One week after announcing he will step down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season, Xavi finally had a quiet day at the office.
His reigning La Liga champions comfortably beat Alaves 3-1 away from home on Saturday, putting in a solid performance and giving Xavi reasons to feel vindicated.
He gambled on playing centre-back Andreas Christensen as a holding midfielder, with the Dane having a decent night and the manager’s trust in the squad’s teenagers paid off again — Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi both started and played very well, while full-back Hector Fort came on at half-time to provide an assist.
There was also Ilkay Gundogan, who performed well again as an attacking midfielder — his natural position.
The former Manchester City captain got a goal and an assist which means, over the last three games, while playing in a more advanced role, the 33-year-old has been involved in four goals (two goals and two assists). After Saturday night, 2023-24 is now the season where Gundogan has registered the most assists in all competitions (nine).
Taking into account Xavi’s words over the last week, the victory over Alaves is likely to be, for him, one of the more enjoyable moments from what is left of this campaign. This is because the 44-year-old hasn’t hesitated to point out, in every press conference lately, how hard his life is.
“This is the toughest place to be a manager,” he said last Saturday, when Barca were beaten 5-3 at home by Villarreal. And he continued the theme three days later by saying “being the Barcelona manager is a cruel life, everyone makes you feel like you are not good enough to do the job”.
He has also discussed the “toxic” atmosphere around the club and asked the media to reflect on this as, in his view, the current environment is not conducive to the team progressing.
And then, before the Alaves game, Xavi went even further and said that being in charge of Barcelona is “not worth it”.
“I am leaving because it’s been two and a half years in this role and the whole process of being the Barcelona manager is not worth it, I believe,” he said.
“You fight every day against everything and that wears you down. You can’t enjoy your daily life. I’ve seen managers in this club suffering and struggling even when they won. Managers who won the Champions League and were (still) questioned. This week, I spoke about it with Jagoba Arrasate (Osasuna’s manager). He told me he enjoys his job from Monday to Friday. Well, I don’t.”
It is reasonable for Xavi to claim that he feels liberated after announcing that he will go in the summer, but his continued insistence on calling out and highlighting the complexities that surround Barcelona might very well end up damaging the club’s search for his successor.
Sporting director Deco is in charge of this vital task and, given the club’s financial constraints and mixed form, he already has enough on his plate. Xavi’s thinly-veiled digs at the hierarchy only add to the problems.
President Joan Laporta said on Friday, in an interview with Catalan radio station RAC1, that he will not fire Xavi: “He will be here until the end of this campaign because he does not deserve to be sacked”. However, those inside the club know that this might change if the results on the pitch are poor.
Club sources did not want to comment on Xavi’s latest words which, for now, are not viewed as a huge issue. However, weeks ago the same sources conceded how surprised they had been to see their manager so overwhelmed by the criticism and pressure that comes with the job, given the experience he had at Barcelona as a player and has now added to as the manager.
Fortunately for the board and the coaching staff, the match against Alaves won’t heap any more doubts on the project. Barca were not brilliant, but they were solid and clinical — scoring three goals from five shots on target and exceeding their 1.21 expected goals figure.
Other than the result, Xavi won’t value anything more than Christensen’s performance in his first game for the club as a holding midfielder.
The 27-year-old played 82 minutes, completed 43 passes from 48 attempts and received the highest praise from his manager after the match: “Christensen told me he felt very comfortable. He didn’t lose balls, won duels and his concentration is on point. We have got a new player for our midfield.
“We are really happy with the result of this experiment. We’ve been working with Christensen (on this role) for a long time in training. He has all the technical capacities to do it. It’s not easy to play there, but he can do it step by step.”
Christensen’s reinvention is, at the same time, potentially a final blow for Oriol Romeu.
The last thing Romeu needed was to fall behind Christensen in Xavi’s pecking order. As club sources told The Athletic, the 32-year-old went to Deco’s office this week to discuss the interest that surprise La Liga title contenders Girona have in re-signing him (he left for Barca last summer).
Deco’s response was clear: with Barcelona unable to reinforce themselves in January, Romeu has no way out right now. For context, he played just the last seven minutes against Alaves.
All of this, partly, helps Xavi’s narrative. Sources who remain close to the manager have signalled that the club’s failure to properly replace Sergio Busquets, who left last summer at age 34, in the holding midfield role is one of the reasons for the current poor state of the team.
They eventually signed Romeu, once a graduate of their La Masia academy, yet now Christensen has seemingly taken his place in that position. So it is therefore not surprising that the former is now questioning his decision to leave Girona and rejoin Barcelona.
However, Xavi is in no position to be merciful.
The manager’s team selections from now until the end of the season will probably be as ruthless as his press conferences have become.
And, for as long as qualification for the 2024-25 Champions League is not at risk, Barcelona will accept both.
(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Read the full article here