El-Clasico: 3 mistakes Xavi made in Barcelona’s loss to Real Madrid

3 mistakes made by Xavi to in Barcelona's loss to Real Madrid

El-Clasico: 3 mistakes Xavi made in Barcelona’s loss to Real Madrid

Tunde Young 21:17 - 28.10.2023

Barcelona lost 2-1 at home to Real Madrid in El Clasico and here is how manager Xavi Hernandez contributed to the disappointing result.

Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1 to return to the summit of La Liga thanks to a brace by Jude Bellingham. 

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This season's first El Clasico started off strong with Ilkay Gundogan opening his Barcelona account after just six minutes. 

Real Madrid were headed for a certain defeat until Jude Bellingham scored a stunning equaliser and then the winning goal in the 92nd minute. 

Although the result is largely attributed to Bellingham's brilliance, Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez is also culpable to an extent. 

Here are three mistakes Xavi made in El Clasico that cost Barcelona the game.

1. Barcelona’s conservative formation

Barcelona started the game with a 4-3-3 formation which had a back four of Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, Inigo Martinez and Alejandro Balde.

Ilkay Gundogan, Gavi and Fermin Lopez were in midfield while Ferran Torres led the line, flanked by Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo.

The idea of playing Cancelo out on the right wing instead of his more familiar right fullback role was Xavi’s way of insuring Barcelona against Real Madrid’s threat on the left, led primarily by Vinicius Jr.

So Barcelona often shifted into a back-five with Araujo dropping to right centre-back to partner Christensen and Martinez while Cancelo operated as a wing-back along with Balde.

The problem with this rather conservative use of Barcelona’s resources was that it was largely unnecessary as Real Madrid have played without width all season long.

Although he still drifts out wide a lot, Vinicius’ primary position is more central nowadays, as is Rodrygo and Bellingham’s, three players who carried the vast majority of Real Madrid’s offensive threat.

Xavi Hernandez and Vinicius Jr
Xavi was a bit to wary of Vinicius Jr's threat in El Clasico (Twitter/X) Xavi Hernandez and Vinicius Jr

So the question is, if Real mostly play centrally, why was Xavi so particular about sealing off the wings instead of using their lack of width against them?

2. Barcelona failed to use the wide areas

The second mistake is a bye product of the first as Barcelona voluntarily gave up their width to play two false nines in Joao Felix and Ferran Torres because of Xavi’s paranoia.

Xavi Hernandez
Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez (IMAGO)

As mentioned earlier, Real Madrid now play almost entirely centrally which often leaves them vulnerable on the flanks as there is no extra layer of protection for their fullbacks.

Even more so in this game as Toni Kroos started as the left central midfielder and the German is not famed for his ability to track back which meant that a proper right winger for Barca today would have had his way with Ferland Mendy who himself is not the most composed.

The same problem does not exist on the right as Fede Valverde is famed for his energy, resilience and determination but Xavi failed to realise the advantage his team could have had on the right.

Choosing to match Real Madrid centrally instead of just exploiting their weaknesses put Barcelona at a disadvantage and allowed Jude Bellingham to take over and steal the game out of their grasp late on.

3. Xavi’s substitutions

Having already made the mistakes to begin with, one would expect a manager of Xavi’s calibre to read the game better and adjust to what he’s watching by making the right substitutions but he failed to do that.

Perhaps he was fooled into a false sense of security by Barcelona’s lead which was earned by a fluke early goal by Gundogan.

Ilkay Gundogan El Clasico
Ilkay Gundogan celebrating his El Clasico goal with his Barcelona teammates (IMAGO) Ilkay Gundogan El Clasico

Real Madrid’s general lack of threat in the entire first half could have also been another reason Xavi did not feel the need to change his team’s shape.

Robert Lewandowski was Barcelona’s first substitute, coming off the bench at the hour mark to replace Ferran Torres in what was a like-for-like mistake.

Except that substitution made Barcelona even worse as 35-year-old Robert Lewandowski did not have the pace or energy to hold the width and play in a front two with wingers feeding him.

When Real Madrid equalised and it became apparent that something had to change for the home team, Xavi opted to take off an attacking midfielder in Fermin Lopez for an ultra-defensive one in Oriol Romeu, a truly puzzling substitution just four minutes after conceding.

When he finally decided to change shape and play with actual wingers, he brought on Lamine Yamal and took off the wrong player, Cancelo who could have formed a dangerous tandem by overlapping at will in a way Araujo simply wouldn’t.

Besides, the 77th minute was too late already when Yamal came on, especially since Joao Felix also got subbed off and replaced by Raphinha.

In summary, Xavi limited his team because he opted to be conservative which ultimately led to them not playing as well as they could have and taking advantage of Real Madrid’s poor game up until the Bellingham rescue mission.