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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Xavi looks set to struggle on despite fury and blunders at Barcelona

Just over two weeks ago, Xavi announced he would be stepping down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season to “liberate the players and relieve external pressure”.

His announcement has not had the desired effect. The pressure does not seem to be off anyone at Barca, especially as club president Joan Laporta sent plates of food flying across Montjuic’s directors’ box after another painful result on Sunday evening — a 3-3 home draw with 19th-placed Granada that leaves them 10 points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid.

News of Laporta’s angry reaction was broken by local station Catalunya Radio minutes after the final whistle, with their report detailing that he threw a tray full of canapes while shouting insults and complaints. They also reported this was not the first time Laporta, a passionate man, had reacted like this. But in front of Xavi, his response was different.

“Yes, I saw the president after the game just like almost every week,” Xavi said after the match. “He tried to be optimistic to me, in the same line he’s been all year and insisted there are still a lot of games to play. But he, as everyone else, was disappointed.”

Against Granada, Barcelona were poor again. Despite the brilliant Lamine Yamal opening the scoring in the 14th minute, the away side managed to find their way to a 2-1 lead shortly after the hour mark as Manchester United loanee Facundo Pellistri registered a goal and an assist. Robert Lewandowski brought Xavi’s side level, but Barca went behind again before Yamal’s strike settled a draw that only felt like a loss around the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys, their temporary home.

“We had won all the games since the announcement of my departure (Barca beat Osasuna 1-0 and Alaves 3-1), but tonight we took a big step back,” Xavi said.

“In the offensive department, we have improved recently, but on the defensive side, we still commit mistakes that make you wonder how we can do that on this level. It’s impossible to be competitive if we keep making blatant errors, and this has been a common theme this year.

“The defensive mistakes have just killed us. We have been working on that the whole week, but it just keeps happening.”

Xavi sounded hopeless. This context might suggest it would be time for the board to tackle the problems and make some decisions. Club sources — who preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions — insist that Xavi is not at risk of being fired yet. But the Champions League round-of-16 tie against Napoli is increasingly assuming the aura of a final judgement for the 44-year-old, with the first leg to come in Italy on February 21.

Barca president Laporta was reported to have reacted angrily to Sunday’s result (Cristian Trujillo/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

If it was anyone else, they would not be there anymore. Laporta himself admitted this last week during an interview with RAC1 radio station when he said: “I only accepted the proposal of staying with the manager until the end of the season because it’s Xavi, a legend of this club.”

You also have to look at the situation from a financial perspective.

In September, La Liga drastically cut Barca’s permitted salary limit from €648million (£553m; $700m at current rates) the previous year to a new figure of €270m.

Barcelona’s real squad cost for 2023-24 — the total of salaries and transfer amortisations — is officially budgeted at €492million. As they have exceeded their level, La Liga rules say they must make cuts before signing any more players, a rule that applies to managers’ wages, too.

There is a degree of flexibility within the rules — these would allow Barca to assign up to four per cent of their €270million salary cap to cover a new manager’s salary, but any money committed now would still be discounted from the next limit to be set for 2024-25. They have little room to manoeuvre.

Barca now trail leaders Real Madrid by 10 points in La Liga (Javier Borrego/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Recent numbers on the pitch don’t do Xavi any favours. Barcelona have conceded 23 goals in the 11 games they’ve played in 2024, more than any other club in the top five European leagues. Eight of them have come in their past three home games. In the previous campaign, they only conceded four times in the 19 league games played in the Camp Nou.

In La Liga, Real Mallorca, Rayo Vallecano and Alaves are among the 11 clubs to have conceded fewer goals than Barca’s 33 this season.

Xavi’s claim that his team has recently improved on the offensive side can also be disputed. By the time relegation-threatened Granada went 3-2 up last night, they had registered more shots on target than their hosts (after 66 minutes). By the final whistle, both teams had completed the same number of shots (11). Granada had only scored seven goals away from home before Sunday, and had earned just one of their 12 points on the road.

Several of Barca’s big names will face criticism over their poor performances, including Frenkie de Jong and Lewandowski. Xavi pointed out Joao Cancelo has been playing through the pain barrier in recent games as he nurses a knee injury, but the full-back has become a defensive liability and is an obvious target for opposition sides. De Jong has been unable to connect the defence and attack, and Pedri still looks far from his best.

There is only one positive: Yamal. Words to describe his exceptionally creative attacking play and constant threat will soon run out if he keeps up this rate of productivity. The 16-year-old became the youngest player to score two goals in a La Liga game last night, and he has been Barcelona’s best forward for the past month. His resurgence is refreshing and exciting for the club, but it’s also concerning that their offensive productivity relies on an inexperienced teenager.

Things need to change in Barcelona. Unfortunately for them, it does not look like that will happen very soon.

 (Top photo: Pedro Salado/Getty Images)

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