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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Xavi is not blameless but Barcelona’s problems run far deeper

Xavi’s shock announcement on Saturday that he would leave Barcelona in the summer came after a game in which all the club’s internal chaos was evident on the pitch.

Barca’s performance during the 5-3 defeat against Villarreal at their temporary Montjuic home was the logical result of constant upheaval since Joan Laporta returned as club president in March 2021, with the turmoil accelerating after Xavi led the team to an unlikely La Liga title last season.

Xavi’s warning of his departure was a surprise, but more for its timing. It had been suspected for a while that he might not last much longer as coach, with the breach between the Barca bench and boardroom having a direct impact on the team.

Even though they have known each other for more than two decades, with Xavi’s playing days overlapping with Laporta’s first spell as president from 2003 to 2010, the two men have never been particularly close and have never fully shared the same ideas about what the club needs.

After his retirement as a player, Xavi always believed he would be Barca coach one day. Much of his preparation for that return was done while working with Catalan businessman Victor Font, who was Laporta’s only serious challenger in Barca’s last presidential elections in early 2021.

When Laporta won those elections to return to the post, he said firmly and publicly that he was not going to hire Xavi as his coach. When it soon became clear Ronald Koeman needed to be replaced, Laporta swallowed his pride and called Xavi back from Qatar, but they never really made a convincing leadership duo.

On his appointment in November 2021, Xavi built a working relationship with Laporta’s first sporting director Mateu Alemany, and international director Jordi Cruyff (who had also previously been involved in future planning with Xavi and Font).

When Barca won their first Spanish league title in three years in 2022-23, Alemany provided nous for transfer dealings within La Liga’s salary limits, and Cruyff was a valuable link between the boardroom and dressing room. Key leadership on the pitch came from Sergio Busquets, Xavi’s former midfield team-mate, as club captain.

But within weeks of winning that title, Xavi was the only one of those four who remained in position. Busquets joined his friends Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba in Miami. Cruyff departed, claiming (not entirely convincingly) that he wanted to return to coaching. Over the summer, it appeared Alemany was leaving for Aston Villa, then staying at Barca, then leaving anyway.

Laporta put in place a different structure overseeing the club’s football activities, led by new sporting director Deco. The coach had much less say in transfer dealings, or the football department generally.

Xavi really wanted a holding midfielder, and Bayern Munich’s Joshua Kimmich and Real Sociedad’s Martin Zubimendi were floated but the board decided the club’s deep financial problems meant the best they could afford was €3.5million (£3m, $3.8m) on Oriol Romeu, then 31, from Girona.

Even still, Laporta and Deco were working to bring in other players, for other positions or profiles that the coach did not see as a priority. For example, Xavi did not want Joao Felix, and publicly and privately expressed his doubts over the Portuguese playmaker’s attitude and suitability. However, money was somehow found to sign Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo on loan, with support from their agent Jorge Mendes.

Joan Laporta accompanies Xavi on the day the Barca legend was presented as manager in 2021 (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

This all meant that, even though Xavi should have won a lot of credibility by winning last season’s La Liga title, he began the campaign with his authority having been undermined.

Through the first months of the season, the fault lines were clear. Even when things appeared to be moving in the right direction, interventions from above, and perverse financial motivations, have continued to shoot the team in the foot.

When Barca qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time in three seasons in the autumn, Xavi wanted to take the opportunity to rest some players for the final game at Antwerp, especially thirty-somethings Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan.

But the club’s board were worried about the immediate €2.8m in prize money that came from winning three more points. The coach’s decision was overruled, Lewandowski and Gundogan played, and the team lost the game anyway.

That looks like the key moment now for the ending of all confidence in the ‘project’ Xavi wanted to lead.

Another sign of off-pitch issues impacting the team was the short-notice exhibition game against Mexican team Club America in Dallas during the winter break, earning the club €4m but further disillusioning a dressing room in which internal divisions were growing.

This month, everyone at Barca knew the team needed an experienced midfielder who could hold the centre of the pitch (with Romeu not having adequately replaced Busquets). However, the board’s decision was instead to make a bet on an 18-year-old Brazilian attacker who will cost €40m — another huge decision to make given the club’s debts and difficulties registering players with La Liga. Barely mentioned in public is that Vitor Roque’s agent is Andre Cury — associated with some of the club’s worst transfer deals under previous presidents, but now rehabilitated by Laporta and Deco.

Xavi’s doubts about Joao Felix have proven to be correct — given a rare La Liga start on Saturday, he was substituted when Barca were 2-0 down early in the second half. Cancelo entered at half-time in that game and within 10 minutes made a defensive mistake that was punished with an opposition goal.

However, Deco has repeatedly said both loan moves could be made permanent in the summer, even considering the hefty salaries and transfer fees that would be required.

Such disagreements and misalignments are what produce a team that can go 2-0 down at home to Villarreal, fight back to lead 3-2, but then end up losing 5-3.

Many of Barca’s games lately have seen similar chaos. The biggest stars — including presidential signing Lewandowski — are not performing at the level of their salaries or reputations. Barca’s squad is still full of talented players, but with everyone pulling in different directions, the team just cannot succeed.

The defending was disastrous in the 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final in Saudi Arabia this month. In Wednesday’s Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao, the goals Barca conceded were almost comical.

Xavi has complained increasingly loudly about a lack of support but the patience afforded to him by Barca fans and pundits has been remarkable. Just as most have been prepared to accept Laporta’s ‘lever-pulling’ to try to fix the club’s finances, there has also been little open dissent about the presidential way in which decisions are made. Or the preference for big-name agent-led signings over patiently developing the talented products from Barca’s La Masia academy.

Saturday’s game at Montjuic appeared to be a breaking point. After the shock of conceding five times at home in La Liga for the first time in six decades, the usually loyal official supporters’ group showed their anger by chanting “Barca yes, Laporta no”.

That was immediately followed by Laporta holding a conclave with his closest advisors — Deco, vice-president Rafa Yuste and former Barca handball star Enric Masip. None of these have the industry knowledge or experience of Alemany and Cruyff, but they are all closer to the president.

Xavi himself shares the blame — he has also surrounded himself with people from his closest circle, including his brother as assistant coach. But then, he never really had Laporta’s full confidence, and has lost all his closest allies, and was always going to lose a political battle with the president. His departure will not fix the real problems which Barca face. The squad remains really unbalanced and all the lever-pulling has left the club’s finances looking worse, not better.

“We have just agreed (my departure in June) with the president,” Xavi said during Sunday’s press conference at Montjuic. “We have a brilliant president. Him, Rafa Yuste, Deco… everyone is really capable.”

That was generous from Xavi, but may not be what the former playmaker really feels inside. And until somebody at Barca actually proves themselves capable of dealing with the deep problems at the club, no coach will be able to bring lasting success to the team.

(Top photo: Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

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