“He is a beast of talent. At 16 years old,” Xavi Hernandez told reporters following Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Alaves on Saturday.
“Very few appear in these conditions. How he works, how he fights, how he helps the side… Unless he gets the armband… he has already been a starter. He has no ceiling. I have made a specific plan with him.
“He makes a difference. We are facing something special. I highlight how he competes, he doesn’t get tired. He runs many kilometres at high intensity. He leaves the opponent. I am very happy. He has defensive humility.”
The 2023-24 campaign has been a largely miserable one for Barcelona. Their limp La Liga title defence has yielded only a handful of performances you’d class as genuinely convincing.
The club are out of the Copa del Rey. Playing as they are, they have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Champions League. Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Club look more likely of catching them in the top four than they do of closing the gap on league leaders Real Madrid.
All the economic levers have been pulled. The Super League plans don’t seem to be going anywhere. Real Madrid have reportedly agreed a deal to sign Kylian Mbappe in the summer. There’s great uncertainty over whether the club will be in any position to compete with their great rivals in the coming years.
Style and joy – concepts so synonymous with Barca at their best – have been lacking. Xavi looks exhausted and has spoken at length the toll the job is taking on him mentally and physically.
The long and short of it, then? It’s an absolute sh*tshow.
Still, among all that there is one chink of light shining through the darkness. A reason to hope for the future. His name is Lamine Yamal and he plays with a freedom and exuberance that’s genuinely reminiscent of a young Lionel Messi – to do so in the context of this broken football club speaks volumes of his potential.
Xavi’s words above were incredibly strong. You almost question the wisdom of him talking up such a young player in such terms. But then you look the way he picks up the ball in his own half and strides up the pitch, pirouetting past an Alaves body to burst into space. You see how the only way to stop him is to drag him down. And you know what? Xavi’s speaking the truth.
Umbrella by Rihanna was No.1 when Lamine Yamal was born. Have a good day. pic.twitter.com/PIBG1RTiWp
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) February 4, 2024
Reports from Spain suggest that Barcelona are looking to cash in on Raphinha this summer. A number of Premier League clubs are said to be monitoring the situation. That’s a Brazil international, a €58million signing, that played a big role in last season’s title victory. Yet you look at Yamal’s rapid ascent and you know that at just 16 he’s ready to take the place of an established star. Why wait?
We’re none the wiser as to who’ll be sitting in Barcelona’s dugout next season. Given the state of the club, pulling in one of Europe’s best coaches doesn’t seem all too likely.
But there’s a lot there to work with for Xavi’s successor. When you look at Yamal with the ball at his feet you allow yourself to believe that everything might just be alright.