A Nou camp legend, Xavi Hernandez, 41, represented Barcelona as a player for 17 years. The Spaniard captained the team alongside winning eight La Liga titles and four champions leagues. Undoubtedly one of the best midfielders to play the game, Xavi has returned to manage a very different Barcelona to the one he left six years ago.
Xavi arrives at the Catalan Club with a contract until 2024, replacing Ronald Koeman. A former legend of the club also, Koeman’s status as Barcelona’s manager was seemingly been fragile for months.
Koeman managed Barcelona during a difficult time, but his tenure in charge at the club will forever be remembered for poor performances and an overwhelming sense that he just was simply not cut out for the job.
However, not dismissing Koeman’s lack of tactical knowledge, his shortcoming at Barcelona cannot all be attributed to him. Koeman was brought into Barcelona as a result of his status as a club legend. The benefit of hiring a club legend, as the board was well aware, is that he would be afforded more loyalty from the fan base.
Xavi, who made 767 appearances for Barcelona, will also be given time and loyalty. However, Xavi will face an even greater challenge than those which loomed over Koeman.
A club on the verge of collapse, Xavi faces perhaps one of the hardest jobs in world football.
Currently, Barcelona sits on two billion euros of debt, a figure which is set to increase with the construction of a new complex surrounding the Nou Camp. Alongside this, the stadium itself is collapsing, the training ground is old and in need of reconstruction and the fan base at Barcelona is slowly becoming more hostile.
Whilst Xavi is not being hired to solve Barcelona’s financial and stadium problems, creating a team that can compete at the highest level with the club in turmoil will make his job even more difficult. Coaching a team to perform on the pitch is significantly more difficult when the players and fans are aware of the problems the club is having off the pitch.
When Pep Guardiola became Barcelona’s head coach in 2008, he inherited one of the best squads that football has seen. Despite having a managerial style similar to that of Guardiola’s, Xavi has taken on an incomparably harder job.
Barcelona is currently 7th place in La Liga, ten points off the top of the league Real Madrid, with any hopes of challenging for the title already gone.
The squad that Xavi is inheriting is barely even the standard of the top four, and so the Spaniard will aim to qualify for Champions League football, both from a financial and recruitment standpoint.
Young players like Gavi and recently crowned golden boy Pedri means that La Masia may be producing a new generation of elite players. However, young players and talent alone will be insufficient to challenge in a league that is becoming progressively more competitive.
Whilst Xavi is largely gaining this job based on his reputation within the club and as a result of the love of the fans, he also possesses undoubted managerial success and knowledge.
Xavi has been managing Al-Saad, who competes in Qatar, for three seasons. In the 2020/21 season, his Al-Saad team did not lose a game (19wins). Despite Al-Saad being the strongest team in the league, Xavi has shown he has a very strong tactical mind and clear ideas for how he wants his teams to set up.
Typically deploying his Al-Saad team in a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 formation, Xavi’s footballing philosophy is reminiscent of the teams he played in at Barcelona.
With short passing, lots of possession, and a high press, Xavi will set up Barcelona to control the tempo of matches.
One of Barcelona’s issues under Koeman was their slow build-up play on the ball, often having more possession but very few passes into the final third. Xavi however, sets up his teams to pass quickly and between the lines, playing through opposition by creating numerical overloads in specific areas of the pitch.
Using the 3-4-3, Xavi will likely use Ansu Fati (left) and Sergiño Dest or 19-year-old Nico Gonzálezas (right) as inverted wingers, playing centrally to allow for the wing-backs to be very wide on the pitch. By keeping the wingbacks wide, the attacking team can use the whole width of the pitch to spread their opposition.
By spreading the opposition, the attacking team can crowd one side of the pitch, before quickly switching play to the opposite full-back. This forces the defensive team to shift to the other side of the pitch but in doing so, they risk losing their shape.
As the defensive team transitions from one side of the pitch to the other, it is easy for players to move at different speeds or in different ways, hence breaking the defensive shape creating gaps between the lines.
This common but successful tactical pattern, of moving teams from side to side by using the full width of the pitch, a style adopted by most successful modern managers, is something which Xavi will coach and install into this Barcelona team. His tactical mind does appear to be of the quality needed to create a strong team.
One question mark which hovers above him is whether or not his tactics are too ingrained from the Barcelona team he was a part of in 2010, with football in the last eleven years developing rapidly to incorporate more physicality and fluid positions.
However, coming back to La Liga, a league he is all too familiar with, his tactical setup could be ready-made for the slower and less physical Spanish league.
It seems that as much as Xavi’s appointment at Barcelona is often discussed as a legendary player returning home, from a managerial perspective he does seem to have the footballing mind to succeed as a manager.
Whether he will succeed at Barcelona or not remains to be seen. A squad of both young and old, Xavi could shape these players into a top-four side.
Yet, for Barcelona to gain anything like the European standing they once had, Xavi will need a lot of time and a lot of heartache before he can expect to lift major silverware again.
Image courtesy of K Moran via Flickr