Some things just sound better together. Salt and pepper, for example, or Wallace and Gromit, now football has a new collocation: Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. Iniesta and Xavi. Xavi and Iniesta.
One wears No. 8 for Barcelona, the other No. 6. One wears No. 8 for Spain, the other No. 6. For as long as either can remember they've been dressed in Blaugrana, and they've been central to a change in football in recent years.
Fast, athletic midfielders were threatening to rule the game; players with engines that could run and run, with the ability to tackle, score and bully opponents. This was the logical progression of the game, we were led to believe. Xavi and Iniesta didn't just reject that notion, they proved it wrong. They opened the door for the return of the small, technical player.
212 – Xavi (212) and Iniesta (207) made more passes into the final third than any other players at Euro 2012. Balón.— OptaJose (@OptaJose) November 30, 2012
Football fans have even garnered newfound enthusiasm for the simple beauty of the likes Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo. They'd always had an appreciation within the game—Rio Ferdinand calls Scholes "Sat Nav," and he was heralded by Zinedine Zidane—but now it has spread much further.
Xavi and Iniesta would have been a wonderful gift to any fan in any era, but as part of the first generation to play through the full extent of the "Internet era" adds extra emphasis to what they bring to the game.
In the past we were mesmerized by wonderfully skillful players, such as Diego Maradona and George Best, by goalscorers, like Pele or Ronaldo, and by all-or-nothing defenders such as Sir Bobby Moore.
Now with the Internet we can appreciate the much finer details of a player. Every match is viewed by a worldwide audience—legally or illegally—and clips of players are a constant source of entertainment to us on sites such as YouTube. You could spend hours watching the technical abilities of Xavi and Iniesta. In fact, please do:
But it is the newfound world of statistics where the two have really caught our attention. Barcelona and Spain, with the pair as part of their midfield, have almost made strikers redundant. It is thought that if he could, Pep Guardiola would play with 10 central midfielders and a goalkeeper!
That's not all they have done, though, they have implemented the style fondly known as "tiqui-taca"—possibly coined by broadcaster Andres Montes in the 2006 World Cup, although others suggest its origins lie with Javier Clemente. It's a style that relies on short, quick, progressive passing, and you can't speak of tiqui-taca without imagining Xavi and Iniesta.
Opta and WhoScored allow us immediately to break down how this style is effective and how the pair enhance it. We now know it would be rare to see a match where Xavi makes less than 100 passes and I would fall off my chair if his completion rate wasn't more than 90 percent.
It's quite recently that you can dig up an example of how important it is to to have the two feeding off each other centrally. In the first leg of the Champions League tie against AC Milan, Iniesta started on the left with Cesc Fabregas in the middle (via WhoScored.com)—as has been common this season—as Barca lost 2-0.
For the return leg, Iniesta was shifted back into the middle (via WhoScored.com), closer to Xavi and without Fabregas in between them. The result was a 4-0 win, and Barcelona have stuck by that formation since.
History will pinpoint them as the main men in Spain's recent triumphs—although Lionel Messi will share the burden when we look back at this Barca side. Vital to their style and key in two European Championships and one World Cup, they are, subjectively, the greatest midfield duo ever.
The modern game makes it difficult to completely make that assessment as a "duo," though. Even they are aided with Sergio Busquets just behind them—and Xabi Alonso too for La Roja—but what of other current European midfields?
Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid all deploy two holding midfielders with an attacking triumvirate in front of them. Bayern's two of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger are fantastic but are in their first season together. Dortmund are still an emerging force with Sebastian Kehl and Ilkay Gundogan while Madrid's Alonso and Sami Khedira don't match up to Xavi and Iniesta as a pairing.
All those three clubs do have an attacking midfielder who, like Iniesta, would love a Xavi: Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil.
Juventus have an interesting midfield. The grace of Pirlo is added to by Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, although the recent defeat in Munich would suggest they aren't ready to hold a candle to Barca's midfield yet.
In England, none of the big clubs are enjoying a vintage midfield. Michael Carrick and Yaya Toure have been standout performers for Manchester United and Manchester City, while players like David Silva, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla are a constant source of entertainment there is nothing quite like Xavi and Iniesta.
As styles and shapes constantly shift, it's doubtful there will ever be a partnership as good as Xavi and Iniesta's in the same mold.
If a better partnership is to evolve, it will need to recreate the game—much like Barca's passing masters have done.