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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Xavi’s return to Barcelona is as risky as it is romantic

Xavi Barcelona manager
Xavi will be returning to Barcelona as manager. Alejandro García/EPA.

Xavi Hernandez has been spoken about as a future Barcelona head coach for so long that Ronald Koeman might well have found the former midfielder’s name plate sitting on his desk before he was even walked out of the Camp Nou this week. Indeed, the spectre of Xavi has loomed over the Catalan club for a long time.

It’s not just that Xavi has been spoken about as a future Barca manager, but the club’s next great manager. The 41-year-old is widely seen as the man to return the Catalans to the values of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, having been the embodiment of the latter’s soccer philosophy during his career as a player.

Now reportedly on the brink of a long-awaited return to the Camp Nou following the dismissal of Koeman, the pressure on Xavi to take Barcelona back to the top of the Spanish and European game will be immense. After all, this is the job he has been groomed for. The job that was always his destiny.

And yet it shouldn’t be missed that Barca’s appointment of Xavi represents an almighty gamble, particularly at this specific moment. It might even be the biggest gamble taken by the club in their recent history, which is saying something given the decisions taken at the Camp Nou over the last few years.

The rational argument dictates that Barcelona need an experienced figure to guide them through this turbulent period. They need someone who has handled the pressure of the sport’s elite level, someone who can protect the young players in the Camp Nou dressing room and maximise the talent at the club.

Someone like Erik Ten Hag would have ticked a lot of boxes for Barca. His Ajax team play a brand of possession-based, high-pressing soccer that would have made him a good fit for the Catalans. What’s more, Ten Hag has brought through a number of young players during his time as Ajax boss, such is the expectation at the Dutch club.

Ten Hag is steeped in many of the same values and principles that Cruyff and Guardiola were at Barcelona and would have arrived at the Camp Nou as someone who has shown himself as qualified for the job. Xavi has achieved some success at Al-Sadd in Qatar, but isn’t proven at Champions League level like Ten Hag is.

Of course, it might well be the case that Xavi is the right man for the job. He will certainly command respect in the Camp Nou dressing room. His experiences in the game will be valuable to the likes of Gavi and Pedri, who are still finding their way. Xavi might also have absorbed the teachings of Guardiola. He may be the tactician Barcelona need; his Al-Sadd team are renowned for their attractive and possession-based style of play.

However, it’s unfair to expect him to be all of these things. Barca will need to afford Xavi patience to learn on the job. His experiences in management in Qatari soccer will have barely prepared him for what he will face upon his return to the Camp Nou. This is a job that can grind down even the most accomplished of coaches without the additional pressure of the club’s financial situation.

Interestingly, the relationship between Xavi and Barcelona president Joan Laporta isn’t believed to be all that strong. Laporta had no reservations about hiring Guardiola as a rookie coach at senior level back in 2008, but there are reports that he isn’t so sure about Xavi’s credentials.

Laporta might still be suspicious of Xavi after the former midfielder partnered with another presidential candidate, Victor Font, but he will have no choice but to back his new manager. The extent of that backing might be limited due to Barcelona’s financial condition, making transfers difficult, but the club can’t allow further division at boardroom level to fester. Xavi and Laporta have to be on the same page.

Romance has been the driving force behind the clamour for Xavi to be hired as Barcelona head coach, but now that the 41-year-old seemingly has the job he must offer some actual evidence to vindicate his appointment. Ordinarily, a club would demand evidence before hiring a new head coach, but this isn’t an ordinary appointment. And Barcelona need Xavi to be more than just an ordinary manager.

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