Xavi Hernandez: Why He's Still Barcelona's Second Most Important Player

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Xavi Hernandez: Why He's Still Barcelona's Second Most Important Player
Victor Fraile/Getty Images

With 2012 coming to a close, many will reflect on Barcelona's historic start to the 2012-2013 campaign—and, inevitably, the role that one Lionel Messi has played in it.

But despite the little Argentine's individual exploits in attack, it is in midfield where the Blaugrana maintain their iron grip of dominance, and where they remain unrivaled in all of world football. No player is more important to that dominance than Xavi.

The whole Barcelona tiki-taka style of play depends crucially on maintaining possession of the ball and making crisp, clean passes. Not surprisingly, six of La Liga's top seven passers all hail from the Camp Nou.

With an average of 102 passes per game on the season, Xavi makes more—no, far more—than anyone, and he makes them with astonishing accuracy. His closest rival, fellow midfielder Sergio Busquets, makes 20 percent fewer passes on average. The next passer not from Catalunya, Xabi Alonso, makes 30 percent fewer.

The statistics, of course, only tell part of the story. Xavi is, simply put, the most reliable player in possession of the ball the world over. He is keenly aware of the locations of his opponents and his teammates whenever the ball is on its way to his feet.

Combined with this awareness, his incredible technique allows him to wriggle out of trouble in the unlikeliest of circumstances. No matter where he receives the ball, how he receives it, and how it's played to him, Xavi finds a way to create space for himself with his first touch. 

And because he's so reliable on the ball, he can ask for passes in tight spaces where other midfielders could only dream of receiving the ball comfortably. Opposing defenders will often back off when it's headed his way, afraid of being beaten by a deft touch should they attempt a challenge. Thus, Xavi is not only the best midfielder once he's on the ball, but is the easiest player for his teammates to find with it.

And those Xavi spins are simply delightful!

One might be tempted to think that Xavi makes so many passes because he doesn't take the risks going forward that other players take. But the mastermind behind the Blaugrana's dominance is an effective attacking player, with five goals and six assists to his name already this campaign.

His ability to exploit holes in the opposition's defenses aren't limited to his passing; he makes brilliant, sneaky (if rare) runs to take advantage of sleepy opposing midfielders, popping up in dangerous spaces. (See his most recent goal at Valladolid on Saturday).

And let's not forget, he does it all without possessing a single outstanding physical attribute. He's neither swift nor strong, neither tall nor powerful. He's not even particularly two-footed. Rather, he does it all with intelligence and guile, touch and technique.

It may seem almost pedestrian or cliche to make special note of Barcelona's passing dominance after all these years. Of course they're the best passers in the world, you say. Who doesn't know that?

But the very ordinariness of such a statement betrays the magnitude of the underlying accomplishment. No other team in the modern era has been so dominant over their opponents, so consistently, for so many seasons in a row. 

We forget how crucial Xavi's contribution to that dominance is only because his consistency is almost frightening. He may have more or less trouble finding cracks in a team's defense from game to game, but he never fails to exert control over midfield and retain possession.

Other teams can boast of attacking talent that matches the Barcelona front three. Just look southwest to the Bernabeu, where Madrid have not only La Pulga's closest rival in modern football leading their attack, but Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria alongside pressing forward. Certainly not many would choose Barcelona's current supporting cast or Pedro and Alexis Sanchez.

But though Madrid's top midfielders—Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso, and Mesut Ozil—are also hailed as some of the best in the world, they don't come close to exerting the sort of control that Barcelona's midfield—and Xavi in particular—regularly have on a match. 

So tip your hats to Messi this holiday season, but never forget who runs the show behind him, making all of his great work possible. 

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