Barcelona, you were missed. The turmoil of Messi's last days, and the downward spiral in the wake of his departure made it feel like the death of a great club. It would take ages for Barcelona to return to their glory days, we said. All they needed in the end, was some passion.
Appointing former players as managers has become more of a trend nowadays. Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United - the list goes on. Barcelona themselves went that way, appointing Ronald Koeman. That didn't last too long, however, and under him, the Blaugrana were pretty poor. Then, they went ahead and repeated the trick when appointing his successor. Only this time, the legendary status was higher and the coaching experience was lower.
Xavi's resume as a coach isn't particularly long. The Barca club legend managed Al Sadd for about two years. He led them to the 2020/21 league title, and won a few other trophies. But a crisis-ridden Barcelona was a completely different job. He took it anyway. The crises kept coming, though. Sergio Aguero, one of the free agent signing of the summer, had to retire due to a heart condition. They were also knocked out of their Champions League group, banished to the ignominy of the Europa League.
It seems over the month of January, Xavi has worked wonders. The transfer activity has played a big part of their resurgence. Ferran Torres was signed from Manchester City after the club took out a loan. They brought back another legend, Dani Alves. The 38-year old brought tactical and technical nous, and some fiery passion for the club to a young squad.
The deadline day signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was the master-stroke. Branded as a 'finished' player at Arsenal, the increasingly frustrated striker finally got his move away. It's left us with the ideal transfer, one that makes every party happy.
Aubameyang has scored seven league goals in seven league appearances. He's also scored twice as Barcelona attempt to go all the way in the Europa League. The Gabonese forward is making a very strong case for being anointed as the season's best signing. He has electrified Barcelona's forward line, and he was excellent against Real Madrid, where his brace silenced the Bernabeu.
Here's a statistic that places their transformation into perspective. Since losing 3-0 to Bayern in their final Champions League group game, Barcelona have lost just two out of 20 games. Neither has come in the league. They lost to Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, and Athletic Bilbao knocked them out of the Copa del Rey. In the league however, they are on a 17-match unbeaten streak. This includes a 4-2 win over Atletico, a 4-1 win over Valencia, and 4-0 thrashings of Athletic and Real Madrid. From languishing in mid-table, Barcelona are back in the top four. If Aubameyang had joined up with Xavi earlier, and indeed if Xavi may have arrived earlier, Barcelona could be challenging for the title now.
Successful transfer window
The impact of the transfer window cannot be overstated. Aubameyang was the pick of the signings, no doubt, but there were other movers. Adama Traore returned to his boyhood club, joining on loan from Wolves. He has already provided four assists - more than he has managed for Wolves since the beginning of the 2020/21 season. It was also important that Phillipe Coutinho left the club on loan. The Brazilian is flourishing back in the Premier League, freed from what has been a nightmare move. At Camp Nou, his signing was seemingly perfect for the club, yet he often came across as a square peg in a round hole. Having had a loan to Bayern Munich in between, Coutinho has not been a key part of the side almost since his transfer.
Aubameyang wasn't in his element at Arsenal in his last few days. Mikel Arteta has built a young, exciting side, led by the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard in attack, and Ben White, Kieran Tierney and Aaron Ramsdale at the back. Aubameyang, in contrast, felt out of place among the youth. His record was hardly inspiring, and the potential of signing him was unlikely to be heavily welcomed by Barcelona fans. Yet, he has proven them all wrong. Barcelona look set to continue playing Champions League football next season.
A top four finish is in the pipeline, and they may yet win the Europa League.
Xavi at Barcelona: Stars of the season
Of course Xavi's here. He is the biggest star for Barcelona this season. Their swagger is back, and their destruction of a Benzema-less Real Madrid highlighted both Xavi's work and Benzema's impact. His future holds the possibility of bringing the kind of legendary status his playing days brought. Pep Guardiola, possibly Barcelona's greatest manager ever, was also a former player. Xavi has a long way to go, but that's the benchmark.
The kind of impact he has had already, not many can boast of. In less than 15 appearances, he has transformed Barcelona's season and brought back hope to Barcelona fans suffering in the post-Messi fall.
Pablo Martín Gavi
Pedri broke through last season after his move from Las Palmas and immediately became a star. The industrious midfielder not only became an undisputed Barcelona starter, but also for Spain at Euro 2020. This season brought another young star - Pablo Martín Gavi. The midfielder, still only 17, has already made close to 40 senior appearances and made his Spain debut. He has played almost every European game for Barca, and looks wise beyond his years on the field. After years of making the wrong signings, Barcelona look like returning to their youth approach, with Gavi, Pedri, Nico Gonzalez and the more experienced Frenkie de Jong under the tutelage of veteran Sergio Busquets.
The Netherlands international hasn't quite sparkled like his Lyon days, but his early season form was good. He is Barcelona's top scorer with 10 goals, although Aubameyang has pulled up to within one goal of him. Depay is getting back to form and fitness, and is likely to be a major part of Barcelona's finish to the season.
There isn't a more decorated winner in football than Dani Alves. He oozes class, and the 38-year old brings a warrior mentality. It is unfortunate that Barcelona were unable to register Alves for the Europa League. His very presence in the squad is likely to bolster them, though.
For all the saga involving his still-expected departure from the club, no one has more assists this season in a Barcelona shirt. The Frenchman has had an underwhelming, injury-hit time at the club, but his quality still shines through.