Xavi Is Not The Manager He Was Supposed To Be
2:32 PM EST on November 29, 2023
There was about a week there when it looked like Xavi Hernández's time had finally come. That the legendary Spain and Barcelona midfielder's future would at some point include a spell as Barcelona manager had been wholly inevitable for more than a decade before he eventually got the job in November of 2021. His redolence with the greatest Barça team of all time was too strong, and the narrative parallels of his career with that of the architect of that GOAT'd Barça too resounding, for club and coach not to at some point unite, if only in hope that history might be repeated if the future is written in the same meter and rhyme scheme.
But Xavi wasn't brought in to be just any old coach. In fact, his actual, demonstrated coaching acumen up to that point had almost nothing to do with why he got the job. Instead, Barcelona's motivations for making Xavi manager were almost mystical in nature, more about symbols and portents and repeated rituals than anything concrete. Barça hired Xavi in an effort to return the club's future to its past; to religate tomorrow's team with yesterday's bloodlines, the ones forged by Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola and which give life to the Barcelona idea/ideal; to follow the then-recent and still painful conclusion of the Messi era with a new chapter in club history that would be as resplendent as the best of the ones before. It was a lot to ask of any manager, and especially one with merely two years of coaching experience under his belt, all of it spent in the deserts of Qatar. And yet, for about a week there, it felt like Xavi just might have arrived.
The week in question came about midway through September. It started on the 16th of that month, in a league match against Real Betis. It was the first time Barcelona included Joãos Félix and Cancelo in the starting lineup, and expectations were high.
There's a reason why fans had such high hopes for the Joãos. Prior to the current campaign, in his season-and-a-half at the helm of Barça, Xavi had consistently put out teams evincing admirable traits like competitiveness, defensive solidity, intensity, versatility, and unity. This had led to the first tastes of success. The Barça Xavi inherited midway through the 2021-22 season was floundering, at risk of not even finishing in the top four. The new manager quickly righted the ship, guided the team to a creditable second-place finish, and, powered by unexpectedly substantial investment (of questionable providence) in the following summer transfer market, took Barça to the league title in commanding fashion, claiming a Spanish Supercopa along the way. Sure, that stretch also included a number of humiliations in European play, but the story Xavi told about a young team needing to learn how to win, and doing just that in Spain, was just about convincing enough to win him the benefit of the doubt.
But "admirable" teams and "creditable" results are not enough at a club like Barcelona, where, traditionally, anything short of dazzling dominance is considered insufficient. And if any superlative did not apply to Xavi's Barça, it was "dazzling." For as free-flowing, expressive, and attack-minded as the Barça teams Xavi played for had been, the one he coached was surprisingly conservative and defensive in nature. His Barça maintained high possession numbers, but did so as a preventative rather than proactive measure, ensured by a 4-3-3 formation that often featured four natural midfielders and three natural center backs. The team's strongest line was the B.A.C.K. one (defenders Alejandro Balde, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen, and Jules Koundé), and its best playmaker was its high press. The team rode 1-0 victory after 1-0 victory to, again, creditable but hardly inspiring domestic honors. Were he not in charge of a rival, Diego Simeone surely would've looked on in pride—something that should never be said of a Barcelona team.
The Joãos were meant to change all that. The club brought in the two Portuguese wizards on loan with the express idea that they would banish the conservatism and defensiveness of the previous season with their world-class flair and creativity. Cancelo would take the place of one of the three center backs, Félix would bench one of the four midfielders, and together they would form the basis of a new team capable not just of winning games but of dominating them with the brilliance expected of Barcelona. In the Joãos, the thinking went, Xavi at last acquired what had ostensibly kept him from concocting the team capable of playing beautiful, winning, truly Barcelona soccer. Should he pull off the trick, he would reify the destiny that had for so long been foretold, and finally take his place as the heir of the Cruyff-Guardiola lineage.
And for a time, that possibility felt thrillingly real. The Betis game—again, the first one both Joãos played in from the beginning—was sensational. Félix, a frighteningly talented forward whose career hasn't taken off as expected due to his inconsistency and lack of decisiveness, got off to the best possible start with a goal in the 25th minute. From that goal on, Barça's play during the match was choral, flowing, and, yes, dazzling in a way it hadn't ever been before in Xavi's tenure. Robert Lewandowski added a second goal, Ferran Torres a third, Raphinha a fourth, and Cancelo notched the fifth and final one to cap a match that felt to Barça fans like the birth of something new.
Three days later, the Barça of the Joãos repeated the feat in a similarly breathtaking outing in the Champions League against Royal Antwerp. Félix had an even better game, scoring two goals and assisting another in a match that duplicated the weekend's 5-0 scoreline. The next match was more complicated than the prior two. Celta Vigo came to town and by the 76th minute had put two goals past the Catalans. But Barça responded with an avalanche, piling up three goals in a furious eight-minute stretch (one Félix assist, plus a Cancelo goal and assist) as the team stormed to a late victory.
For a week, Barcelona was once again fearsome and fun—something that hadn't be true for ages, even going back to the end of the Messi era. The Blaugrana scored lots of goals, did lots of cool shit, and played in a way that at least in its forcefulness, dynamism, and team-wide excellence somewhat recalled the kind of soccer for which the club had once served as a metonym. For two whole games, plus an impressive 8-minute stretch in a third, it seemed like Xavi really might be on course to fulfill the prophecy.
However, the supposed transformation was brief. Since the Antwerp game, Barcelona has not put on a single great, comprehensive performance. The team hasn't scored more than two goals in a match since doing so against Celta, and in 12 subsequent matches the Blaugrana haven't won even one game by a margin larger than one goal. The results themselves have been middling: From those 12 matches in all competitions, Barça has recorded seven wins, three draws, and two losses. The team sits fourth in La Liga's table, and after avoiding potential disaster by beating Porto in Tuesday's Champions League match, has done enough to earn passage into the competition's knockout round for the first time in three years.
If the team's record is unremarkable, the actual play has been even worse. In seven of those 12 matches, Barça has had to rely on desperate, late flurries that brought goals in the 75th minute or later to nab either a win or a draw. Both Joãos have lost their spark (though Cancelo may have regained his after a remarkable outing against Porto). The team as a whole, far from resembling one of the powerful outfits Cruyff or Guardiola made famous, looks like just another boring Xavi team.
There is at this point no real reason to believe that Xavi will soon or maybe even ever become the kind of manager that fits the mold cast for him. The most damning indictment of his management is probably the fact that, two entire years into his tenure, it's still totally unclear what he's even trying for. There is no real through-line connecting the three teams he's assembled so far at Barça. His teams have at times been stingy defensively and at times porous. At times his high pressing has been good, and other times—like all of this season—it has been totally inept. His attacks have always been painfully laborious and unproductive. He likes to load the field with midfielders, but oddly, the man who was the leading figure in two of the most famous midfields in soccer history does not really try to empower his midfielders, instead restricting them within a rigid framework that does not respect their individual talents. None of his players appear to have improved or played their best soccer under his guidance, and in fact the opposite is true: Barça has routinely signed good, promising players who show up to Barcelona and promptly see their value and reputations sink in Xavi's stifling system.
Winning the league last season at first seems impressive until you remember that he did so in a generationally poor La Liga. When tested outside of Spain, Xavi's Barça has repeatedly laid eggs. The style and principles he talks about in press conferences, where he mouths all the standard positional play tropes, bear little resemblance to the soccer his teams actually play; you wonder whether he simply doesn't know how to coach the kind of play he professes to believe in.
In his defense, Xavi does appear to be very good at most of the non-tactical, non-coaching-related aspects of the job. Squad harmony has by all reports been notably high throughout his time in charge, the players all seem to really like playing for him, and his comments and behaviors in the media and in public all befit the role. In addition, he has a really commendable commitment to trusting youngsters. He's certainly a competent manager at worst, and that competence plus the remaining aura of his playing days have meant his tenure has been at least adequate. But adequacy is hardly the standard a club like Barcelona should accept, especially when the entire logic of hiring Xavi was that he might be truly extraordinary.
Xavi has been granted a long leash from the club and its fans, owing to his playing history, his early on-paper success, and the enduring hope that he might still reveal himself to be Pep 2.0. But patience is beginning to run out. There are no good excuses for why Barcelona isn't playing better. The roster is incredibly strong—easily the strongest in Spain when you factor in Real Madrid's injuries. The manager has been given more than enough time to implement and embed a system of play that can win games, maximize his players' talents, and do so with real style. And yet what Xavi has produced is a team squeaking by on late goals and last-gasp defensive stops, with no semblance of an identity, with would-be superstars whose talents are suppressed in favor of ineffective tactics; a team that, maybe most unforgivably, is absolutely miserable to watch. If that week in September was the pinnacle, then the past month has been the nadir. After losses to Real Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk, a draw with Rayo Vallecano, and narrow wins over Real Sociedad, Alavés, and Porto, for the first time in his tenure it feels like there is some real heat on Xavi's seat.
Fortunately for Xavi, it's very hard to imagine the club firing him in the middle of the season. Tuesday's comeback win over Porto, avoiding the potential third-consecutive drop into the Europa League a loss there could've set up, probably saved the manager from an early exit from the job. The players are so good that, even without playing especially well, Barça will almost surely contend for the title all season (though I think Real Madrid has already usurped Barça as title favorites, which is down mostly to Xavi's unimpressive managing). It probably would take a big, memorable humiliation to convince the club to fire Xavi before the season is out, and as of now something like that looks pretty unlikely.
But what feels similarly assured is that Xavi is not the manager everyone hoped he'd be. He's not the next coming of Cruyff or Guardiola, and it's hard to argue that he's an even appreciably good coach, even while admitting that most of the job involves the interpersonal stuff at which Xavi does seem to excel. That is, of course, a shame. The image itself would've been so beautiful if Xavi had stepped into the manager's role and ushered in the next evolution of play for the same club for which he'd previously done so as a player—yet another echo of the similar feats Cruyff and Guardiola had managed. (And along with simply not having the chops, Xavi himself deserves some blame here for not preparing better for the role. No one was more sure that Xavi was fated to land the Barça job than Xavi himself, and he was content to await his birthright in the friendly, high-paying, under-challenging confines of Qatar rather than take other jobs in Europe that could've sharpened his coaching instincts and increased his knowledge, so that when the moment came to return home, he'd have been more ready.)
Maybe there is an opportunity in accepting this reality. Maybe releasing Xavi from the burden of being Pep 2.0 could free him to figure out who he wants to be as a manager in his own right. Maybe the overdue death of the idea that Xavi might yet become something or someone he's not could allow fans and the club to start assessing Xavi's work based on what he's actually done instead of on what anyone might hope he'll someday do. Maybe the sooner everyone in and around Barcelona realizes that the past is the past, and that history cannot be repeated, the sooner the club can find the best person to lead the team going forward, be it Xavi or someone else. There's no way the next Barcelona will be as glorious as the old one, the one Xavi so memorably played for, but it has to be better than the one Xavi is coaching right now.