Ilkay Gündoğan is not the type of player who will get you out of your seat.
Many Barcelona fans who aren’t familiar with his achievements at Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund may have been wondering what’s so special about the German.
But just when the team needed him against Cádiz, with time running out and Barça looking at four points dropped in their first two matches of the season, we got a glimpse of his quality.
Squared up at the top of the box, Gündoğan calmly slipped in a pass to an on-running Pedri with a perfectly weighted ball with the outside of his foot.
No panic or frustration for the signing of the summer, who has been busy thus far but struggled to make an impact in the run of play.
Barça knew from years past that Cádiz are a stubborn team that love giving La Liga giants a hard time. They couldn’t afford another Getafe-style mud fight, but with Xavi Hernández and Raphinha suspended and Ronald Araujo out injured there were hard decisions to be made in order to break down a defensive-minded opponent content to eke out a draw.
Maybe the injury to Araujo was an opportunity from which Barça were able to benefit for this specific game.
Barcelona’s strength in theory is their midfield depth. To break down Cádiz was never going to require defensive prowess, but rather quick play and risk-taking from the attack and concentration from the backline.
Xavi’s decision to go with a 3-4-3, with Frenkie de Jong in the backline, making it a total of five midfielders dispersed throughout the pitch, was an interesting call that I appreciated.
Giving freedom to Frenkie and Jules Kounde to roam forward unexpectedly was supposed to make Barça less predictable, and in moments it did generate opportunities.
Alejandro Balde is a natural wing-back, and Lamine Yamal proved he was more than capable of stepping into the role on the other side.
Surely, with five midfielders on the field, there was more than enough talent and intelligence to find a way through, and yet for eighty minutes the Blaugrana looked destined for disappointment.
Xavi, however, at least in my opinion, made good calls with the formation and the correct player selections.
Throughout the match there were moments of individual creativity and invention. Young Yamal stole the show, but credit has to be given to De Jong and Kounde for their industrious spirit, and also to Gündoğan for persisting with new ideas until the breakthrough finally occurred.
Gündoğan did well finding pockets of space, connecting the game, and attempting to make line-breaking passes. It was frustrating to not see more come of them, but the intention to be forward-thinking and dangerous was always there. That’s why he could calmly execute the game-winning assist in the clutch. He has the vision and the technical ability.
What was missing has been the thing that has been missing with Barcelona all summer: team cohesion and chemistry. How encouraging to see Gündoğan link up with Pedri, Barça’s star in the making.
You can whip in crosses all you want, but if that’s all you’re doing to create chances, a Barcelona team will always be heading for failure. It’s just too predictable.
The way things ended against Cádiz should give us hope that there is room and time for this new team to grow together and develop a real understanding with one another.
With Ousmane Dembélé gone, I don’t think the old 4-3-3 will be the way to go.
Even with João Cancelo looking to join soon, Barça’s strength will be their technical superiority, as opposed to sending the ball to the wing and stretching the game vertically. Cancelo has shown he can play both ways, and from both sides of the pitch. He can overlap or stay inverted and link up with midfield. He can also play as a midfielder more directly.
Whoever is on the pitch, Barcelona’s midfielders need to set the tone and establish a fast rhythm to the game. We need to start seeing quick, one and two-touch passing again.
Going around and over defensive lines, the main routes we’ve seen the team use under Xavi, comes second. First, Barça need to prove to themselves and their opponents that they can navigate the pitch with short passes and find their way through the lines in combination with one another.
If a Xavi coached team can’t learn to play this way, then I have my doubts that Xavi himself will be the right manager going forward.
Against Cádiz for the most of the game, as it was against Getafe, Barça had possession for the sake of possession, without any evidence that they knew what they wanted to do with it in order to create danger.
There could be a future for Balde, Yamal, and Ez Abde as wing-backs. Maybe even Raphinha too. If they continue down this road, they need to learn to trust one another and need to play with courage. The skill is already there.
The days of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets were all about not being afraid of doing the hardest thing in football: take the ball and keep passing it, fast and with minimal touches.
If you’re playing for Barcelona it’s because you have the talent to pull it off, but you need some guts too. Hit the training ground, and put in the work. And just like Xavi did so effectively at the beginning of his tenure, bond with each other and work for a common goal.
The fixtures are coming thick and fast. There’s time to learn and grow, but the team needs to decide quickly what they want their identity to be.