A storm had been brewing in Barcelona. This weekend’s announcement that Xavi would be stepping down at the end of the season, did not feel like a bolt from the blue. Yet cast your mind back to September, and it’s still extraordinary that we have reached this point so quickly.
Crowned champions of Spain, and by some margin only a few months earlier, everything seemed rosy with Barca in the early autumn when two 5-0 victories in the space of four days over Antwerp and Real Betis suggested Xavi’s attempt to add a bit more style to his functional title-winning team was very much on track.
The additions of Joao Cancelo and Joao Felix appeared to have given Barcelona that extra dose of creativity and flair and Xavi’s position felt as secure as could realistically be expected in one of the hottest hotseats in football.
In the space of little over four months though, Xavi’s reign has unravelled as cracks in this team have appeared right across the pitch.
Since hammering Betis in September, Barcelona have won just one league game by more than a single goal and have conceded four or more on four separate occasions. Since the turn of the year alone, they’ve exited two cup competitions and seen their title hopes all but extinguished by Saturday’s 5-3 home defeat to Villarreal which proved the catalyst for Xavi to go public with his decision to walk away this summer.
Will this announcement really “free” players?
“This club needs a change of dynamic” claimed Xavi, on numerous occasions, as he announced his departure on Sunday evening.
“Leaving Barca is the best decision possible for all parties involved” he continued. “I’m the most responsible one, so the players will finally feel free now”.
Just how “free” the Barcelona players will suddenly feel is questionable though. Even the most ardent of Xavi critics would accept that Barcelona’s problems run far deeper than that of the man currently in the dugout.
You also have to wonder whether this really changes an enormous amount in the short-term, given Xavi is leaving in the summer and not now. The pressures of playing in an under-performing Barcelona side are still huge and it’s not like this squad suddenly has a free pass to avoid scrutiny and criticism between now and the end of the campaign which is still four months away.
All eyes on Naples
The timing of the announcement may just be significant though. Barcelona will play their ninth game of an intense month that has pushed a thin squad to its limit on Wednesday when they welcome Osasuna to the Estadi Olimpic.
The match marks the start of a more favourable run of league games with bottom half outfits Alaves, Granada and Celta Vigo to follow, ahead of the huge Champions League trip to play Napoli on February 21st.
Xavi may just be hoping that his decision can act as something of a reset for Barcelona’s faltering season. They will at least get some free midweeks before that tie to recharge the batteries and get injured players back, most likely including goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen who was so influential last season.
A couple of more convincing performances during that period could at least shift the momentum and raise optimism heading into the Napoli tie which will go a long way to determining whether Xavi’s reign descends into a long, slow death or finishes with a bit of a flurry and a seemingly unlikely dash for European glory.
How might Joan Laporta approach the hunt for a new boss?
“I wouldn’t change my decision even if I won the Champions League” was another of the standout lines from Xavi’s press conference on Saturday.
It hints at the mental toll of the top job at a club to whom he is and always has been totally devoted to. It also perhaps underlines the sense that Xavi is not exactly feeling the love at Barcelona right now, not that he was ever truly Joan Laporta’s man with the Barca legend initially forming the main part of Víctor Font’s rival and ultimately unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2021.
Laporta now has plenty of time to think about who might come next with what is suddenly shaping up to be a summer managerial merry-go-round amongst Europe’s elite clubs on the horizon.
Essentially there are two ways that Laporta could go. The first, and perhaps most likely initial plan, would be to target a big name coach and look to appoint an experienced, proven winner to oversee the next phase of Barcelona’s bid to re-establish themselves as one of the dominant teams in Europe.
That hasn’t tended to be the Barca way in recent times though. You have to go back to Louis van Gaal and Radomir Antic in the early 2000’s for the last time Barcelona appointed a coach who had previously won one of the big five European leagues or the Champions League as a manager.
That’s a long time for a club of their size and stature and while Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique elevated themselves into the elite bracket after their stints as Barcelona coach, the same can’t be said of the last four Barca bosses – Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman and Xavi.
Aside from the other mistakes that have been made off the pitch and in terms of recruitment over the past decade, poor managerial appointments have at times compounded the problems and that may help convince Laporta of the need for a “safe pair of hands” this time.
As with everything Barcelona do during this precarious period, there are of course financial realities to consider too. The club still carries an enormous pull for prospective players and coaches alike, but in terms of luring in a genuine A-lister, Laporta may need to at least offer the guarantee of funds to address some of the obvious flaws in this squad, with the need for a genuine holding midfielder right at the top of that list.
Given the number of big European clubs who may be looking for a new boss this summer, it’s not impossible to envisage a scenario where Barcelona may end up having to scale down their ambitions and perhaps look within Spain, where there are still some good options, for their next boss.
Which names are in the frame?
A number of names have already been thrown into the mix as potential successors to Xavi, although there is not one obvious candidate which suggests we could potentially be in for months and months of negotiation, rumours and speculation before we finally get an answer.
With Xavi’s announcement coming just a day after Jurgen Klopp had announced his intention to step down from the Liverpool job at the end of the season, the exciting prospect of the German rocking up in Catalunya was quickly muted, but just as quickly shut down by Klopp’s desire to take a one year sabbatical from football.
While he wouldn’t exactly be the first manager in the world to make a u-turn, it’s hard to see Klopp wanting to step into the madhouse of Barcelona, having cited burnout as a reason for his decision to quit Liverpool.
Mikel Arteta is another current Premier League manager seen as an early front-runner, although it’s doubtful whether he would walk away from a strong, young Arsenal team to take over Barca in their current state.
Hansi Flick is available and more attainable and would bring Champions League winning experience. The same can be said of Bayern boss Thomas Tuchel who also has been linked with the job with his current employers feeling the need to release a statement rebuffing that speculation.
Barcelona’s history of appointing coaches with some connection to the club, also throws up names such as current B team boss Rafael Marquez who has already expressed his interest in taking over. Current Bologna coach Thiago Motta is another former Barca player who could be considered while the return of Luis Enrique cannot be completely ruled out at some stage, although it appears unlikely this summer with the 53 year old still in the early stages of a new project at PSG.
Laporta could of course opt for a totally different tact and look within LaLiga for a coach with a proven track record when it comes to developing young players. Real Sociedad’s Imanol Alguacil would certainly tick that box while there’s a Catalan speaking Madrileño by the name of Michel who is currently doing a quite a decent job up the road in Girona.