Xavi: Real Madrid lack Barcelona's 'beautiful' culture; Messi stands apart
Former Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez has said Real Madrid lack the culture of beautiful football that exists at the Camp Nou and that it is “embarrassing” to suggest any player can compare with Lionel Messi.
Xavi, educated at Barca’s La Masia academy, won 24 trophies including eight La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues with the Catalan club between 1998 and 2015, and was often viewed as the player who best epitomised the club’s possession-based style of football.
Speaking from Qatar where he currently combines playing duties at Al Sadd with coaching underage players and advising the World Cup 2022 organisers, the Catalan told El Pais: “Barcelona is the final exam for a player.
“It is the most difficult club and the most demanding in the world. Madrid do not play so beautifully. At the Bernabeu, if a defender hoofs the ball into the stand it is fine. That is the culture. The fans applaud.
“At the Camp Nou you knock the ball into the stand and the grumbles are so loud it is negative. Since [Johan] Cruyff’s time.”
He said even the appointment of former France star Zinedine Zidane, who regularly talks about playing “good football,” had done little to change matters.
“[Jose] Mourinho’s Madrid hit the ball direct over the top,” he said. “Mourinho told his players never to stop the ball, to play quickly and then [Angel] Di Maria, Cristiano [Ronaldo] or [Karim] Benzema would break. Now they do it with [Gareth] Bale. They don’t want to play football.”
The former Spain international argued that Madrid players have not been taught how to “dominate space-time” from an early age.
“Madrid break apart, seven players attack and Casemiro stays back on his own to cover the centre,” he said. “[Barca midfielder Sergio] Busquets cannot do that as even I am faster than he is. Casemiro is super fast, but he has trouble with everything else as he has not worked on it.
“He has other characteristics, is more defensive, makes more tackles, covers more ground, but he does not dominate space-time. If you had started with Casemiro aged 12, 13, 15, then he would have that.”
He did acknowledge that Madrid midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric could have fitted in at Barca, saying: “Kroos! Modric! How did they not sign for Barca? They are players who you can see fit the Barca profile.”
Asked about Madrid’s talented younger generation, including Isco and Marco Asensio, Xavi suggested they are more interested in showing off individually than being really decisive for their team.
“These youngsters need to know what [Euro 2008-winning Spain coach] Luis Aragones told me,” he said. “Do you want to play pretty football or good football? I don’t want to name names, but in La Liga many players have impressed and then disappeared without trace. They do tricks, but for what? Messi does not do tricks, never. Messi goes for the kill. Messi is good football, and so good at the same time that it becomes pretty.”
Barca had the upper hand in battles with Madrid during much of Xavi’s time at the Camp Nou, especially when Pep Guardiola was coach and Messi was at his peak.
Madrid have had the better of recent years, though, having won three of the last four Champions League titles, with Ronaldo having won four of the last five Ballon d’Or awards to draw level with Messi’s total of five.
Xavi, though, said Messi still stands apart.
Asked about the way in which Messi reads game, he replied: “Tactically he understands everything.
“It is embarrassing that he is compared with anybody else. Messi is aware of everything — space, time, where his teammates are, and the opponents.”
Ronaldo has enjoyed success since moving inside from the wing to be a specialist penalty-box finisher, while Gareth Bale has often played as part of a front two more recently.
However, Xavi said: “If you put Bale in the middle it does not work. He is a winger, a dribbler, like Cristiano. Cristiano cannot play in the centre. It does not suit him.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan