FEATURE | Xavi’s return to Barcelona

When Ronald Koeman was appointed as Barcelona manager back in August 2020, there was a certain feeling amongst Cúler fans that he would not last long at the club. In truth, the Dutchman failed to inspire and implement a clear and coherent approach to games, transfers and relationships with stakeholders at the club. 

When looking at the summer signings of Memphis Depay and a late move for Luuk de Jong, it was clear that he lacked some faith in his dressing room and, therefore, opted to bring in familiar faces with whom he could rely upon to deliver on and off the field. 

Despite a restricted budget and ongoing turmoil in the background of his tenure, Koeman will be disappointed that his return to his former club did not end in good memories and plenty of success as he would have hoped for. That task which now falls to another manager looking to drag his former club from darkness into light, this time an inexperienced Xavi Hernández will have his turn in the hot seat.

Prior to Koeman’s arrival, Xavi was considered as a serious candidate to replace Quique Setién after Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat in the 2019/20 Champions League quarter-finals. Given the timing and his lack of ‘big-club’ experience; managing Al-Sadd in Qatar, there was no real surprise to see him miss out on that occasion.

Fast-forward some 14 months and the environment in which Xavi finds himself when compared to Koeman’s, has worsened drastically. Obviously, there is no Lionel Messi left to carry the side. On top of that, the dire financial situation has been laid bare for all to see. Far from an ideal welcome for one of Barcelona’s most talented and well-regarded sons.

For now, the most pressing matter for Xavi will be to get results from the off. Koeman, despite his critics, did achieve a 59.7% win rate during his time at Camp Nou. Factoring this in with the Copa del Rey Cup win over Athletic Club and his progression of young players, there were certainly some benefits to Koeman’s reign.

He leaves Xavi with talented youngsters already delivering on the big stage: Pedri, Ansu Fati and Gavi have all benefited from the opportunities given to them by the former Netherlands national team manager. Now they will be wanting to continue this momentum under the new manager, especially when considering the international call-ups that they have received from their club performances.

Their inclusion in this current Barcelona side was one of the few ways for fans to remain positive amidst this sorry situation by focusing on the talent in their youth and enjoying the impressive performances that they relied on whilst more experienced players went missing. 

Should Xavi reassure fans that he is the right person for the job, he will have to continue to prioritise youth and work with established first team players to step up and hold the team together. Barcelona under Koeman may have lacked heart, personality and desire, but there is nothing to say that Xavi’s side will endure the same fate.

During his two and a half years in Qatar as Al-Sadd’s manager, Xavi had a 65.68% win rate from his 102 games. Rather impressive for a new manager at any level. Despite the task ahead at Barcelona, fans will be excited to see how he approaches this newfound responsibility.

From these wins came the silverware. Al-Sadd won seven trophies under Xavi and their high-intensity pressing tactics were one of the main reasons behind this success. The new Barcelona manager has often said of his desire to manage teams that take the initiative in the game and his side did just that.

Aside from two league cups, Al-Sadd won the Qatari cup twice as well as being Champions, Stars Cup winners and Super Cup winners. His ability to manage pressurised games has been clearly something which the former Barcelona player has relished, leading him to this glistening start to his resume.

One of the main strings to Xavi’s bow is consistency. He leaves Al-Sadd on a 36-match unbeaten run. It seems that for a novice, now is the right time to bring a winning and consistent style of play to Barcelona. Of course, comparing Qatari football to the Spanish topflight is a case of night and day, but managers have to start somewhere.

Xavi’s Al-Sadd was complemented by the inclusion of Santi Cazorla a year ago. The veteran midfielder was key in Xavi’s tactics, adding class and technical ability throughout. Now, with an abundance of talented players at Barcelona for him to work with, it will be intriguing to see how he can improve players in a short amount of time to get Barcelona back up to the top.

His arrival on November 6, 2021, came just ahead of the international break. This gives Xavi the chance to work with those players not called up to their national team and get things in place for when the league returns and they face city rivals Espanyol on Saturday, November 20.

The nature of his signing was characteristically comical from Barcelona, with club president Joan Laporta failing to travel to Qatar for the negotiations; sending a delegation in his place, as well as having to pay a release clause for him to leave the club adds pressure. Financially, Barcelona cannot afford for Xavi to not perform. His contract runs until 2024 but there is an immediate turnaround needed to salvage this season.

Sitting ninth with 17 points from 12 games, Xavi will be well aware of the task at hand and the severity of further regression. What he will look to bring is excitement – something that Barcelona fans have been without under Koeman and his predecessor. Another former player returns to Barcelona and will certainly look to recapture the imagination and build towards the glory days that they enjoyed at one of the biggest clubs in world football.

Owen Mawer

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