Analysis: What went wrong for Xavi at Barcelona?

As Xavi Hernandez signed off his glittering playing career at Barcelona with a second European treble in 2015, he had a message for the tearful crowd: “I hope this isn’t a goodbye but a ‘see you soon’.”

Xavi’s shock announcement that he would be stepping down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season carried a sense of relief, from all parties involved, that screamed good riddance rather than goodbye.

Hours earlier, the Catalan giants had slumped to an extraordinary 5-3 defeat at home to relegation-threatened Villarreal. After overturning a two-goal deficit to lead 3-2, Barcelona shipped an 84th-minute equaliser before imploding in stoppage time.

Just three days earlier, Xavi’s side were spat out on the wrong side of another bonkers contest, limping out of the Copa del Rey quarter-finals at the hands of Athletic Club.

However, Xavi’s delayed resignation had been in the post. As the beleaguered manager admitted: “I had my mind made up for days.” But how did the prodigal son’s return sour?

  • Uprooted hierarchy

Ahead of the Catalan derby that sealed the Spanish top-flight title for Barcelona last May, Xavi took a moment to recognise the “fundamental” role played by those behind the scenes, singling out the club’s director of football, Mateu Alemany, and sporting director, Jordi Cruyff. By the start of September, both figures had left Barcelona.

Deco has assumed full control of the club’s transfers and has been repeatedly accused of having a frosty relationship with Xavi after the pair supposedly butted heads on some arrivals last summer.

There have also been growing whispers of Xavi’s run-ins with club president Joan Laporta.

Barcelona’s current figurehead appointed Xavi as manager in November 2021 but was reluctant, especially after the former midfielder publicly backed Victor Font in the presidential elections which Laporta ultimately won.

Without Alemany and Cruyff, there is not the same friendly buffer for Xavi to fall back upon.

  • The flower is over

The opening weeks of Xavi’s reign were pockmarked by the Spanish press constantly referring to the coach’s ‘flor’ (flower) – a shortening of the idiom ‘Tener una flor en el culo’ (To have a flower growing out of your backside) which means getting lucky.

Xavi had some good fortune to beat both Espanyol and Villarreal but after losing 1-0 to Real Betis he joked: “The flower is over, it’s all over.” With hindsight, the good luck had only really just begun.

Barcelona‘s title winners were not the aesthetic ideal Xavi’s grand philosophy had imagined. A team with more grit than glitz won 11 league games 1-0, chiefly due to the inspired form of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Not only has the German returned to the realm of terrestrials this term, but he’s been injured since November.

There have been no kind flowers at the sharp end of the pitch for Barcelona this season. No team in La Liga has underperformed their expected goals by a larger margin than the Catalans.

It may have been written off as more winging from Xavi at the time, but he was accurate with his assessment of Barcelona’s wayward finishing after dropping points to Valencia in December. “We must be one of the worst teams in Europe in terms of effectiveness,” the flowerless coach sighed.

  • Tactical regression

Before Xavi arrived at his delayed press conference after the Villarreal debacle, Frenkie de Jong staunchly defended his manager. “There is full faith in the mister, the coaching staff are doing good work,” the Dutchman insisted, “we players are to blame, we have the talent. If people cannot see that, then it is our fault.”

It is all too often the fate of a manager that they are ignored in victory and blamed in defeat. Yet, the overwhelming number of Barcelona players that have endured a collective dip in form this term heavily hints at a misstep from the figure making the personnel and tactical decisions.

Xavi’s system at Barcelona hasn’t so much developed as devolved into a shapeless mess.

Ilias Akhomach started Xavi’s first-ever game for Barcelona but put Villarreal 2-0 up on Saturday night. The fleet-footed winger had been brought in as part of the crushing importance Xavi put on width above all else. Yet, during Barcelona’s title-winning campaign last term, Xavi settled on a box midfield with only one wide player in search of central numerical superiority.

The departure of Sergio Busquets – and Oriol Romeu’s doomed attempt at replacing him – coupled with key injuries to Barcelona’s remaining midfielders has often robbed Xavi of this option.

The series of trials and errors that have been scrubbed on and off the Barcelona blackboard has taken away any sense of rhythm for the Catalans. De Jong can start with himself when pointing out the faults of Barcelona’s players.

Pedri and Alejandro Balde have unmistakably regressed. Ronald Araujo, once so reliable, is liable to drop a clanger at any given moment.

Araujo was at the centre of Xavi’s latest high-profile tactical blunder.

The towering Uruguayan has man-marked Vinicius Junior in each Clasico under Xaxi and was stationed at right-back once again for the Supercopa de Espana final against Real Madrid in January.

Yet, Vinicius has played a central role all season for Madrid and so was nowhere near Araujo when he fired the capital club into a 2-0 lead after ten minutes.

By the time Araujo got close enough to the Brazilian, he gave away a penalty and got himself sent off. Not all of that is Xavi’s fault, but he didn’t help his players in that humbling 4-1 loss.

  • Too much pressure

Few individuals preach from the altar of the Cruyffian church with as much conviction as Xavi. The former Barcelona captain is never slow to espouse Johan Cruyff’s playing ideals but has also taken on board the Dutchman’s distaste for the Spanish press.

Cruyff called the neverending scrutiny around Barcelona the club’s ‘entorno’. On countless occasions, Xavi has insisted that this swirling vortex makes Barcelona “the most difficult club to manage in the world”. Ultimately, the pressure has proven too much.

“It’s a cruel job,” Xavi admitted to explain his departure. “It wears you down. In Barcelona you always feel like you’re not valued, you’re mistreated… that’s how the club works. From a mental health perspective, it’s tough, too. I’m a positive guy, but the battery levels keep running out… and at some point, you realise there’s no point in staying.”

What we know

  • After a trophy-laden playing career, Xavi returned to Barcelona as manager in 2021
  • The 44-year-old announced he would step down at the end of the season
  • Barcelona’s title defence has been underwhelming.

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