Former Barcelona man Xavi Hernandez is widely considered one of the best midfielders of all time. In his hay-day with both Spain and Barcelona, Xavi formed one of the best midfield triads the game has ever seen, alongside Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. He won twenty-five major trophies with Barcelona and three for Spain, before moving to Qatar ahead of the 2015-16 season. He then went on to finish his career in style, winning the Qatari league in his final season at the club in 2018-19. The very next season he was named manager of the squad and soon afterward completely revolutionized Al Sadd into a near-unstoppable unit in the QPL. The Spanish midfielder has quietly gone about his business at Al Sadd, playing in Guardiola-Esque ways and doing del-Bosque-esque things, winning six trophies in two seasons so far. Barcelona are keeping a close eye on the now 41-year-old, and in time we may see one of the game's greatest ever midfielders become one of the game's greatest ever managers. Here is a tactical analysis of Xavi Hernandez's Al Sadd.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1 / 3-4-3
To examine any team, we must first begin with their system of play. Tiki-taka is often associated with a 4-3-3 formation, but Xavi and Al Sadd swap between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3 formation instead.
Regardless of which one they pick on a match-to-match basis, the reliance on two central midfielders to orchestrate attacks remains ever-present. In Xavi's first season in charge, those two players were the solid South Korean Woo-Young Jung and the former Atletico Madrid captain and legend Gabi Fernandez. Gabi's retirement from the game sparked a new familiar face to tiki-taka and Spanish football to enter the fold - Santi Cazorla. The former Arsenal and Villarreal man is now the face of Al Sadd and the orchestrator behind practically everything they do in attack. With 13 goals so far in the league, his highest ever goal return in a league campaign, Santi is showing that he still has what it takes at 36-years-old. Alongside Cazorla, Xavi also has another recognizable name in Brazilian midfielder Guilherme. An exceptional passer and progressor of the ball, the 30-year-old is taking everything he learned from his days with Olympiacos, Udinese, and Deportivo, to boss games in Qatar's top flight. With Cazorla not being the most mobile runner, it is important that Al Sadd keep all of the possession in the match and that the 36-year-old is surrounded by others who can recover well in transition, like the Brazilian. Xavi can also get around that defensive concern by pushing Cazorla further forward, where he's played both on the left, as a number ten, and as a false nine this season.
In the 3-4-3, Cazorla is sometimes deployed as the striker, as he has two mobile runners alongside him to create greater havoc upfront. When this happens Xavi will often play one of his two South Korean midfielders - either Woo-Young Jung or Nam Tae-Hee, alongside Guilherme. With all this said, with a manager like Xavi at the helm, the system becomes less important than the specific roles that each player has when they step foot onto the pitch. So let's begin to examine some of those roles in greater detail.
As you might expect of Xavi in a managerial role, Al Sadd play out from the back with a meticulous build-up, focused on keeping possession through short and quick passes. The team have kept over 60% of the possession in Xavi's two seasons at the club so far, and they are beginning to resemble something of Spain's tiki-taka glory days, without really having any of the star-studded players to match. The key to this tiki-taka approach is that whenever a player makes a pass, they are instantly on the move to receive another. Tiki taka's developed a reputation for being redundant, and it could be argued that Xavi's team overdo it at times. Sometimes two players will make several one-touch passes back and forth between each other, trying to free up a third man, but overdo it by three or four too many passes. That is, the third man is usually available far earlier than they actually find them. Nonetheless, with so many one-touch combinations, Xavi's side are quietly making tiki-taka come back to life in a really fun way.
In the initial build-up phases, Al Sadd's fullbacks remain very low on the pitch. The back-four arch themselves in a pentagon-like shape, with the fullbacks only slightly higher than the center-backs. They are an important part to the build-up, in stretching the width of the field and often remain lower than the defensive or central midfielders.
Although the fullbacks are important to these initial build-up phases, it is the center-backs who have the most crucial role, looking to switch play left to right or combine vertically with their central midfielders. The central midfielders will often operate in close proximity to one another and remain in the middle of the pitch, as the wingers retain the width. The attacking midfielder will look for space to receive the ball in between the lines of the opposition, as the striker stays high. There are a few key differences to Al Sadd's build-up between their two formations.
In the 3-4-3, the wingers are far more likely to invert and drop deep to pick up possession. If they do stay high and allow a false nine like Cazorla to drop deep instead, they still remain central in that high position. In the 4-2-3-1, they are far more likely to retain their width and stretch the field. The striker is also less likely to drop deep in the 4-2-3-1. With an attacking midfielder already in the team, that would become more redundant. But regardless of the formation, the key is to create quick one-touch passing sequences to unlock the defense, and to maintain width, stretching the field and exposing a high press through switches of play. Then when Al Sadd advances higher up the pitch, that width and the same principles of one-touch-passing remain.
While Xavi's team may sometimes be patient in breaking the opposition down, they take a drastically different approach in attacking transitions or when they've worked the ball into central attacking areas. That is, it becomes an awful lot faster, and the one-touch combinations return. The striker will often play with their back to goal, and so too will the inverted wingers in the 3-4-3. They operate in close proximity, and this allows for one-touch layoffs in and around the box to expose and unlock the opposition. As already noted, this mentality is also prominent in the build-up, but it's particularly impressive in attack, as it makes Al Sadd so exciting to watch further forward. They're incredibly elegant in the final third, creating many chances through incisive through-ball passes. But it's not a snail-like elegance, rather a high-paced heavy metal one. Al Sadd's attackers don't just make a smart layoff and then hold their position. Instead, they lay it off and then sprint in behind for a shot on goal, constantly opening up the defense and creating more space for other players to roam.
These moves are often started by a powerful runner dribbling the ball in-field at a high speed, before laying it off to another player, who will in a one-touch through ball pass, look to set that same player or a third-man runner free on goal. They also tend to do these combinations with a bit of flair and excitement, with backheels and elaborate flicks. The quickness of these combinations combined with that added flair makes Al Sadd very easy on the eye, but also very difficult to stop.
WIDTH IN ATTACK
Throughout their attacking phases, Al Sadd look to maintain width. In the 3-4-3 formation, that width comes from the wing-backs as the wingers invert in a 3-2-5. In a 4-2-3-1, both winger and fullback may occupy the same wide space at once, contrary to a Guardiola team that forbids any winger and fullback to operate in the same vertical channel.
Further, while the fullbacks may remain relatively low in the build-up, they frequently gallop forward to join attacks higher up the pitch and create wide overloads. While some 4-2-3-1 teams play very narrow in attack and invert their wingers, Xavi's stay wide. Overlapping runs from the fullbacks around the wingers are a frequent occurrence, even if the winger remains wide themselves. Obviously, the wide players will cut inside on the ball and look to open up space for the fullback to advance out wide instead, but Al Sadd's approach of actually maintaining their width through both players is a bit novel by today's standards. It's actually the way teams like Barcelona and Spain would have played back in Xavi's time as a player, but something that most clubs move away from nowadays to try and create more overloads in central areas through the use of inverted wingers or inverted fullbacks. In this regard, Xavi's Al Sadd would probably make a better comparison to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool with their use of fullbacks and wingers both often operating in similar spaces, than Pep's City.
In the 3-4-3, with the shape becoming more similar to a 3-2-5, the wingers are far more likely to invert. Suddenly now, they are looking like Thomas Tuchel's Chelsea instead. But even in the 3-4-3, the wingers are constantly looking for space in wide areas too, particularly trying to exploit the gap in between fullback and center-back. They make darting movements into these spaces whenever the outside center-backs or wing-backs have the ball.
In addition to these overloads and overlaps, Al Sadd's width is a great mechanism for them to keep possession and switch play. Keeping in mind that Xavi's team don't tend to make longer passes, these switches are often done through first going backward or sideways to the central midfielders or center-backs to hit diagonals, instead of switching from one side to the other. Then if the team loses possession, the central midfielders remain well-positioned to stop attacks from progressing, despite the open shape from their teammates.
Al Sadd failed to win the league in their first season under Xavi, and their recovery pace in transition was a key issue. He's cleaned that up this season, particularly in the 3-4-3 which allows a third defender to always be ready to help steer the team out of danger. So with that, let's talk about pressing.
PRESSING FROM THE FRONT
Al Sadd press from the very front of their attack, utilizing a ball-oriented press. This means that rather than each player having a specific opposite number to track, Al Sadd's players press based on whoever is closest to the ball in that given moment, as the other nearby players cover the necessary space and passing options around the ball. Despite the press being quite high, the central midfielders are rarely engaged as part of the initial press in the opposition's half. The front four do the bulk of the work instead, maintaining a fairly rigid 4-2-3-1 shape. In the 3-4-3, the front three again have the most weight on their shoulders in leading the press, with the wing-backs and central midfielders acting as a second line of support.
Lower on the pitch the 3-4-3 may become something of a 5-4-1, with the 4-2-3-1 staying relatively consistent by comparison. Xavi's side set up to keep the ball and the defensive woes that cost them the league last season have been sorted out this time around. If they do concede a goal, it is usually out of a failure to adequately recover in transition, or from ineffective pressing. But with only 14 goals conceded in 22 matches this season, it's easy to see why Al Sadd ran away with the league. As if the 77 goals they scored during that time isn't impressive enough, they simply don't look like they're going to concede, because they keep so much of the ball and generally recover well to stop attacks from happening when they lose it.
Xavi Hernandez may not be managing a team in one of Europe's top five leagues, but he is doing very interesting work at Al Sadd, bringing tiki-taka back to life. His team attack with loads of width and ferocity, and keep so much of the ball that they don't have to do that much defending. With their impressive record of nineteen wins from twenty-two games this season, Xavi Hernandez has taken Al Sadd to unbeatable heights. This should catch the attention of the likes of Barcelona and Spain moving forward, but for now, Qatari football fans can be very happy that they have a true tactical mastermind in their league.