Xavi’s Inexperienced Start at Barcelona

Xavi Hernández’s appointment as Barcelona’s head coach came swiftly following the departure of Ronald Koeman after a disappointing defeat against Rayo Vallecano. At that time, Barcelona was struggling, failing to secure a spot in the European competitions. 

Xavi, despite his legendary status as a midfielder for Barcelona, had limited coaching experience, having only recently begun his managerial career in Qatar. 

His decision to answer Barcelona’s call and take on the coaching role marked a significant transition, both for him and the club, given his relative inexperience in such a high-profile position.

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He had minimal experience, something the fans will remember. Xavi’s lack of expertise in managing the troubles that come with being Barcelona’s head coach showed, and ultimately, the now fallen angel was kicked from the Catalan heaven. 

His tenure was initially seen as a continuation of a legacy – from Johan Cruyff to Pep Guardiola and then to Xavi, symbolizing a seamless transition of Barcelona’s footballing philosophy. However, the reality has proven to be more challenging than anticipated.

Tensions with Club Management and Internal Conflicts

In his first two seasons, despite some troubling performances in European competitions against teams like Inter Milan and Manchester United, there were indications that the team was on a path of progress, albeit an unclear one.

But in Xavi’s third and last season, this sense of progress seemed to have stalled, leading to questions about the direction and management of the team.

To understand the challenges Xavi Hernández faced at Barcelona, it’s essential to revisit the developments from last summer. All signs lead us to think something happened because Xavi’s announcement last week that he will not continue beyond the summer confirmed something else. 

He said it himself – he was doubtful of his future at the club from the season’s start.

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Many will remember Mateu Alemany and, more importantly, Jordi Cruyff. Jordi might have never been as emblematic a figure as his father, Johan Cruyff, but he had a good relationship with Xavi. However, Jordi Cruyff’s removal from his position, for reasons not widely publicized, marked the beginning of the downfall.

Although his impact at the club was a subject of debate, his exit meant the loss of a trusted ally for Xavi.

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Subsequently, Deco, another legend from Joan Laporta’s vast nepotism network, was brought in. However, reports suggested growing tensions between Deco and Xavi, particularly concerning youth development and transfer strategies during the summer. 

Although Xavi Hernández might be a beginner and somewhat naive at times, this is part of the learning curve for any new coach, especially at a high-profile club like Barcelona. But no manager can succeed without the trust of the board, and this is the ‘problem’ moment – when the board interferes too much. 

The Board’s Interference and Tactical Challenges

Recent reports suggest a specific instance where this tension may have been evident. It is claimed that Xavi wanted to field more youngsters in Barcelona’s Champions League clash against Antwerp, but the board intervened, insisting on playing more established starters.

The underlying concern for the board, as per these reports, was the financial implications of Champions League success and the related revenue. Ironically, despite the board’s alleged intervention to ensure a positive result, Barcelona did not succeed in the match. 

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Xavi’s Passion and the Weight of Expectation

Like a snake biting its own tail, Xavi had a problem from the beginning. Xavi’s deep affection for FC Barcelona, a club he holds dearer than any other, played a pivotal role in his decision to accept Joan Laporta’s call to become the head coach.

His connection to the club, both as a legendary player and a devoted supporter, made it almost impossible for him to turn down the opportunity to lead the team during a turbulent period.

However, this decision, driven by passion and loyalty, eventually evolved into a challenging and somewhat toxic situation. This situation not only put immense pressure on him as a relatively inexperienced manager but also affected the overall harmony and functionality of the club.

A manager, especially at the top level, needs to perform. But to perform, you need time, experience and trust to understand your ideals. Judging his stint at Barcelona, Xavi seemed like a toddler walking into the Styx – it bit his tail and burned him alive. 

Xavi always had ideas; the multiple interviews prior to his coaching career expressed this. After all, the ‘Chameleon’ played an integral role in Pep’s puzzle that won every possible trophy.

It was that team. 

However, managing a team is a different experience. It requires time, experimentation, and the acceptance of failure as you work to implement your ideas through the actions of others, namely the players.

And that’s something Xavi never had the time to do. He surely wanted to, but between the injuries and the increasing trophy requirements by the fans and the board, Xavi could never be himself and try what he wanted. 

The paradox of Xav’s tenure at Barcelona is intriguing: he was simultaneously constrained in certain aspects of his role and yet granted considerable freedom in others.

Typically, boards should refrain from interfering too much in coaching matters unless there are potential repercussions for the club. But in Xavi’s case, the examples of Saviola or his own coaching staff provided a disheartening image. 

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Joan Laporta’s strategy of relying on former club legends for key roles has its merits but has shown mixed results with Xavi at the helm. 

The involvement of other club legends like Sergi Barjuán and Rafa Márquez further illustrates this approach. Márquez, coaching the B team, seems to be an enigmatic figure.

While the team hasn’t performed poorly under his leadership, and talents have emerged, the rationale behind his appointment and his specific contributions compared to his predecessor, García Pimienta, are not entirely clear. As for Barjuán, his exact role and impact remain ambiguous, yet he continues to be a part of the club’s structure.

The Struggle with Player Management and Team Strategy

Reflecting on the aspects under Xavi Hernández’s control during his tenure at Barcelona, there were several decisions and tactical approaches that could be questioned. 

While Xavi often attributed certain shortcomings to the team’s ‘mentality’, there were also notable gaps in strategy and execution that he needed to address.

One of the critical issues was the team’s rigidity. Xavi’s tactical message appeared unclear or inconsistently applied by the players. The team showed a vertical playing style reminiscent of Luis Enrique’s tenure but without the same quality in the attacking front, leading to poor results. 

A significant challenge was the inability to develop an effective pressing strategy over the course of three years. This issue was exacerbated by the aging Sergio Busquets, whose diminishing pace and mobility left a noticeable void in midfield after his departure.

Barcelona struggled to find a suitable replacement for Busquets, which was a key factor in the team’s vulnerability to specific types of attacks. 

As the head coach, Xavi was incumbent upon addressing these tactical deficiencies and finding solutions, particularly in enhancing the team’s defensive robustness and pressing effectiveness. However, he seemed unable to resolve these persistent issues, leading to continued struggles on the pitch.

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The Final Season: Unmet Expectations and Key Departures

Xavi Hernández’s third season at Barcelona, which theoretically should have been the peak of his project, was marred by significant changes and challenges. One key factor, which has already been mentioned, was Sergio Busquets’s departure. 

When younger players like Gavi, Frenkie, and Pedri were still finding their playstyles, Busquets regulated as the metronome despite his diminishing physical capabilities not always allowing him to. Busquets provided not just skill but also leadership and tactical intelligence, qualities that were difficult to replace. 

Gündogan was the guy Barcelona thought they got to replace him, except he did not offer the same type of play. Additionally, the decline in the form of Robert Lewandowski was another setback. His diminished effectiveness upfront had a notable impact on Barcelona’s attacking potency.

Xavi Hernández was deeply hurt, much more than anyone else – he was betrayed, stabbed in the back, a sword of Leonidas through his spine. 

The departure of Ousmane Dembélé from Barcelona represented a significant blow to Xavi Hernández, both professionally and personally. Xavi had placed considerable trust in Dembélé, often speaking highly of him and relying on him as a key creator of threats, particularly down the right flank.

Despite Dembélé’s inconsistencies and occasional lapses in decision-making, Xavi saw in him a crucial component of his tactical setup.

However, Barcelona’s financial constraints meant that they were unable to provide Xavi with an adequate replacement for Dembélé on the wing. This situation forced the team to turn to La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy, for talent, leading to the promotion of Lamine Yamal. 

The challenge with Yamal, however, was his youth; he was not only underage but also still developing physically and mentally as a player. The situation mirrored the cases of Gavi and Pedri, two young talents who showed the strains of being overplayed at a young age. 

Still, Lamine Yamal’s promotion to the first team and subsequent frequent starts demonstrate Xavi Hernández’s willingness to trust young talent. However, despite Yamal’s involvement, it has become evident that relying heavily on such young players is insufficient for Barcelona to compete at the highest level.

Furthermore, Xavi’s agreement with the loan transfer of João Félix adds another dimension to the team’s dynamics. While Félix is undeniably talented, his impact at Barcelona has been underwhelming so far.

The acquisition of João Cancelo also brought defensive challenges with it. Cancelo, known for his offensive capabilities as a full-back, may have contributed to a shift in Barcelona’s defensive solidity. Over the summer, Barcelona’s defensive approach transitioned from being relatively sound to becoming more vulnerable to common threats.

Resistance to Criticism and External Pressures

To drop the final mosquitoes in the coffin, Xavi hurt himself. The culmination of various challenges and setbacks further exacerbated Xavi Hernández’s difficulties at Barcelona. 

His increasing resistance to criticism and tendency to attribute the team’s issues to mentality rather than acknowledging tactical or strategic shortcomings became a point of contention.

This approach was evident in his post-match interviews, where he often repeated similar phrases, leading to a sense of frustration among the media and fans.

The Negreira affair, coupled with a spate of injuries and a lack of tangible success, added pressure on Xavi. His response to these pressures, particularly his handling of media scrutiny, was somewhat surprising given his extensive experience as a player under the intense media spotlight at Barcelona.

Despite this background, Xavi expressed a sense of underappreciation for his achievements as a coach, suggesting a disconnect between his self-perception and the broader narrative. 

The struggle of Xavi Hernández’s tenure as head coach at Barcelona was not due to a singular issue but rather a combination of various elements:

  1. Board’s Approach: The board’s decision-making, seeking quick fixes rather than long-term solutions, contributed to a lack of stability and clear direction for the team.
  2. Xavi’s Inexperience: Xavi, still in the early stages of his coaching career, faced a steep learning curve.  
  3. Adverse Circumstances: A string of injuries, fluctuating form, and a lack of fresh tactical ideas further complicated matters.  

But Xavi will come back stronger – love hurts but fortifies all parties involved in the long run. 

Conclusion: Xavi’s Legacy and Future Prospects

This is the story of Xavi Hernández’s spell as the head coach of Barcelona, having won La Liga but ultimately coming short of ideas due to the difficulty of the job. The experiences, though painful and fraught with difficulties, are likely to provide valuable lessons and insights.  

He wanted to fly but only had the wings of Icarus, melting under the sun.

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