Xavi’s philosophy is not so much to control the ball as to hold it.
Xavi builds actions from behind, covering all active zones of the pitch. He always protects his positions. Building action by maintaining a four-person structure at back and playing short passes in a small space. Midfielders only create options while midfielders provide width. This is the longest phase. The most commonly used pattern is 4-2-3-1 with two pivots, but in the middle period they become 4-3-3, eventually going 4-3-2-1 depending on the opponent. When building the action in this formation, one of the two defensive midfielders is crucial, creating an additional pass option in the game and doing the first counter-press after losing the ball.
He used two approaches to enter the offensive third: less line-breaking passes directly into the penalty area, more often using the width of the pitch to stretch the opponent’s line and play the ball just in front of the opponent’s penalty area. The side defenders then provide only the width of the play by hiding and making entrances to the half-space, while the wingers position is outside of them, creating a pass option only and at the same time protection in case of lost the ball.
Both the 4-3-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 formation allow one player who can freely search for clearances across the opponent’s defensive formation and a false striker (out of defensive duties) who makes vertical runs.
In defense they start pressing deeply only in the middle of their own half, usually taking the shape of 5-3-2/3-5-2 and from this formation they most often start to attack by taking over the ball. The mobility of the defense: the player closest to the ball always leaves his position and press, regardless of positioning duties. Next player nearby enter this abandoned area, closing the pass channels and stiffening the structure. Such a rather rigid approach definitely limits the chances of breaking through the pressing line, but when it does the risk doubles, because there is no depth in the line of defense (players moved to the first line of pressing). This means susceptibility to cross balls played behind the line of side defenders, direct vertical passes to the free field and low effectiveness of tackles beyond the first line of pressing.