. They didn’t want to play football.

Q: With City we’re seeing something strange: they’re beating record without a fixed striker and without normal midfielders. De Bruyne is a winger and Silva is a “mediapunta”. How has Guardiola turned them into central midfielders?

De Bruyne and Silva have adapted to those positions because they’re the type of player that knows how to profile himself to receive the ball in 360 degrees, they turn to every side, see the whole pitch. Because with Guardiola’s style of play you need pure wingers, like Sane. Sane would find it difficult to play inside because ge couldn’t do that small turn that give you space, the turn that Messi, Iniesta, Silva, De Bruyne or Giindogan have… Even Sterling has it if he’s forced to do it. Sane doesn’t. He needs space. Like Bale: if you play them inside they won’t be as good. They have to play on the wing, dribble. Like Cristiano. He has more difficulty playing in the middle because he doesn’t profile his body the right way. De Bruyne and Silva are spectacular. It seems as if we’re just now discovering Silva.

Q: You talk about stimulating creativity. How do you do that?

With rondos! People still think that’s just something we do for fun. No! It’s an incredible exercise. You use both feet, you look towards the second line, you pass inside, you attract your opponent and then when he’s close to you, pam!, you pass it to the other side… It’s endless. It’s an exercise that allows infinite implementations. For example: seven against two, five against two (in this case it’s already harder to find an escape). Nine against two is more “fun”. Or you can have a big rondo with three in the middle: two press and the other one covers potential passing lines so you have to find the space, think where you can find the ball… It forces you to look around you, find the free player. At Barca we understand football as a space-time concept. Who dominates that? Busquets, Messi, Iniesta: they’re masters of space-time. They always know what to do when they’re surrounded. Then you have midfielders like Casemiro who don’t understand that. But at the same time, Busquets could never do the cover work that Casemiro does when the game is heads or tails.

Q: Heads or tails?

Yes: Madrid’s team breaks in the middle, seven go forward and then Casemiro is left alone to cover all that space. That’s what I mean by heads or tails. Busquets can’t do that because even I’m faster than him. Casemiro is very fast. But he has difficulties with everything else because he hasn’t worked on the other aspects. He has other characteristics, he’s more defensive, recovers the ball more, covers more ground, makes runs into attack… But he doesn’t dominate space time. If he had worked on that when he was 12, 13, 15 he would have developed it. Why can Kroos do it? Because in Germany they work on it. Why can Thiago do it? Because he was developed at Barca. The surprising thing is when you find someone like Cazorla that has that ability. I asked him: “How did you learn this?” “No, no, I was trained at Aviles and then at Oviedo and then I went to Recre…” There are natural talents. I ask myself: How didn’t Barca sign him? He already knows the style. Silva, Kroos, Modric. How has Barca not signed them? They’re players that obviously have the right profile. I keep looking for players that could go to Barca. Like Philipp Lahm. He saw everything!

Q: With Lahm and Alaba Guardiola started this trend of the full backs coming inside and ending up as a “mediapunta”.

In the end it’s associative football. Guardiola is always working to find where the free space is. For example, if you play against Levante and you see that their wingers mark your full backs, like Bielsa did basically, then you move your fullback inside. If the winger follows him then that clears the passing line from your center back to your winger. Because many times the fullback is in the way of that pass. If you move your fullback inside one of two things happen: either the opposition winger leaves him alone and that gives you a free man inside or he follows him and you’ve opened a passing lane to the winger. Space-time. For the opposition this is impossible to control, because you mark one and another one is left free. You create superiority.

Q: These positional changes for the players that we saw with Guardiola’s Bayern or Tuchel’s BVB confuse the opponent, but they also mean more physical and mental exhaustion for your own team. How do you avoid that?

I don’t see it that way. This isn’t just about switching a position. We have to talk about understanding the game. You don’t teach the player to switch positions. You teach him to understand the game. A Qatari player doesn’t understand the why. I drive up the pitch with the ball at my feet and he moves towards me. “What are you doing? We’re going to hit each other!” He comes within a meter of me and I say “If Maradona and Pele played within a meter of each other I would be the best defender in the world against them.” Have them play 15 meters apart. What do you do? Who do you cover? They can pass the ball to each other without failing for 3 days. Cruyff talked about the accordion: ppening the pitch, understanding where the free space is. If Iniesta is here then I can’t be in the same space. In the right moment, if he’s under pressure, then I can provide an outlet for him. Barca’s advantage is that it has worked on these things for years.

Q: Barca’s idea was the last one to transform football. What’s the next paradigm going to be?

Talent always wins against physicality. The day that won’t happen it’s going to be shifty because the game will be boring. And because I think that talent always comes out on top, what we need to exploit is that: making the players understand why. Why must you stand there? Why do you have to come towards the ball in the right moment? Why is your teammate keeping the opposition central defenders in place so that you have space to receive the ball? Things don’t just happen. Let’s remember the 2-6. Why could Messi receive the ball alone between the lines? Because Henry and Eto’o were playing in the space between the central defender and the full back. And the central defender couldn’t move up towards Leo because he was thinking that they would exploit the space behind his back. Gago and Lass were marking me and Iniesta and Leo was alone. This is how you get superiority. This is what Guardiola and his assistants analyzed so well. Luis Enrique too. You analyze where you can achieve these superiority, where you can play the passes…

[/b]Q: Right now the word “recurso” (option) is very fashionable now. Some coaches take teams that know how to control the ball and play in the opposition half and they say that they need to add another option. And they do what Luis Enrique did or what Lopetegui is going and after they score they take advantage of that and play the ball in their own half and then exploit the space left by the opposition with long passes. Supposedly that gives you more security. But is it not more dangerous to mix two “languages” this way?[/b]

Luis Enrique did that really well. But I don’t like it. Imagine that you’re the national team and you’re 1-0 against Portugal in the World Cup. Spain says: instead of pressing high and exposing space behind out back line, we’re going to take a step back like Luis Aragones did. So they come and press you and then you can play a direct pass to Diego Costa… or Luis Suarez in the Barca version. Neymar too. We used to counter this way at Barca. Luis Enrique would invite the opposition to press high so that we could counter. We scored that way against Atletico Madrid in the Cup. Suarez played a pass to himself and went past Gimenez. Or that nutmeg against David Luis in the PSG game. And we were all in our own half. This was unthinkable for Guardiola’s Barca. It depends on the coach. I don’t like it. Even winning 1-0 in the 89th minute I want the ball and the place where I feel most comfortable is in the opposition half, in control of the ball, attacking.

Q: But besides your personal feelings about it, if you have Iniesta, Silva and Isco on the pitch, isn’t it more pragmatic to maintain high pressure? When Spain or Barca take a step back aren’t they risking losing control and confidence?

I ask myself: how do I defend better? Give me the ball. The opponent can’t attack you. He first has to recover the ball. And when he does that he’s 70-80 meters from your goal, so the conclusion is clear. The safest thing is to have the ball in the opposition half. That’s why I don’t understand the coaches that say “we’re going to play in our own half.” Right now the only team in the world that tries to dominate the game until the last minute, regardless of the score, is City.

Q: Teams that stay in their own half have to make longer runs in order to go forward and backward. Doesn’t that affect players like Busquets, Iniesta or Isco?

Yes, but the coaches that do that prepare their midfielders and wide players for longer runs. With Luis Enrique we were doing a different type of physical work for longer efforts. With Paco Seirul-lo we did series of 10-15 meters sprints. That was specific for the midfielders and the central defenders had their own work with longer runs. Simeone prepares his players for sitting back. They have very hard preseasons because the team has to be defending all the time, closing down spaces, covering for each other… The coach focuses on how he wants to play: from a physical, technical and psychological point of view. Simeone has convinced players like Koke to do something that I would find extremely difficult… And they enjoy it. I saw it from our bench: Cholo is happy on the sideline when his team doesn’t have the ball. Guardiola focused on his football: short runs, a spark, a move and playing the ball from the back. Specific circuits for playing in 30 meters. Simeone prepares his player for playing in bigger spaces.

Q: Do you think Guardiola is different at City?

He does other things. For example he works on defending lateral crosses. He finds the player who crosses and has people block the one who is going to take the shot.

Q: Is it inevitable that coaches become more and more important because of the complexity of the game?

Yes, football has become similar to American football. Nothing is left to chance. But after a certain time if Pep would have gone on vacation the team would have known what they had to do. The only thing that we didn’t do was opposition analysis. Well… I did. So I’d think: Villarreal, how do they play? They have a diamond in midfield, always look to have one man more in the center. Because they play with two forwards you have to tell Alves to come into midfield because just three at the back would have been enough to mark the Bacca and Bakambu of the tune. Why would you need four? So at least we’re now evenly matched in midfield. And then I’d tell Messi to come and play in midfield too…

Q: Are there more players that can play the way you want or more players that can play the way Simeon wants?

It depends on each of them. But I think that most players don’t go out on the pitch to do sprints. They want the ball. It’s a drug. We play football because we’re addicted to the ball.

Q: How does Messi read games?

Tactically he understands everything. It’s shameful to compare him to anyone. Messi dominates every aspect. Space, time, where his teammate is, where the opposition player is. Before he used to unbalance games with pure ability and strength. Now he dribbles you like a bastard: he lures you in. He sees that he has a marker on him and he knows that the guy is scared of him so he waits for another opponent to come and then when he has like a 3×1 he passes the ball. I saw this with LeBron James too. In the final between Cavaliers and Miami in 2014. LeBron isn’t an individualistic player. When he had two players on him he would pass the ball to his teammate that was now free and could shoot. Iniesta and Messi do this too. They lure you in until a teammate is left open. If you don’t go to press them they’ll just play. We do this work since we’re kids. Finding the space, finding the free teammate. Even Ter Stegen knows it. He trains for it. He plays the ball long and you say “he’s thrown it away”. But he hasn’t. When Bayern came to the Camp Nou they were man marking us and left Ter Stegen along. And he would pass to Suarez and from there we’d have a 3 on 3.

Q: How do you see the World Cup?

I see Brazil has recovered. They have a great team. And they have both aspects: talent and physicality. That’s difficult. That’s why Spain’s success was so meritorious. Because we barely had any physically imposing players. There was Ramos, Arbeloa, Puyol and little else. It’s the same thing now too: talent above everything else. There’s no team that has a midfield like Spain. Silva, Iniesta, Busquets… Can’t do better than that. And these are the players that bear the weight of the team. Then you have the old guard in defense with Alba, Piqué, Ramos and Carvajal. Spain has improved from a physical aspect, but they’ll never be able to compete with Germany in that.

Q: What players would you highlight of the newer ones?

I like Vitolo a lot. I think that he’s a player that can understand the game much better. Sometimes he has difficulty in knowing what’s happening around him, when to dribble and when not to, but I think he’s spectacular. Saul too, and his talent has to be exploited too. I imagine them. at Barca and think: damn! They can end up being so much better by playing in a team that is the protagonist. They have a lot of potential. Carvajal is an excellent full back and, if the injuries respect him, Thiago is a fantastic player.

Q: What do you think about Isco and Asensio?

I think these young players have to know what Luis Aragones used to ask me: “How do you like to play? Pretty football or good football?” And at first I didn’t understand. “What does that mean.” “You give me good football. Pretty football is good, yes, but for cheating four guys.” I don’t want to give any names, but in La Liga we’ve all been impressed with a lot of players that have disappeared without leaving any mark. Yes, you can dribble, but for what? What stylish things does Messi do? Nothing. He does the work. Messi is good football and at the same time it’s so good that it becomes pretty.

Q: Does France have the best squad?

Yes. Along with Brazil and Germany. And let’s not forget Argentina. Argentina is at the same level as Spain, but the thing is that they play with so much pressure that they’re unable to perform. It’s not true that they don’t have midfielders. I think Banega could play for Barca. Can’t Mascherano play as a pivot? He obviously doesn’t have the technical level that Busquets does, but he’s improved a lot. When he came to Barca he had trouble positioning himself because he hasn’t needed to do this before. He would play long passes or pass the ball to Gerrard and it was enough. But at Barca he had to do more. You have to look, visualize, see what player is unmarked and has enough space and time to work the play… Barca is the final exam for a player. It’s the most difficult and most demanding club in the world. Madrid doesn’t have the same neat football. If their defender boots the ball into the stands it’s fine. That’s the culture. People applaud. At the Camp Nou if you do that there are already noises in the crowd. Since Cruyff s time.

Q: You don’t think the Bernabeu is demanding?

Both sets of fans are demanding, but the difference is that at the Bernabeu the demand is to give your all. They can’t stand lazy players. Their reference is the spirit of Juanito. The culture of Madrid is the spirit of Juanito or Camacho. What’s Barcelona’s culture? It’s not Victor Murioz’s, or Caldere’s. Barcelona’s cultura is Cruyff s cultura. And he would turn, look, understand the game and not lose the ball.

Q: PSG is a reference in football now, but their history is still recent. How do you build a team when the players are more important than the club?

The player still respects the coach a lot. I mean: the idea that even if the player makes 20 million and the coach makes 5 million you still have to listen to him is internalized. We might reach a moment in which a star thinks “what the hell is this guy telling me?” But more than physical and tactical work, what a coach has to do is group management: talking to every player and knowing how to manage the difference maker. Being honest: “If you don’t train well you won’t play regardless of how much of a star you are. You should know that.” And telling the group: “We have two things that aren’t negotiable: respect and attitude.” Thinking as a coach I think these are the two things that you can’t do without. Player can fail. But let them fail with my ideals. Emotional intelligence is basic for a coach. You can’t fight with your players. You have to seduce them.

Q: PSG’s squad has always been very professional. Don’t you think that with Neymar they’re introducing a hedonistic incertitude of a guy who is capable of going to his sister’s birthday in the middle of the season?

Neymar is a good guy. He likes to have fun. So does Alves. People think that Alves parties all the time because he posts videos on Instagram of him playing the drums. But he’s professional. That’s his life style.

Q: But Alves never left to go to his sister’s birthday…

That’s up to the coach. Cruyff had to manage Romario and that wasn’t easy either.

Q: Do you think Neymar is a leader?

He’s an incredible leader. He’s amazing on the pitch. He has a strong personality and never gets scared. That’s a quality. That’s what makes great players great. The fact that in the most difficult moments he will say “give me the ball”. What happened at Barca was that when things got tough everyone wanted the ball. Everyone had that personality. The problem with PSG and City in recent years was that their players weren’t used to having this weight on them. Now you look at PSG and you see Cavani, Di Maria, Neymar, Verratti… They’ve won things. They’ve been there. Neymar gets mad when they don’t pass to him. That’s something.

Q: Does Mbappe has more potential than any player since Messi?

Yes. Mbappe is going to be… I think there will be a time after Messi and Cristiano when Neymar will be the reference. Because he’s also Brazilian and Brazil have a good chance of being WC finalists. So Neymar’s gonna have his period of 3-4 years. And then it’s going to be Mbappe. He has brutal potential. He’s very young. Just 19. And he’s a beast. But I’m not sure… I think that talent ends up winning over physicality. Neymar is like Messi: talent and physicality. Right now I think that Mbappe has more physicality than talents. And the way I understand the game the players who make the difference more do so by talent. Neither Iniesta nor me had any physicality. Just talent. The ones who were touched with the magic wand have both: Maradona, Pele, Ronaldo Nazario, Messi, Neymar, and Mbappe has that too. But I see him more as an Henry. I’m sure he’ll improve with Emery. He works well. He’s a very good coach. But if you play him at Barca he would improve much more. He would understand everything. If Guardiola coaches him he goes from being an 8.5 to a 9.5. Neymar is already a 9.5. Difficult to improve that. Mbappe has to improve a lot, especially in terms of understanding the game. But because of the fact that since he was in the U16s o U17s he could go and do his play based on pure ability he hasn’t had to think a lot about the rest of the game. I want to see what he does against an organized defense like Atletico. Based on the way I understand football, right now, Neymar is better.