Amid a difficult season, Barcelona have returned to their roots. When Ronald Koeman was sacked in October, it was no surprise the club immediately turned to former player Xavi Hernandez. Sporting director Mateu Alemany and vice president Rafa Yuste were sent to Qatar, and three days later, after agreeing to a schedule for paying off the €5 million release clause in Xavi’s contract with Al Sadd, they returned to Barcelona with a new manager.
On Saturday (stream live, 2:50 p.m. ET on ESPN+) he will take charge of his first match against Espanyol at Camp Nou and despite the chaos and poor results that led to his arrival, rarely has a managerial appointment felt more preordained.
Xavi, 41, has long been touted as a future Barca coach. It has always been his goal to return, too, since he left his boyhood club in 2015 after 767 first-team appearances — setting a club record since surpassed by Lionel Messi — and 25 trophies. Few players have such a special connection to the club, and you could argue none have been more synonymous with the team’s style than Xavi. “Take the ball, pass the ball” is a characterisation of his ideal, and few excelled with such simplicity as he did.
It’s since become clear that Xavi departed at the top. In 2015, Barca had just won a fifth Champions League, a fourth with him in the team, and a second treble. Ever since, the clock has been ticking towards his inevitable return with every painful defeat and every managerial departure.
We know what defined Xavi as a player; what will he bring to Barcelona as their coach? ESPN talked to those who played under him in Qatar as well as others around the club to get a sense of how his Barca side might shape up.
Influenced by Guardiola, Rijkaard and handball; he’ll watch any game on TV
Xavi has known Barca president Joan Laporta, who was previously Barca’s president between 2003 and 2008, since his days as a player. He lists two coaches appointed by Laporta among his biggest influences: Frank Rijkaard and, more obviously, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola. He also cites Louis van Gaal (who handed him his Barca debut), Johan Cruyff (widely considered as the guardian of Barca’s philosophy) and Luis Enrique as managers who have shaped his ideas. More left-field influences include Joan Vila, Barcelona’s director of methodology for many years, and, more curiously, the former Spain handball coach Valero Rivera, who is now in charge of the Qatar national handball team.
Sources explain that Rivera, a legend in Spain and a former Barca handball player, and Xavi have grown close in Doha during recent years. Where Guardiola has sought external input from ex-water polo player Manuel Estiarte, Xavi has looked to Rivera. Over many dinners, the two have discussed the similarities and differences between football and handball, with Xavi looking to take things Rivera does and apply them to football.
Rivera also works as an advisor for Barca, primarily for the handball team, but at a dinner a few months ago, sources explain he also spoke effusively to Laporta about the job Xavi had done at Al Sadd. It was one of the references the Barca president gave a lot of weight to when he decided to appoint Xavi.
It’s hard to know how he finds the time, but aside from his day job, having a young family and tactical chats with handball coaches, people close to Xavi detail just how much football he follows, too. From the Bundesliga to Spain’s semi-professional leagues through to the English second division or the Copa Libertadores, if there’s football on, Xavi will find a way to watch it. However, while he soaks in as many different styles and levels as possible, his coaching style is unmistakably in line with that implemented from La Masia to the first team at Barcelona. In that sense, Guardiola and Cruyff have made the biggest mark on what Xavi will demand from his teams.
‘He keeps things simple’
“I think he follows the same philosophy as Guardiola,” Al Sadd’s Guilherme Torres told ESPN. “Having possession and enjoying the game, but not just having possession. Sometimes you see teams with 80% possession, but only one shot on goal.
“[Xavi] likes to be aggressive, fight for the ball, play in the opponent’s half and play with intelligence. He likes it when players are happy on the pitch — I think the same way he was [as a player]. He likes to put a lot of pressure on opponents in their half. That’s how he understands football.”
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The opinion among the Barcelona hierarchy is that the team has lost its style in recent seasons. However, Xavi’s first task will not be to immediately restore the philosophy for which the club is known. First, he will work on setting high standards, bringing back better habits and generating a good team spirit. Only then, and with time on the training pitch, will he be able to properly focus on what he wants from the players.
To that end, the midfield will obviously be key and Barca have a talented crop of players in that regard, from captain Sergio Busquets through to Frenkie de Jong and youngsters Pedri, Gavi and Nico Gonzalez. But sources say Xavi’s first aim is to open the pitch with the addition of potent wingers. He wants players in the squad who can hog the touchline and beat their opponent one-on-one. He says he wants his teams to create chance after chance. Who doesn’t?
“What makes Xavi brilliant is that he’s able to express what he thought about football when he played and he knows how to pass that on to his players,” said Torres. “Of course, he doesn’t demand we do what he did because his quality was very high, but he knows the potential his players have. He knows how to use his players.
“He keeps it simple; he doesn’t try to make too many things up or demand more than a player can deliver. He asks for the basics. That’s why he was a successful player — he’s been successful as a coach up until now, and I hope he does as well at Barca as he did here at Al Sadd.”
Xavi himself also says the emphasis will be on the style, not the formation. He even used his presentation to float the idea of playing in a 3-5-2 setup — a system Koeman was derided for using — but 4-3-3, 3-4-3 and other variations will be more likely once he has players back from injury.
“He wants his team to have the ball and training is based on rondos, possession and positional play — it’s pure ‘Barca school,'” Santi Cazorla, who played under Xavi at Al Sadd, said. “He wants to defend with the ball. That’s how we play each game and it is non-negotiable.
“That’s the way in which he understands football and the way he practices it. He is not the only one, but perhaps when it comes to having the ball, he is unique.”
Xavi’s methods have had an impact at Al Sadd. Historically they are Qatar’s most successful club, but the improvement with him as coach compared to his time as a player there is reflected in the team’s success. He won four trophies as a player in four years, but had won seven by the time he left after just two years in charge, leaving Al Sadd top of the table and unbeaten in 36 league games spanning two seasons. The one question mark has been the team’s shortcomings in the Asian Champions League — they failed to make the knockout rounds this year — but the players, the majority of whom will appear in Qatar’s World Cup squad next winter, have all shown clear progression under him.
“I think it’s the way I behave on the pitch,” midfielder Guilherme said when asked how Xavi has shaped him. “He always asked me to look at the game very carefully so that I could pass the ball quicker. I used to do that, but not with such speed, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
“He wants the players in my position to pass the ball as fast as possible so that moves can happen more quickly. I’ve learned to be more aware and to know what’s happening on the pitch, even without the ball. That’s had the biggest impact on me.”
Biggest challenges: youth development, revive failed big signings
Barcelona represent a different challenge to Al Sadd, and Xavi returns with the club in a much different state to how he left them. Over the past two seasons, they’ve won just one trophy, the Copa del Rey. There have been heavy defeats to Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and there have been painful departures. Messi is no longer at the club after joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer in the summer, a consequence of the club’s financial problems.
The issues run deeper than just the coach, which explains why Barca have their fourth manager in 22 months. They’re ninth in LaLiga after 12 games heading into Saturday’s Catalan derby against Espanyol, with a must-win Champions League game following three days later against Benfica. If they beat the Portuguese side next week, Barca will be in the last 16 of Europe’s premier competition once again despite losing their first two group games.
Winning those two games is Xavi’s immediate concern, but over the long-term, he has much more to tackle. He will be responsible for developing a generation of youngsters whom people at the club feel is among the best they’ve ever had. Ansu Fati (19 years old), Pedri (18), Gavi (17), Nico (19), Eric Garcia (22), Sergino Dest (21), Ronald Araujo (22) and Oscar Mingueza (22) could form the spine of the side for the next decade.
The Barca fans show their support for Dani Alves as he’s unveiled at the club for a second time.
Xavi will also be tasked with overseeing the final years of the careers of former teammates who are also friends. At some point, he may have to have uncomfortable conversations with Gerard Pique (34), Sergio Busquets (33), Jordi Alba (32) and Sergi Roberto (29), with the latter out of contract next summer, though replacing them will not be easy.
In short, Barca have no money. Sources have told ESPN they may have around €10 million to spend in January and their wage has been reduced, but gross debt still stands at over €1 billion. It will take time for the club to get back into a position where they can compete for the best players in the game.
That said, they’ve not always spent their money wisely. Xavi will be the latest coach to try to revive club-record signing Philippe Coutinho‘s career; he’s already said publicly that winger Ousmane Dembele can be one of the best in the world if he can avoid further injuries and be coached properly.
So far, that’s where the big changes have already been seen under Xavi. He has overhauled the backroom staff at the club, bringing in his own fitness gurus as well as his preferred strength and conditioning coaches. Sources say there will also be an increased focus on injury prevention and, in time, a new medical department will be installed as the former midfielder looks to put an end to a batch of muscle injuries that have hampered Barca’s performances for too long.
Xavi’s first week has also seen the reintroduction of player fines — mainly related to punctuality before meetings or training — having promised to “impose rules and bring order” back to the club. Beyond laying down the law, though, Xavi’s biggest challenge may be stepping out of Guardiola’s shadow.
The comparisons are obvious, the local lad taking over the first team despite relatively limited experience as a manager. However, Guardiola is an anomaly. While his success sparked a trend for clubs to turn to former greats when appointing a new manager, it doesn’t always work out.
“I hope I end up in the group with Pep and [ex-Real Madrid boss Zinedine] Zidane,” Xavi smiled last week when reminded that things had not gone so well for Andrea Pirlo at Juventus or Frank Lampard at Chelsea.
He’s also known for his abilities to bridge gaps or resolve issues within his teams. Former Spain boss Vicente del Bosque said Xavi was “more important” than him, because together, they helped La Roja win the World Cup in 2010 and the European Championships in 2012. Perhaps he was right, too. Without the intermediary skills of Xavi and Iker Casillas, which earned them both the Prince of Asturias Award for Sports, maybe Spain would never have recovered from the Real Madrid-Barca rift that had plagued the national team’s dressing room.
Xavi also showed similar qualities in his final season at Barca, helping heal a January bust-up between coach Luis Enrique and Lionel Messi to set Barca on track for the treble. His coaching badges followed and in 2019, he obtained his UEFA Pro license (along with Victor Valdes, Raul Gonzalez and Xabi Alonso) before transitioning from player to manager at Al Sadd.
Xavi’s appointment has already lifted the mood around the club for now, with just under 10,000 fans attending his presentation. There will be a honeymoon period, and Xavi will get longer than any of his predecessors in that sense, but the demands remain the same. Xavi needs to breathe life back into a flagging team and give supporters a reason to return to Camp Nou. The 100,000-seat stadium was less than half full for their last home game, a drab 1-1 draw against Alaves.
“You can’t lose or draw games at Barcelona,” Xavi said. “You have to win them all. This is the most difficult club in the world [to be at] because you don’t just have to win, you also have to play well.”