Xavi and the Square Pass
How going sideways became the future
The football world has always been in thrall to various fashion accessories. There has been the lofted collar, as sported by Eric Cantona; and the white boots, first worn by Alan Ball and resurrected by David Beckham. Elsewhere, there has been stocking chic, a favourite of Thierry Henry, where the socks drawn high over each knee; and, most recently and most subversively, there is the snood, a sort of half-scarf which is the type of thing you expect to see teenagers tucking over their noses before flinging rocks at the police. (Maybe that's why Sir Alex Ferguson has banned his players from wearing it; meanwhile, it can be found proudly round the neck of Mario Balotelli.) These diverse trends have captivated millions of players around the globe, be they elite professionals or humble amateurs. But the fashion accessory with which I am most smitten is the square pass; and for that, I have Xaví to thank.
Xaví, Xaví, Xaví... even his name, when repeated, has the same hypnotic effect as his passing, the subtle lullaby that has put many an opposition to rest. It's strange, and a little embarrassing, to recall, but there was once a time when I didn't really know what Xaví did on the pitch. He just seemed to, well, knock it about. But now he's succeeded in making the square pass, that most mundane of a football's movements, into something that the trendiest midfielders dare not be seen without.
Yes; just as Justin Timberlake sang that he was "bringing sexy back", Xaví is bringing sideways back. It's taken English football some time to catch on, given that the domestic game has traditionally been obsessed with playing the ball forward hard, high and early. For years in the eighties, Ray Wilkins — now acknowledged as one of our finest players — was lampooned as a crab because his instincts with the ball were so often lateral. It was only when Claude Makélélé arrived on our shores that we truly began to appreciate the virtue of someone whose chief skill was ball retention.
Yet even Makélélé's ascension at Chelsea was not enough to win me over. After all, I had always had a great respect for players in this role: Demetrio Albertini at AC Milan, Fernando Redondo at Real Madrid, once described by Fabio Capello as "tactically perfect". But in neither case had I been able to watch them week in, week out; and their careers came before the proliferation of football statistics which would shed light on just how dominant they were.
That had long since changed by the time of the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup, where Spain defeated Germany one-nil. This occasion was as close to a single-goal thrashing as you are ever likely to see, and the numbers give the starkest indication of Xaví's mastery. During the game, he completed 109 out of a total of 122 passes; his opposite man, Sebastian Schweinsteiger, completed 57 out of 92. For much of the match, it seemed that Xaví was playing hide-and-seek with the ball; his manipulation of it is often compared to that of an NFL quarterback, but he also has much in common with an NBA point guard, sweeping the ball from left to right and back across the floor to pull the defenders out of their tight and complacent shape.
That's not to say that Xaví is a footballing conservative; that he merely hoards possession for the sake of it. It's just that he plays the ball promptly forward only when precisely necessary, and has an economy of movement that escaped my eye for many years. There's a video on YouTube, with well over 100,000 views, which shows this to best effect; it's a showreel of Xaví's performance against Manchester United in the final of the 2009 Champions League, where his pass completion percentage was well into the nineties. Time and again Xaví receives the ball in a side-on position, giving him a full view not only of the pitch ahead but the best possible peripheral view of those trying to take it from him. Time and again he turns so sharply away from his pursuer that you fear he'll crack his ankles, before passing serenely into the space that he's just left.
Of course, great players are the result of carefully-nurtured nature, and so we have much for which we can thank La Masia, Barcelona's famed academy; graduates of which of course include not only Xaví but Josep Guardiola, Cesc Fàbregas, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Success inevitably spawns imitators, and so it's testament to La Masia's philosophy that the 4-3-3 formation is now the weapon of tactical choice for many of the world's leading sides, where the extra passing angles made available by a three-man midfield can be exploited to excellent effect.
Of course, following Spain's back-to-back triumphs in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Xaví is now thoroughly en vogue. The final sign that he has truly gone mainstream is his nomination for the final three of the Fifa World Player of the Year award ahead of Wesley Sneijder, who won a treble of Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia before leading Holland to the runners-up spot in South Africa. For the first time, then, the award's voters — who have a historical and notorious bias towards forwards — rewarded patient playmaking over attacking effervescence.
Appreciating just what Xaví does has required a different approach to my watching of the game, a regard for the beauty of what I once though banal. Reared on kick-and-rush, in a football culture where to place your foot on the ball was a betrayal of the English game's code of high tempo, it took about as much time for me to give Xaví his due as it did for me to develop a taste for red wine. In a game where fashions frequently come and go, I therefore have him to thank for a taste in football which, though long in its acquisition, will not be lost upon a whim.