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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Xavi is not the problem at Barcelona. Him leaving won’t fix their problems

“We are not the Barca from 2010,” a weary Xavi reminded reporters a few days before Christmas. “We don’t have the quality of the Barca from 2010. We just don’t have that, forget about it. We don’t have that quality or that individual capability.”

Halfway through his third season in charge of Barcelona, it has become painfully obvious that the club’s greatest midfielder can’t bring back the old magic as manager. The reason is just as obvious: the club is effectively broke, hamstrung by years of mismanagement and financial regulations that prevent them from spending their way back to greatness.

On Saturday, Xavi announced he’ll leave the club at the end of the season, opening the door for what many fans see as an overdue coaching change. But that optimism is likely to be short lived. The truth is that Xavi has done about as well as could be expected under the circumstances, and the constant swirl of criticism from Barca’s infamous ‘entorno’ is based on little more than wishful thinking about the club’s dire position and a misunderstanding of what a manager can control.

A head coach’s most important job is to put the best available players on the pitch. Simultaneous budget and injury crises made that part easy for Xavi, who has barely had a choice. The most controversial part of his line-ups in his first season and a half was his continued reliance on an ageing Sergio Busquets, but that’s been hard to disagree with after witnessing how Barcelona’s build-up has deteriorated since he left for Inter Miami. If you watch the game, you don’t see Busquets — you see a gaping hole where the team’s legendary pivot used to be.

Xavi’s injury problems were extreme (Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images)

This season, there hasn’t been much debate around who to pick. Xavi tried to integrate Oriol Romeu, the squad’s only real defensive midfielder, but he was a hopeless mismatch who hasn’t been missed since he dropped to the bench.

When the board signed Joao Felix over the manager’s objections, Xavi dutifully did his best to make it work until it became obvious that Ferran Torres’s off-ball work rate offered more to the team.

Most public criticism has been aimed at Robert Lewandowski, another imperfect fit, but it’s not as if this squad has some other Pichichi-calibre striker pushing him for minutes. Like a chef trying to whip up dinner from a fridge full of leftovers, Xavi has been forced to use whatever he’s got.

More on Xavi’s decision to step down in the summer…

After line-up selection, a head coach’s next task is to get players into their best roles. Xavi came to Barcelona with a vision for how he wanted to play — an expansive 4-3-3 with conservative full-backs, attacking midfielders who can work between the lines but also offer constant depth runs, and wide, dribbly wingers who lead the attack from the outside in — but since then, he’s made sensible adjustments to tailor his tactics to the squad.

The enigmatic Frenkie de Jong, miscast by former coaches as an attacking midfielder or like-for-like replacement for Busquets, has played his best stretches for Barcelona since Xavi returned him to something like his old Ajax role, receiving the ball deep and dribbling up the left to lead the build-up. Playing in a double pivot has made it harder to hide De Jong’s defensive frailty, but that’s only really been exposed when he’s paired with Ilkay Gundogan, another talented but not particularly defensive midfielder whom Xavi would much rather see arriving in the box off of Lewandowski’s shoulder if only he had a viable ball-winner to partner with De Jong.

Xavi’s predecessor, Ronald Koeman, had tried and failed to shoehorn De Jong into his preferred position from a 4-2-3-1, but last season Xavi made a smart switch to a boxy 3-4-3 in possession, deploying a third centre-back as a hybrid elbow-back (a centre-back who sometimes shifts into a full-back role or vice-versa) to get a wider, sturdier base underneath his squishy double pivot. Jules Kounde wasn’t thrilled to take on that flexible wide role but it’s been a decent fit for a gifted ball-progressor who sometimes struggles as a centre-back.

Joao Felix was not Xavi’s choice (Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

For almost every question his tactics raised, Xavi has found an answer that made sense: the pacy Alejandro Balde needed to play as an attacking full-back, so the team developed a rotation that pushed him up the wing; Gavi, who’s more of an off-ball runner than on-ball creator anyway, could play as a ‘false winger’ and tuck inside when Balde joined the attack. Torres isn’t the kind of one-v-one winger Xavi loves, but he’s useful as a line-stretching inside forward alongside Lewandowski, freeing up Pedri to operate between the lines.

But injuries and departures from an already depleted squad have posed problems a coach can’t solve on the tactics board.

Pedri — Barcelona’s most essential player — has played less than half the team’s minutes since Xavi took over. Due to a plague of midfield injuries, Pedri, Gavi and De Jong have started just one game together this season, back in August.

The wide, dribbling wingers who were supposed to drive Xavi’s attack, a la Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal or the latest iteration of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, have been in short supply. Ousmane Dembele was Xavi’s favourite but Barcelona couldn’t afford to keep him from leaving for PSG last summer. Raphinha offers goals and assists with decent dribbling and good box movement but he’s played less than half of the team’s minutes this season. The lone bright spot has been the emergence of Lamine Yamal, a 16-year-old phenom who’s been thrown into the deep end to learn on the job without any veterans ahead of him.

Then there’s the case of the missing defensive midfielder, a recruitment catastrophe that has defined Barcelona’s season. Xavi pleaded for Real Sociedad’s Martin Zubimendi to replace Busquets but was told the club could only afford the now-32-year-old Romeu. Lately, Xavi has resorted to a De Jong-Gundogan double pivot, sacrificing one of his attacking midfielders and basically giving up all hope of defending the centre of the park.

Still the hits keep on coming. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen went down and was replaced by a shaky Inaki Pena, who’s allowing twice as many goals per game. An injured Gavi was replaced by the 20-year-old Fermin Lopez; an injured Balde by the 17-year-old Hector Fort; an out-of-form Andreas Christensen by the then-16-year-old Pau Cubarsi.

All told, Barcelona have given 23 per cent of their La Liga minutes to players 21 and younger — the third-highest percentage in Europe’s top five leagues.

Despite it all, Xavi’s Barca have managed to play football that’s generally effective, if not always attractive. They lead La Liga in not only possession — that part is a given — but also field tilt, which measures how much a team controls the game at the opponent’s end of the pitch, and expected goal (xG) difference, which measures the quality of their chances compared to their opponents’. Their high press is second to Real Sociedad when using the ‘passes per defensive action’ (PPDA) metric and they’ve created more shots from high turnovers than any team in Spain. These are the kinds of numbers over which a coach has some control.

What the manager can’t do much about are problems like Lewandowski suddenly forgetting how to kick the ball in the net or Pena’s inability to keep it out of his own.

Unlike last season, when Barcelona’s xG difference was actually slightly worse than it is now, they’re underperforming their xG at both ends of the pitch. That could be explained by game state or player quality but it’s mostly just bad bounces and worse luck, the kind of statistical noise that tends to even out in the long run — whether or not the coach gets to stick around to see it.

Xavi celebrates winning La Liga last season (David Ramos/Getty Images)

If Barca are doing all of that on what counts, by their standards, as an austerity budget, with a bare-bones squad wracked by injuries, why was everyone calling for the manager’s head?

The main criticism is that Xavi’s team just isn’t very fun to watch, which is often true. The build-up is wide and plodding, largely because De Jong takes longer on the ball than any midfielder in Europe. The attack has a hard time breaking down opponents, which is about what you’d expect with so many key players missing or forced out of position. The back line has been a shambles lately — maybe that’s the coach’s fault or maybe players of Kounde and Ronald Araujo’s calibre should know how to time an offside trap or clear the ball out of the box without remedial instruction. These mistakes weren’t a concern last season, when the defence conceded goals at a record-low pace until Barcelona had won La Liga.

A football manager can only do so much, and research suggests that up to 90 per cent of a team’s success can be explained simply by the quality of its players. There’s always a temptation to blame the coach for not building a better squad, but that’s the sporting director’s job, and Joan Laporta’s appointment of Deco to that role and his insistence on signing Joao Felix and Romeu have made it clear that Xavi isn’t calling the shots. As Johan Cruyff once warned Xavi about the headache of trying to manage Barcelona, “the only way to survive is if you can tell the club president to back the hell off”.

Bad finances, bad signings, bad injuries, bad luck: some of this will sort itself out eventually but a coaching change isn’t likely to fix the rest. Anyone still dreaming that a new manager might bring about a miraculous 2008-style revival had better hope they can also discover players like Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi without money to sign them.

Xavi knows better than anyone that a team like that only comes around once in a lifetime.

As a manager, he was dealt a losing hand and has played it about as well as he could. If Barcelona fans or the club’s decision-makers won’t be satisfied until they see their team win everything while playing beautiful football again, they’d be better off watching his playing days on YouTube.

(Top photo: Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

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