Xavi Simons: YouTube star aged 10, risk taker, assist maker. But he is at a crossroads… again

It is the 93rd minute, the Netherlands are 2-0 up and he already has an assist — but Xavi Simons is still running.

A ball spills loose deep in the Dutch half. Alexandru Cicaldau’s legs are 75 minutes fresher; the angle is in the Romanian substitute’s favour. No matter.

Simons takes five explosive steps, powering from low to high in a sprinter’s start, and slides towards the ball from an awkward angle. Knee ligaments do not matter, not when a Dutch toe can reach the ball first.

His prod falls perfectly into the path of Donyell Malen, who beats the last defender in a one-vs-one and fires in one final goal. The assist made Simons the second-youngest player to produce two assists in the same European Championship game, just 19 days behind Spain’s Cesc Fabregas.

But why show that desperation, take that risk by sliding in when his team were already in such a dominant position, their progress to the quarter-finals assured? The answer lies in the making of him.

People know the precocious 10-year-old who starred in YouTube videos at Barcelona’s academy, they know the 21-year-old who has excelled for PSV Eindhoven, RB Leipzig and the Netherlands.

What they probably do not know are the challenges that came in between — but because of those hurdles, those who know Simons know those five seconds.

Simons is a 21-year-old who has already been in the public eye for over a decade. At less than 10 years old, and named after club legend Xavi Hernandez, he was held up as a poster child for Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy — his bouncy blonde curls, a la Carlos Valderrama, making him standout.

Barcelona utilised that distinctive image, casting him in adverts alongside Neymar and Ronaldinho — but the hype was based on ability too. His technical skill and game intelligence were honed by two factors — first, small-sided games at La Masia, but also his parenthood, where his father, Regilio, was a former Eredivisie player and youth academy coach at Ajax.

The result, as social media exploded at the beginning of the 2010s, was a series of skill videos which can still be found on YouTube today, titled things like — “BEST 10 YEAR OLD FOOTBALLER IN THE WORLD” or “Xavi Simons ● Barcelona Wonderkid ● Amazing Skills Show | HD”.

It was a deeply unsettling way for supporters, even if well-intentioned, to treat a child who was barely into double-digits — although arguably exacerbated by Barcelona’s marketing of their academy. This sort of hype at a young age is why pre-teen stars often sink without trace — how many children will be able to put in maximum effort when they are already being lauded as a star?

Simons was an exception, although puberty was a difficult period for footballing reasons — between the ages of 13 and 16, players grow at startlingly different rates. Simons was a late developer.

In some ways, this proved useful. Top-flight academies now recognise that being the smallest can help with skill development and game intelligence, because those prospects are forced to “perfectionise” their existing skills in order to survive, both within the game itself and within the highly-competitive academy process. When they catch up, those technical abilities are already hardwired within their system.

For Simons, however, there were points where he was too far behind, especially when playing at the highest level. For example, when he started playing for the Netherlands’ youth sides as an internet-famous 14-year-old, already represented by superagent Mino Raiola, there were points when even his technical ability would not allow him to keep up.

“His speed of action needed to improve to escape the duels,” explains one source close to Simons’ family. “There were some international youth-team matches where he was clearly struggling because he lacked explosivity. The question was whether he would catch up.”

By this time, partially as a result of his physicality, Simons was highly rated within La Masia but he was not necessarily considered one of their super-talents. Fermin Lopez was in his age group, while Gavi was one year younger.

At 16 years old, he left Barcelona. His destination? Paris Saint-Germain, a surprising choice to outsiders. In France, academy football is seen as the most physical in Europe, with PSG at its apex — seemingly a recipe for a slight teenager to struggle.

The reasoning was twofold. First, Simons and his family were not entirely happy with the personal development plan in place for him at Barcelona, which was considered relatively vague. Secondly, having been at La Masia for nine years, there was a belief a new environment would take him out of his comfort zone — and push him on to greater heights.

It was a risk — and the physical step up was as great as had been imagined. “Believe me, at Barcelona you don’t do a lot of work in the gym,” he told reporters in 2022. “You work with the ball, but not in the gym.”

How did he overcome that? Here is one Simons story which has not been told before. On arrival in Paris, his father installed a specialist home gym. Simons would do a day of elite-level physical development at PSG — before going home and doing extras with a range of multi-disciplinary experts, focusing on explosiveness, and waiting for his opportunity.

One change PSG had made that summer had already raised the stakes of Simons’ decision. The club had opted to dissolve their reserve team, with the under-19s serving as the final side before the first team. When Simons reached 18, he was left at a juncture — either leave the club in search of new opportunities, or push his way into a first-team squad including Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe. Both were intimidating options.

Simons was invited to join first-team training sessions under Mauricio Pochettino, initially as a test, and was able to hold his own. No longer bullied off the ball, and powerful enough to win through speed over short distances, he could survive at that level — and amidst that ilk of players, improved rapidly. The PSG first team, followed by developmental moves to PSV and RB Leipzig, awaited.

“Nature made him explosive later,” explains the source close to the Simons family. “He always had the superskills of technical ability and game intelligence — his own hard work has created the third.”

So to go back to the 93rd minute, and Simons’ chase. There is that work ethic, there is the game intelligence to recognise the opportunity — and there is the explosiveness, which is not just allowing him to avoid the duels — but win them.

Of course, that is just one moment from a game where Simons was arguably man of the match. Cody Gakpo scored two goals, and will attract the bulk of the attention — but Simons facilitated the Dutch attack.

There was no guarantee he would be a starter last week — dropped by manager Ronald Koeman for the final group-stage match against Austria. If not for Joey Veerman’s nightmare afternoon in the 3-2 defeat, Simons may have stayed on the bench for the knockouts — as it was, Tijjani Reijnders dropped back into a double-pivot role, opening up a space at No 10.

In attack, the Netherlands were struggling for consistency — but here, Simons orchestrated their best performance since Koeman returned to the job. In theory, he was playing centrally, taking advantage of his incredible scanning ability, but this was a notion only. Simons’ gift lies in his manipulation of space — by rotating with team-mates, he finds pockets of space between lines as tight as barcodes.

This was midfielder Jerdy Schouten’s finest game in a Dutch jersey — and a large part of that was due to Simons’ near-constant availability. Their most potent tactic led to the Netherlands’ opening goal.

Right-back Denzel Dumfries is a natural attacker, who effectively functioned as an auxiliary winger in possession. Steven Bergwijn, named as right winger on the team sheet, would then drift inside, either joining Memphis Depay as a strike partner, or dropping deeper to form a pair of dual No 10s with Simons. Either way, Simons would be the free man — and Gakpo would have the run of the left.

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With Romania’s defence drawn towards the overload on the Netherlands’ right wing, Gakpo had the run of the left. In the 20th minute, Bergwijn and Simons’ positioning bunched Romania’s centre-backs, with Gakpo and Dumfries (out of shot) keeping as much width as possible. Romania right-back Andrei Ratiu had both Simons and Gakpo to cover, and opted for the former — allowing Simons to pass the ball to Gakpo, who cut inside and finished excellently.

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Simons’ assist was the finest example, but this structure operated excellently throughout the first half, until Bergwijn was withdrawn through injury. Even before the goal, one perfectly weighted through ball from Simons to Depay, from a similar position, should have ended up with the Netherlands in front.

It was evident Simons was the orchestrator — pulling and pushing players around him into their positions, despite being the youngest starter on the Netherlands’ side. It was striking to see 34-year-old Daley Blind, 13 years and 90 caps his senior, receive the same treatment when he was brought on as a substitute.

Sometimes, he made mistakes and lost the ball — but he never lost his relish to be on it. In the first half, he dug out a rabona cross, seemingly just because he could. More impressively, because of its functionality, one brilliant Cruyff turn on the edge of the Romania box brought a second-half free kick.

His second assist, with Malen galloping downfield, was a suitable conclusion to the match.

So what comes next? For the Netherlands, it is Berlin and a quarter-final meeting with Turkey. But whenever this tournament ends for him, Simons will face an uncertain summer — he is arguably the best player still in Germany whose destination in September is unknown.

With Mbappe now gone, there are opportunities at the Parc des Princes — and at this stage of his career, Simons is ready to make the jump to start regularly at one of Europe’s elite clubs. But with the Paris club stockpiling talent across the frontline, and chasing Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, there are questions over whether that elite club is PSG. A return to the Allianz Arena in two months’ time? Bayern Munich is one much-discussed destination.

Throughout his young career, Simons has shown the same desire he does on the ball — the desire to take risks, if there is a higher goal in mind, whether it is adapting to the physicality of PSG, regular first-team game time at PSV, or the higher level of the Bundesliga.

It is understood PSG have no wish to sell him — but given their squad structure, another loan appears to be the most likely option. Sides should be on notice.

Maybe it was always the expectation that the 10-year-old who went viral on YouTube would star at Euro 2024. But Simons has gone the long way around — and now tops the competition’s assist charts.

He has prepared to explode. He is better for it. And now he is doing it.

(Top photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

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