Xavi is back, but can he bring back Barcelona?

Xavi is back, but can he bring back Barcelona?

By Sheriff Oladejo

It was always an open secret that Xavi would one day return to Barcelona; the club he spent the best part of his playing career. And after two years coaching Al-Sadd in the Qatari League, he is back! Finally back! But will he be a success? or is he just another overhyped manager with a glittering playing career?

Born on 25 January 1980, he joined Barcelona aged 11 and quickly rose through the ranks at Barcelona demonstrating an understanding of the technical aspects of the game. Hailed as one of the finest midfielders to ever grace the game, he is renowned for his passing, vision, ball retention, and positioning. A disciple of the Cruffyian way of football and refining his game under Guardiola another student of the Cruyff footballing philosophy, during the former’s time as coach of Barcelona.

Xavi adores the pass, press, and pass teachings of Cruyff and it is only an understatement to say that he lives and breathes Tiki-Taka; the footballing identity at Barcelona. There is no doubt that Xavi’s footballing knowledge is top-notch and the expectations that one day he will retrace his roots and come back home to coach Barcelona were only testament to the obvious truth. This homecoming always looked like his destiny, as if he was born for it, and a closer look into his career to date will suggest that every step and turn he has made throughout his life has been preparing him for this exact moment.

Now he is finally home, but will he be a success? Only a few players successfully make that transition from playing to coaching, and even fewer make it as a top coach after a distinguished playing career. How more distinguished does it gets however with 25 trophies won in 767 career games played for Barcelona? Including two European trebles and three Ballon d’Or podium finishes. Xavi also won the world cup with Spain in 2010 on either side of Euro gold in 2008 and 2012. His playing career is littered with successes but as we’ve often seen, it isn’t quite easy for a top player to become a top coach.

Any replica of Guardiola’s time at Barca will be considered a success for Xavi.  Like Guardiola, Xavi will be accepting the role of Barcelona’s coach at a difficult period for the club. Whereas Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona after one season with the B team and with the advantage of a full pre-season with his squad, Xavi will be coming into the role with the season underway already and Barca not currently in a good position. They languish at a miserable ninth on the La Liga standings with only four games won from 11 matches played and have already lost three matches including the first El Clasico of the season at the Camp Nou. Their champions league campaign too has been a disappointing one so far, they lost meekly at Camp Nou 0-3 to Bayern Munich on the first matchday and were then pummelled 3-0 again away to Benfica on matchday two.

A couple of 1-0 wins against Dynamo Kyiv has reignited their hopes for qualification once more and it will be one of the early tasks that Xavi will have to navigate as coach of Barcelona. Their playing style too has been far from entertaining with stale performances a regular accomplice to their woeful results ensuring that Xavi has his hand full early on as the man trusted to lead Barcelona back to the top of the game.

Although already experienced more than Guardiola was at this stage of his career, Guardiola had only a year with the Barcelona B side before taking over as their head coach. Xavi’s two-year-old coaching career has been in Qatar with Al-Sadd. This is not belittling the quality of the Qatari league or the standing of Al-Sadd as a club but they do not measure up to the weight of coaching a club as big as Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga. It’s a whole new ball game entirely with the demand from fans and the large media presence that the club has. Pressure from multiple fronts and challenge to keep a star-studded dressing room in order, the challenge only gets harder for Xavi.

It is worth noting that Laporta earlier this year wanted Xavi to return to Barcelona as the coach of the B side, with the big picture being that Xavi will coach the first team in the nearest future; an operation that would be similar to how Guardiola became first-team coach in June 2008. But Xavi declined the offer and rather continued in his role with Al-Sadd. Did he miss an opportunity there? A chance to acclimatize with the coaching system of the club and work with the young guns of the club he would have been tasked to guide to the first team? For what’s worth, Xavi might have enjoyed a glittering playing career at Camp Nou and won everything there is to win there but accepting the role of the B team coach would have been of great benefit to him.

Xavi has been rightly hailed as one of the best minds the game has ever produced and many expect him to turn out a success, but will he? He said recently in an interview with The Coach’s Voice;

“When I was a player, and even more so now on the bench, I do everything possible to dominate the ball through possession. I’m obsessed with possession. Not just for the sake of having it but for attacking and creating chances.” He continued, “The most important thing is to open the pitch up, widen it, as wide as possible. We work constantly on positioning in training… to generate numerical superiority. To play as much as possible in the opposition half”.

He added “the ball is not a bomb; it is a treasure. They should enjoy having the ball, in the end, having the ball is an addiction. The most important thing and beautiful thing in football is to have the ball and go on the attack with it”.

It is clear the kind of football that Xavi intends his team to play as he explained his footballing tactics at Al-Sadd in the interview. But football has evolved more above the tiki-taka he played back in the days at Barcelona. Gegenpressing and counter-pressing are proving to be far superior to the possession-heavy football Barca used to dominate the world a decade ago. Teams run more, press more and tend to win more matches by doing these things. It is the fitter, faster and stronger teams that prevail when the titans of football clash. Players have full awareness of their spaces individually and collectively for scoring and defending against goals.

And Barca has been lacking in all these regards, Barca have looked sluggish in recent years with the highlights at Roma, Anfield, and Paris. They’ve suffered humiliations against teams who are sharper and more alert in the game. There is a lack of intensity during training with recent coaches unable to show a strong arm, especially with the senior players. And it will be interesting to see how Xavi handles the veterans in the team with Barcelona in need of renewal. How he handles the situation of Pique, Alba, Busquets, and Roberto particularly will be crucial to his success at Barca. These and more will be the challenges Xavi has to navigate as he settles into life back at Camp Nou even in the backdrop of the financial mess the club is in as a result of the previous board’s mismanagement and the effects of Covid-19.

Xavi is coming into the hot seat with failure staring at him at every turn and corner, few other top players have sunk against smaller tides and it will be interesting to see how one of the game’s brightest minds fare in the face of all these. Guardiola didn’t have it these tough when he became first-team coach back in 2008 but he also didn’t have it easy too. But the current Manchester City Manager was able to lead Barcelona to a treble success after the club had endured a trophyless season the year before he took over. No one is expecting Xavi to deliver the treble this season but performances must improve, surely. And he must get Barcelona back to winning ways. Again, is he up to the task?

 

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