Just a few days after the euphoria of lifting their first Champions League trophy, senior Manchester Metropolis figures discovered the disappointing information that they have been shedding their captain Ilkay Gundogan to Barcelona.
On the similar time, they knew it made all of the sense on the earth.
First, it meant a brand new problem for a participant whose seven seasons at Metropolis could possibly be seen as having reached the final word excessive level in sealing final season’s treble. And from a footballing viewpoint, the German going to play below Xavi completely added up.
“There’s nearly nobody you’ll be able to evaluate to Xavi by way of legacy and impression in soccer, however by way of who could be closest to a ‘Xavi-esque’ participant, there are usually not many higher names than Gundogan,” a senior Metropolis supply, who requested to stay nameless as they didn’t have permission to talk, stated on the time.
Each Xavi and Gundogan are famend for compensating for any bodily inferiority with their tactical intelligence and excellent method. Their careers have additionally been formed in related methods.
Let’s begin with Xavi.
Now 43, he made his Barcelona debut in 1998, arriving of their first-team squad labelled as a defensive holding midfielder. He was an instance of the basic Barcelona ‘pivot’ moulded at their famend academy — in the identical approach that Pep Guardiola had been nearly a decade earlier than.
Xavi got here via the ranks first wanting as much as Guardiola, then mirroring his type, then competing with him for a spot within the beginning line-up.
The true breakthrough in Xavi’s profession would come when Frank Rijkaard started to play him greater up the pitch.
The Dutchman, who took over as supervisor in 2003, was the primary to imagine Xavi might evolve into an attacking midfielder. He positioned Xavi on the pitch with more-defensive gamers in deeper roles behind him, resembling Edgar Davids, Thiago Motta or Edmilson.
Barcelona gained the Champions League in 2006, with Xavi solely on the bench for the ultimate following an harm lay-off however by then established in his new function. His development continued, due to the affect of then-Spain coach Luis Aragones, and of Guardiola when he grew to become Barca supervisor in 2008.
The remainder, in fact, is historical past.
Gundogan’s change from a defensive midfielder to a extra attacking one adopted related traces.
Now 32, he made his Bundesliga debut in 2009 with Nuremberg, and was all the time seen as a flexible midfielder, however his finest moments in Germany got here when paired with Sven Bender in a double pivot at Borussia Dortmund.
He joined Metropolis in 2016, as Guardiola’s first signing, and within the early days there have been questions over his defensive capabilities. Gundogan was not the archetypal sole holding midfielder you’ll count on to see in a Guardiola facet, however he definitely shone in an prolonged spell in that function in 2019 when Fernandinho was out via harm.
Then, throughout the pandemic in 2020, Guardiola discovered himself brief on choices in assault. He noticed in Gundogan what Rijkaard had seen in Xavi: a footballer who was so able to studying play and predicting patterns that he might simply adapt to a special function. That’s how the Germany worldwide grew to become a false 9, and he would end as Metropolis’s prime scorer for the 2020-21 season with 17 objectives in all competitions.
Gundogan nonetheless served as a multi-functional software for Metropolis, however it was the attacking facet of his sport, perfected in recent times, that satisfied Xavi and Barcelona to push for his signing as a free agent this summer season.
So what about that earlier suggestion — that Gundogan is essentially the most “Xavi-esque” footballer round? Properly, let’s take a deeper have a look at how he’s settling in at Barca. Though we should always first make a extra normal level.
Xavi and Gundogan have been a part of completely totally different squads at Barcelona, not simply by way of high quality but in addition concerning the formation and techniques used. There are variations between the function Gundogan has now and the one Xavi performed at his peak.
However there are many similarities, too.
This primary graphic exhibits Xavi’s open-play touches throughout the 2008-09 marketing campaign. This was the primary season with Guardiola in cost, when Barcelona gained the treble.
Xavi’s important space of operation was the correct of central midfield, the place he took 15 per cent of his touches. However 11 per cent of his touches got here within the central attacking zone, near the opposition field.
We’re nonetheless within the early days of Gundogan’s Barca profession — he’s solely made seven La Liga appearances, and a type of was from the bench — so the following graphic relies on a small pattern measurement. However most of his touches (14 per cent) have been in that very same zone, simply outdoors the penalty space.
We will additionally see how Gundogan doesn’t have a tendency to sit down deep the way in which Xavi did.
That is primarily as a result of this crew don’t really want him again there.
As a substitute, the correct facet of their midfield is generally the place Frenkie de Jong begins with the ball, taking part in alongside holding midfielder Oriol Romeu. And the late mortgage signing of Joao Cancelo, additionally from Metropolis — a full-back with an inclination to play inside — means there may be even much less purpose for Gundogan to copy that side of Xavi’s previous function.
Throughout his latter years at Metropolis, Gundogan grew to become extra of a box-crasher than a game-builder — and that’s what Xavi needs from him, too. He has made it fairly clear that he doesn’t need him to play deeper. Even when Romeu was rested towards Royal Antwerp in final week’s opening Champions League group sport, the supervisor most well-liked to make use of De Jong in defensive midfield relatively than Gundogan, who’s arguably the higher match.
In his press convention earlier than that Antwerp sport, Xavi stated: “We all know he can play on the base of midfield, however proper now my backroom employees and I imagine that Gundogan’s largest impression has to happen near the field, and even stepping in. With Pedri injured, we’d like him much more in there.”
Taking all that into consideration, although, there’s something that doesn’t really click on.
Xavi additionally acknowledged that “every little thing will get higher when Gundogan has the ball”. However he does probably not have it that a lot — definitely not in contrast with Xavi’s years within the Barca midfield.
Between 2008 and 2013, Xavi’s common variety of touches per La Liga sport was all the time above 100 (123.0 in 2010-11 was the best, 101.6 in 2008-09 the bottom). After his first seven La Liga video games, Gundogan is averaging 63.7 touches.
Once more, this can be a small pattern measurement — and in a type of seven video games, towards Cadiz, he had 114 touches. However in all three of the La Liga matches Barcelona have performed towards a five-man defence, Gundogan’s variety of touches have been low: 74 towards Getafe, 68 towards Celta Vigo, and 51 towards Mallorca.
In his seven Premier League seasons at Metropolis, Gundogan averaged 87.7 touches per 90 minutes. These are usually not near peak Xavi figures both, however it nonetheless represents a big enhance on his present price.
He registered extra touches in his early years, working in deeper positions that noticed him extra concerned within the build-up course of when Guardiola’s system was nonetheless in growth. As that system was solidified, Metropolis pushed Gundogan greater up the pitch, and didn’t really want him to be as closely concerned in possession phrases as he was.
Because the graphic under exhibits, Gundogan’s begin at Barca has yielded related stats to Xavi relating to assists per sport, passing accuracy, dribbles accomplished, and the variety of possessions gained.
Eight total video games into the season at his new membership, Gundogan is but to attain for Barcelona. However Xavi definitely sounds satisfied of his value.
“He does every little thing effectively, completely every little thing. If we play effectively, it’s due to guys like him,” the supervisor stated after the 5-0 win over Actual Betis on September 16. “His signing was Heaven-sent, truthfully. He’s a superlative participant, a complete pleasure to observe.”
Xavi pushed exhausting for Gundogan’s signing this summer season, and if the membership determined to supply a person who turns 33 subsequent month a three-year contract it was as a result of the supervisor expects him to carry out a pivotal function in enhancing Barcelona’s capability to entertain and carry out in a pretty approach.
For a membership obsessive about making progress in direction of that, the extra Gundogan is concerned the higher.
(Prime photograph: Getty Photographs; design: Eamonn Dalton)
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