The transition from successful player to successful coach is a common tale in just about every major sport.
In most cases, a player’s experience on the pitch gives them an upper hand. They have the deeper comprehension of the knowledge and strategies required to lead a team to victory.
In his infant managerial tenure, this holds true for Xavi at a club he spent 17 league seasons playing. Since returning, Xavi spearheaded a major transformation in FC Barcelona’s competitiveness. He propelled the club back into the spotlight as contenders in LaLiga, and potentially more.
However, this is more than just a player taking over his former club as manager. Xavi inherited a Barcelona side at its lowest point since well before Xavi played.
Financial issues and off-the-field dilemmas forced out a club legend, and left the club directionless.
A cracked foundation collapses
Last season, Barcelona seemed doomed from the start. The near-$1.5 billion debt forced Barcelona to part ways with its greatest player of all time. Before then, Messi was Barcelona’s cloak concealing its impending decline as a true European power. Therefore, his departure to PSG took away much of Barcelona’s identity on the field,
Ronald Koeman, the manager at the time, had Lionel Messi in his plans, despite the Argentine’s public displeasure with the state of the club. Suddenly, the Dutchman faced the task of steadying a ship facing a wave of struggles.
Unfortunately, the results in both the league and Champions League crushed any optimism. Dismal performances on the pitch complemented the financial struggles, and the situation continued to spiral out of control.
When Barcelona sacked Ronald Koeman in late October 2021, the club sat a bizarre ninth in the table. Embarrassing defeats at the hands of Bayern Munich and Benfica set the table for relegation to the Europa League. Inability to adapt without a talisman like Lionel Messi, along with a general lack of useful depth, forced reliance and overuse on young players. The poor performances of new arrivals and aging cornerstone players did not support a development of identity at the club.
Xavi makes instant impact upon Barcelona takeover
From the moment Xavi set foot back in the Nou Camp, he implanted the same mindset he had as a player at Barcelona. The winning culture and the team nature that made Barcelona special became the focus. On one hand, this was enjoyable. No more was the focus on trying to meet the standards of years past, it was more about development. By the same token, Xavi implemented a number of rules and disciplinary standards for the players to maximize the team’s pursuit of success.
Herein lies the struggles of Ronald Koeman. He never adapted to what the fans of Barcelona expect. Passion goes a long way, and the managers of years past lost that. Koeman saw the club’s financial struggles as a crutch to lean on in his poor performances. A simple mentality change is sometimes enough to catapult a capable squad towards their full potential. Undoubtedly, Xavi was the man for the job when it came to showing the players the true meaning of embracing the blaugrana.
Mentality was not the only thing to change upon the Spaniard’s return to the club. Xavi brought changes to Barcelona on the pitch that revitalized the team’s lacking identity.
During his time as a manager for Qatari side Al Saad, he adopted a 3-4-3 formation with his squad. Yet, at Barcelona, he opted for the more traditional 4-3-3. Gone was passing the ball to the forwards and hoping they could skill their way through defenses. Xavi reignited the tiki-taka style with possession-based advances up the field to outnumber the opposition.
Such a system requires experience and proficient ball-carrying ability from center backs and the midﬁelders. Sergio Busquets and Frenkie De Jong brought that ability to the table. Previously, Koeman’s tactics constrained the playmakers deep into the back line. Now, they joined a rejuvenated attack to amplify the potential of young forwards like Gavi and Ousmane Dembele.
Moreover, additional signings lessened the burden that overly pressured players like Pedri or Ansu Fati. Loan arrivals Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore provided a much-needed depth and ﬂare to the attack last season. Returning right back Dani Alves provided a counterpart as a fullback to Jordi Alba. The pair that won the 2015 UEFA Champions League returned to providing options on the outside in the buildup to attacks.
The style that Xavi implemented is reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona. Xavi led Barcelona to success in LaLiga with a second-place finish, quite the jump from ninth when he took over. The highlights of that partial season were a number of unbeaten runs and dominating wins at Napoli in the Europa League and, more famously, a 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
A limited but bright future
Xavi steered Barcelona’s direction towards clearer clouds on the pitch. Even then, the reality remains engulfed in financial turmoil.
Consequently, Barcelona’s activity in the transfer window is surprising, to say the least. New arrivals Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha are proven talents that cost a combined $113 million.
Defensively, Barcelona needed more work. An inconsistent Clement Lenglet departed on loan for Tottenham, opening the doors for two players. Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen arrived on a free transfer. Then, more recently, Sevilla’s Jules Koundé is a young talent that was one of LaLiga’s best defenders in recent seasons. Imposing Ivorian defensive midﬁelder Franck Kessié from AC Milan also comes in on a free.
These acquisitions come with a tradeoff. The club owes several players in outstanding wages, particularly Frenkie de Jong. The Dutchman expressed his ambition to stay at the club, but it appears the club cannot afford to keep him. Reported transfers to Manchester United or Chelsea are on the table, but this is just talk, as of now.
To cater to the signings, Barcelona sacrificed potential future revenues. It hopes that success on the field can recoup some of the losses. It is a risky play, but it would be hard to bet against the transfer window Barcelona put forth.
To a certain extent, it does put pressure on Xavi at Barcelona. A manager dedicated to development now faces expectations of success. Such is the nature of managing a top club in terms of worldwide popularity.
Nevertheless, with Xavi at the helm of Barcelona, the club creeps closer and closer back to its former glory. With that, the financial troubles of the club most likely ease. Or, to the very least, cleverly shrouded.
PHOTO: Eric Alonso/Getty Images
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