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Friday, June 21, 2024

Xavi’s Barcelona job looks safe for now but who else should they consider?

Xavi led Barcelona to the Spanish league title last term but with his side struggling this season, questions are being asked about his position as manager.

Barca were knocked out of the Copa del Rey quarter-finals on Wednesday night after a 4-2 extra-time defeat by Athletic Bilbao. The result all but ended any realistic hopes of winning a trophy in 2023-24.

In La Liga, they trail surprise leaders Girona by eight points (though Barca have a game in hand), and second-placed Real Madrid by seven. They play Napoli in the Champions League last 16 in February but success on Europe’s elite stage seems unlikely.

Madrid humiliated them 4-1 to win the Supercopa de Espana in early January, a competition where Xavi hoped to once again find a spark that would help turn his side’s campaign around, as happened in 2023.

Xavi, 44, has received several messages of support from senior club senior figures, such as president Joan Laporta and sporting director Deco, and has repeatedly said he remains convinced he can turn the situation around.

But after that Madrid defeat in Saudi Arabia, Xavi also said he “will never be a problem for Barca”, adding: “Whatever happens. I’m here to add (to the team’s success) and to help. When they tell me that I don’t add (anything), I’ll go home without problems.”

There are no indications Barca are looking to sack Xavi soon — he only signed a contract extension in September, taking his deal to 2026.

Club sources — who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions — have insisted they believe this is a time to remain calm and that a definitive diagnosis will be left until the summer. There is also the issue of Barca’s stricken finances, which mean they would struggle to even bring in a modestly paid replacement.

But here, The Athletic takes a look at some of the potential options out there…

Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta (Las Palmas)

Looking around La Liga, the most obvious candidate for any potential Xavi replacement with ‘Barca DNA’ is Las Palmas’ coach Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta.

Las Palmas are one of the revelations of the Spanish top-flight season. They were promoted last season and now have the second-lowest budget in La Liga but are in the shake-up for a European qualification spot.

Garcia Pimienta’s team have a clear identity and way of playing, based on the principles the 49-year-old learned in almost three decades at Barca, first as a player, then as a youth coach.

Garcia Pimienta took charge at Las Palmas in 2022 (Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

The Catalan won many plaudits for his work at La Masia, which included winning the 2018 UEFA Youth League (the under-19 equivalent to the Champions League) and helping oversee the progression of young players from Lionel Messi to Ansu Fati. Some at Barcelona saw him as a future first-team coach, but not Laporta, who fired him from the Barcelona Atletic (the club’s B team made up of youth players) job soon after taking over the presidency in 2021.

Garcia Pimienta has subsequently criticised Barca for relying too much on outside signings who displace their homegrown youngsters.

Appointing Garcia Pimienta to oversee the development of Gavi, Lamine Yamal, Pol Cubarsi and other talented teenagers would be a sign of Barca returning to the philosophy that has underpinned the club’s previous biggest triumphs.

Dermot Corrigan

Michel (Girona)

Considering Barcelona’s financial situation, a good candidate among their realistic options would be Michel. He knows La Liga well and has adapted very well to Catalan culture, which remains an important part of the Barcelona job.

Born in Madrid, Michel made an effort to integrate himself and speak Catalan — learning from his elderly neighbours — and has already established himself as an idol in Girona. Without a big budget or big names, he has moulded a side who play some of the best football in the Spanish top flight.

Girona are La Liga’s surprise leaders (Cristian Trujillo/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Most importantly, it is the kind of football Barca want to play. Girona’s 51 goals scored in La Liga are second only to Bayern Munich’s 53 Bundesliga strikes in Europe’s top five leagues. Their 4-2 win against Barca at Montjuic felt like the best kind of audition for the job from Michel.

The 48-year-old lost key players at the start of the season, including Oriol Romeu to Barca. Two players Barca didn’t want, Eric Garcia and Pablo Torre, went the other way but Girona have had the last laugh.

Michel makes his players better — that is something Barca need.

Laia Cervello Herrero

Thiago Motta (Bologna)

With so few coaches on the market, Barcelona might look to poach from one of Europe’s high-performing teams. Thiago Motta, who spent eight years at Barcelona as a player and has turned Italian side Bologna into one of Europe’s most intriguing, possession-based sides, fits that bill.

Motta, 41, had a rocky start to his managerial career, fired after two months in charge of Genoa, but last season he led Bologna to a ninth-placed finish — their highest in Serie A in 11 years — and his side are two points off fourth.

Thiago Motta made 147 appearances for Barca between 2001 and 2007 (Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

He has revolutionised their playing style; only two teams (Napoli and Fiorentina) average more possession of the ball this season and only two (Juventus and Inter Milan) have conceded fewer goals. Bologna look to control the game, lure the opposition out of their shape with patient, brave possession play, before hitting quickly when spaces open up.

Perhaps a move to Barca and the pressure that job brings would be a risk at such an early point in his budding coaching career, but Motta has brought solidity to a slipping-and-sliding sleeping giant of Italian football. Barcelona could do much worse than to call on their former player again.

Thom Harris

Rafael Marquez (Barcelona Atletic)

Former Barca and Mexico defender Rafael Marquez — an ex-team-mate of Xavi and Deco — is highly regarded among decision-makers at the club. His Barca Atletic are seventh in the third tier of Spanish football.

Hired in July 2022, Marquez, 44, has a good relationship with Laporta (Marquez publicly expressed his support to the club president during Laporta’s successful 2021 election campaign) and is also very close to sporting director Deco.

Marquez, pictured in December 2023 (NoeliaDeniz/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last season, Marquez’s Barca Atletic team reached the play-off semi-finals for promotion to Spain’s second division, losing out to Real Madrid Castilla over two legs. That was considered a good achievement and he has a strong connection with the club’s culture and desired way of playing — but he remains unproven as a manager at the elite level.

Club sources have described Marquez as the only candidate to have been timidly lined up to replace Xavi in case of emergency. But hiring him to lead the first team would be extremely risky.

Pol Ballus

Xavi (Barcelona)

Despite all the problems in the Barca team at present, arguably the best person to be its first-team coach remains Xavi himself.

Xavi’s plan for his coaching career was always to continue the legacy he had learned as a player, in which the most important influences had been Barca prophets Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.

Since taking the job in November 2021, those principles have not always been evident on the pitch, even when Xavi’s Barca were winning La Liga’s title last season.

However, Xavi is being asked to do a very different job than what he had prepared for. Instead, he has constantly had to deal with Laporta’s short-term transfer bets on big names who do not fit his philosophy, from Robert Lewandowski to Joao Felix.

Arguably, given Barca’s continuing huge financial problems, Laporta should accept that financial reality requires a change of policy, and start to patiently build around the best young kids developed in their La Masia academy.

Xavi would then get time to guide their development and also learn as a coach himself. Few expect that to happen.

Dermot Corrigan

Pep Guardiola (Manchester City)

If Barca fans could ask for any manager in world football, it would be Pep Guardiola — however unlikely that is.

The 53-year-old is the best coach in the world, he grew up with Barca in his veins and he took the team to the very top during his four years in charge from 2008-2012.

“If I’m coaching here or anywhere else or I’m an assistant coach and Barca call me, I would go. It’s my club,” Guardiola said in January 2023.

Guardiola, pictured with Messi in April 2010 (Lluis GeneE/AFP via Getty Images)

He was justifying the decision by his former assistant Mikel Arteta to leave Manchester City for the manager’s role at Arsenal, but it led some Barca fans to believe the door was not completely closed on a glorious return for Guardiola.

Fantasising about that can’t hurt supporters. It’s too bad he’s happy in Manchester.

Laia Cervello Herrero

(Top photo: Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

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