Xavi 'optimistic' of more Barcelona arrivals but remains unsure of Dembele future

By Sports Desk January 04, 2022

Xavi is "very optimistic" that Barcelona can further strengthen in the January transfer window, but is unsure whether forward Ousmane Dembele will remain at Camp Nou beyond this season.

Despite their well-publicised financial issues, with debts rising above €1.2billion last year, Barca have brought in Ferran Torres from Manchester City this month for an initial €55million (£46.7m).

Barca will be unable to register Torres until they have offloaded some other players as they would risk exceeding their salary cap, yet other big-name stars continue to be linked with a switch to Camp Nou.

Among those touted as a target for the Catalans is Erling Haaland, with club president Joan Laporta this week refusing to rule out a potential move for the in-demand Borussia Dortmund striker.

Responding to rumours regarding his side's interest in Haaland, Laporta told the football world to "get ready" because Barcelona "are back".

Xavi shares Laporta's enthusiasm and believes the arrival of Torres, who was presented at Camp Nou on Monday, will galvanise supporters following a poor first half to the campaign.

"I'm very close to [Laporta] and I'm very optimistic. I like his ambition," Xavi said at a news conference previewing Wednesday's Copa del Rey last-32 tie with Linares Deportivo. 

"We are working to return. We are close to the Champions League positions. It is not easy, but we are working hard to give Barca what it deserves. We are on the right track.

"The signing of Ferran Torres makes the fans breathe as well. We are working practically 24 hours a day. We must follow the president's lead. It is a positive message to say that we have returned.

"If we sink into misery, it does not help. We must be positive. The president leads the way."

 

Haaland has scored 76 goals in 75 games for Dortmund since making his debut in January 2020, a tally bettered by only Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski (103 goals in 87 games) among players from Europe's top five leagues in all competitions.

Alvaro Morata, currently on loan at Juventus from Atletico Madrid, has been touted as another potential option for Barca to bolster their attack, which was depleted by the high-profile exit of Lionel Messi in August.

Asked about the links with Haaland and Morata, Xavi said: "I don't want to talk about hypotheses, only the players we have here. 

"They are both great players but they are not ours. If Morata signs for Barcelona then I will answer questions on him."

Barca cannot realistically bring in more players until others make way, however, with the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele potentially on their way out.

Coutinho has started just five games all season, while Dembele is into the final five months of his deal and is officially free to sign a pre-contract agreement with clubs from abroad.

The France international's time in Catalonia has been hampered by a succession of injury setbacks, but when fit he has made an impact and averages 0.6 goals or assists per 90 minutes in LaLiga, which is a similar amount to Antoine Griezmann (0.67) and team-mate Memphis Depay (0.66).

"We have to wait for Dembele," Xavi said. "I'm calm as I can't do anything else. Dembele has to make an effort and think about his future – it depends on him.

"As for Philippe, I've not spoken with him. He's a professional and helps us a lot. But in order for us to have entries, there must be exits."

Xavi also confirmed Barca are hopeful of having Dani Alves, another recent recruit, registered ahead of the midweek cup tie with third-tier Linares Deportivo.

Alves' only appearance since early September was in a friendly against Boca Juniors last month, but Xavi expects the experienced full-back to play a big part in the remainder of Barca's campaign.

"I see him very well. He is spectacular in training, with a lot of intensity and a professionalism," Xavi said. 

"He will help us a lot with his arrival on the wing. He is 38 years old, but as is training will help us in many games. He is a superb player and I hope he can play every three days for us."

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    For a club like Milan, 11 years make for a long wait.

    Let alone the enormous hierarchical changes that have taken place at Casa Milan over that period, with turbulent changes of ownership and coaches that have impacted various transformations in approach both on and off the pitch, those 11 years in European football have witnessed a seismic tactical shift.

    The Rossoneri's last Serie A title in 2010-11 sits as a stark contrast to this year's title charge that ended in success, glory sealed on Sunday with a 3-0 win at Sassuolo.

    In 2010-11, the Scudetto was like a perfect storm – upon Massimiliano Allegri's hiring as coach, Alexandre Pato was coming into his own before injuries started to take their toll, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were solidifying their respective statuses as world-class footballers in their positions, amid the career tail-ends of Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta.

    That Milan team was inherently reflective of its time, leaning on the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho to provide goals, moments and the eventual title. Despite Ibrahimovic's added contribution of 12 assists that season, their equal share of 14 league goals each was fitting. But coming into the final game of the season this weekend, Rafael Leao was the only Milan player to have scored over 10 goals.

    Reflecting the totality of role that midfields at the top of European football must now characterise, Milan have effectively challenged for the Scudetto this season – and last season – without a front third it can lean on. Less diplomatically, Milan's front third has been a collection of misfit toys jumbled together as the purse strings have tightened.

    Despite falling away after Christmas, it is what made last season's run so distinct, for it was ultimately volatile in the second half of the season and served as a precursor to this term. Following Ismael Bennacer and Ibrahimovic's injuries against Napoli in November 2020, Milan were performing the proverbial smash and grab on a weekly basis, on the back of Franck Kessie's penalty exploits and Theo Hernandez doing Theo Hernandez things at left-back. Their 3-2 win over Lazio coming into that Christmas was a particularly distinct example.

    How has this Milan team achieved this Serie A title with a largely dysfunctional frontline in possession? How do the Rossoneri build something sustainable from it, given the Scudetto for this project has arguably come ahead of schedule, despite losing Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, along with successive injury spells for Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer?

    In contrast to last season, Milan have come home strongly, going undefeated since their loss in mid-January to Spezia. Following the African Cup of Nations as well as a debilitative run of injuries and Covid-19, Bennacer has finally been able to put together a consistent run of games since February. With the arguable exception of Marcelo Brozovic, the 24-year-old has re-established himself as the best midfielder in Serie A.

    Along with the ever-improving Sandro Tonali, the diminutive Algerian gives Milan oxygen while taking it away from the opposition, in both attacking and defensive senses. The latter is a critical aspect for under Stefano Pioli, Milan press high up the pitch more than any team in Serie A. Among players over 500 minutes, Bennacer leads the team for combined tackles and interceptions (4.08) per 90.

    Something that's particularly important is how he can compress the pitch and close off the middle for the opposition through where he wins the ball, not simply how much of it he wins. Bennacer has an innate ability to step onto the opposition's initial pass into Milan's defensive half and come out with the ball, allowing the Rossoneri to spring into transition or maintain territorial superiority.

    His spatial awareness also transfers to the offensive side of the game, as an extension of the simple fact he shows for the ball to feet in areas his team-mates in midfield do not.

    It unlocks his technical aptitude and sense of balance on the ball, with the ability to wriggle out of tight spots and get the team up the pitch. As a result, Bennacer (2.18) dwarfs Tonali (1.05) and Kessie (1.34) for successful dribbles per 90, while seeing more of the ball over the course of a game and in more damaging areas, with 83.9 touches per 90 in comparison to Tonali's 65.51 and Kessie's 66.63.

    Meanwhile, Kessie playing a more advanced role in midfield for periods this season has not translated to a correspondent gap in chances created from open play.

    Kessie - who scored against Sassuolo - leads the three with 1.05 per 90 this term, in comparison to Tonali's 0.84 and Bennacer's 0.98. Kessie's forthcoming departure for Barcelona might actually unlock Milan's best tandem in Pioli's 4-2-3-1.

    With Bennacer, Milan can play through their midfield and not have to rely on the attacking force of nature at left-back that is Hernandez. His open play xG p90 of 0.11 and 1.06 chances created from open play p90 is simply eyewatering from left-back - especially in comparison to Alessandro Florenzi and Pierre Kalulu's respective 0.55 and 0.34 in the latter category.

    Ultimately, amid Ibrahimovic running on fumes at 40, the members of Milan's attack have largely singular skill sets and as a sum of their parts, are still largely inflexible.

    Players like Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers, Olivier Giroud and Junior Messias – and even Ante Rebic when available - are all necessary in some capacity on top of what they provide in defensive pressure up the pitch, but with the ball Milan are a much less flexible team in the absence of that Tonali/Bennacer tandem – something last weekend's win over Atalanta arguably only reinforced despite the result.

    The need to maximise midfield balance in relation to attacking personnel is a distinct dynamic across Serie A, particularly in contrast to Juventus' diminishing power and as the arms race for forwards intensifies across the rest of the top five. Yet in a season where the Italian title winner will not break 90 points, none reflect that dynamic more than the Rossoneri.

    The narrative accompanying Milan's Scudetto triumph this season will be one of a European giant being quote unquote "back". 

    Their ability to maintain this level domestically in coming seasons - as well as challenging on the continent, with meek group stage exits in the Champions League like this season only being tolerable for so long among an ambitious fan base - will ultimately depend on how this relatively young team builds around Tonali and Bennacer.

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    Inter's reign as Serie A champions came to an end on Sunday despite rounding off their campaign with a resounding 3-0 victory over Sampdoria at San Siro.

    The Nerazzurri needed to beat Sampdoria on the final day and hope Milan lost against Sassuolo if they were to pip their fierce rivals to top spot.

    Inter completed their half of the bargain thanks to a couple of goals for Joaquin Correa after Ivan Perisic had opened the scoring early in the second half.

    But it did not matter as Milan were three goals up at half-time against Sassuolo and protected that advantage for a 3-0 win, meaning they – and not Inter – were crowned champions of Italy.

    At least three goals had been scored in the previous six league meetings between Inter and Sampdoria, but neither side could find a way through in a relatively low-key first half.

    Lautaro Martinez grazed the outside of the post with a header and was thwarted by Emil Audero from the best of Inter's opportunities.

    The Inter striker was denied again by Audero after the restart, although Simone Inzaghi's side soon found their groove.

    In what could be his final game for the club ahead of his contract expiring next month, Perisic picked out the far corner four minutes into the second half to give his side lift-off.

    Correa swept in a first-time finish to double Inter's lead, and the Argentina international added another on the turn two minutes later to completely kill off the contest.

    Perisic was carried off on a stretcher after sustaining an injury in the build-up to that third goal, which proved to be the last of the meaningful action on the day Inter's spell as top dogs in Italy officially came to an end.

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    Milan only needed a point at the Mapei Stadium on the final day of the season to dethrone city rivals Inter and they made it mission accomplished in style.

    There were no sign of nerves from the rampant Rossoneri as the outstanding Rafael Leao set Giroud up for a double and also laid on the third goal for Franck Kessie in a totally one-sided first half.

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