Being a returning hero is hard. It isn’t just the burden of expectations. That in and of itself is hard enough. When a hero returns to an institution that he essentially helped raise to glory, the burden can be Sisyphean.
For what seemed like eons, for club and country, Xavi was the best midfielder anyone had ever seen, exerting a control over everything, from play to pitch quality. Decision after decision was correct, a flawlessness that was inexorable. The nickname “The Inevitable Xavi” was correct. You half expected to see him out there with gardening shears and a ruler, ensuring his killing floor was at the optimal length.
When he retired, everyone said his next return to Barça would be as manager. Sadly, they were correct. And now he is leaving after two seasons. Whether he jumped or was pushed only he and Laporta know. But it’s time for him to leave, to correct a bad call that should never have been made.
In what seems like ages ago, someone was crazy enough to have me on television to discuss the possibility of Quique Setien as Barça manager. The buzz was building. My view was that he should only have been allowed in Camp Nou as a ticketholder, being head of Betis sides that kept making the same errors, same structural flaws, etc, etc.
When Xavi, fresh off success with the PSG of the Qatari league was being mooted as a managerial option at Barça, the lure of the returning hero was strong. Both club presidential candidates were propping him up as an essential plank of their sporting plan, the kind of populist faffery that sells with the punters but makes precious little sense in the reality of giant club football.
Some grumps suggested that Xavi was too dogmatic, had never been tested, never had to adapt or face off against a superior manager with a superior side, never had to face a blizzard of injuries, never had to do any of the things that can help to prepare a manager for running a team such a Barça.
More crucially, off the pitch, it’s everything. It aged Pep Guardiola ten years in four seasons, and his tenure was sprinkled in magic and fairy dust as he had a coterie of legends at his beck and call.
Xavi came in as the pawn of an arrogant fool of a president, just elected to a second term essentially with the mantra of returning to the past. Past is past for a reason, history exists as a lesson if those making the decisions bother to learn from it. Laporta didn’t, Xavi didn’t. Both came in talking about what they were going to do, how they were going to do it. Neither had the brains, capability, guts or raw material to accomplish that.
Laporta got lucky that first time, choosing Guardiola at the exact right time, with a team that was ready to do exactly what he, and they needed to do. The result was history. And after the disaster of Ronald Koeman, another returning hero dashed on the rocks, Xavi had nowhere to go but up, and up he went as Laporta got lucky again. Xavi’s team won the league and so many said, “Here we go again,” but only a few bothered to look not at what happened, but how it happened and what was really happening.
Opponents were missing shots they were customarily making, leading to overperfomance in key defensive stats. Robert Lewandowski delivered the one good year he had left in his legs, Ousmane Dembele, for all of the frustration he brought to supporters, was key in that thing called Xaviball.
And yet …
European football, where a team is tested in the hotbed of football evolution, was reality. In that crucible Xaviball was found wanting in every key paramater, spanked and sent home. Again. Champions League, then Europa League, both competitions for the same reasons. Xavi was as in over his head as many predicted, and those competitions demonstrated exactly why: lack of flexibility, dogmatism, lack of defensive nous — his teams played like those of an unprepared manager, not fully formed in ideas or how to implement those ideas. The reality of Xavi’s team was that its luck wasn’t repeatable. Once opponents started shooting to statistical average, started completing those passes they were just missing previously, the outcome was inevitable.
This season is what some of us were expecting from Xavi’s first season. Koeman was a disaster because he never had real ideas, just kept throwing stuff at a deeply flawed roster. Even when something worked, he discarded it to try something else. It was managerial failure atop player failure.
Xavi had a much better roster to call upon than Koeman, even as it too was flawed, and a president willing to splash the cash where he could to improve the team. Managerial failure made all of that moot. But again, as has been written in this space before, FC Barcelona is a multinational corporation run like a small-town butcher shop in Catalunya. Even if Xavi knew what to do, he was also in over his head in the boardroom machinations necessary to make that happen.
When Sandro Rosell came in, stuffed with fluff and reeking of brimstone, Guardiola knew the writing was on the wall, that nothing good was going to come from wrestling with fools and hustlers. He made the correct decision in stepping down. But the institutional rot that began in that period has tainted everything, a deep rot that allows things to look good on the surface until eventually the structure caves in and everyone is gazing at an imploded sporting project. “It was so promising. What happened?” But it was never promising, not in reality. What happened is exactly what was supposed to happen.
Xavi was done in institutionally by the same things that did in better managers than he in Koeman and Ernesto Valverde. And for all of the demonisation that people have invested in Josep Bartomeu for reasons clear and justified, Laporta is no picnic, either. As with his 1.0 run, he came in and the departures and shufflings began, things that looked good on paper but in reality weren’t up to standard. It speaks volumes that the club’s best, most exciting player is a 16-year-old kid from La Masia, that its most essential midfielder an 18-year-old kid from … La Masia. Even after all that money, and all those transfers.
Prima facie, Barça had a magical transfer summer, getting players on loan or free, seemingly key players that addressed team needs. Xavi’s team, on paper, began his second season in better shape than his first season. Paper can deceive, however, and the key component of that, a defensive midfielder to organize and control the space in front of the back line, still wasn’t addressed. Absent that presence you have fragile, slow, soft Pedri, a never-will-be in De Jong, and a young lion in Gavi. Once Gavi went down with a serious injury, that midfield was always doomed. Without a DM? Disaster
Oriol Romeu came in, a right-priced stopgap who was always going to be what he was, a thirtysomething journeyman whose best seasons were behind him. He was essentially a turnstile in European play and competent in league, even as his numerous flaws were exacerbated by the existing flaws in the Barça midfield, namely slow, defensively soft players who were good on the ball but crap without it, incapable of providing any protection for the back line, a far tumble from the ball-controlling centurions of which Xavi was part.
Laporta and his crew also hamstrung Xavi in setting in motion the departure of Dembele in the stupid, utterly childish way they handled him and his fool of a manager in that last negotiation. They won in that the player had to return, tail tucked between his legs. They lost in that the essential component in absolutely everything Xavi wanted to do offensively left in a huff, for a soft landing in Paris atop a pile of cash.
Gundogan came, a husk of a player who City was fine with seeing the back of. Protests of “He was still valuable” fell on the reality of his performances. Some Double Joao action came in Cancelo and Felix, both on loan, riding the last chance train after better managers at better clubs decided that neither of them were in their plans, for all of the reasons they shouldn’t have been in Xavi’s plans, either. The boardroom was making transfer decisions that managers should have been making, even managers as in over their head as Xavi was.
Football has changed a lot since the days of the Marauding Sprites. FC Barcelona and its supporters, managerial team, everything connected to the club, still hasn’t, like that dowager in an old, fancy home who goes out into the modern world and wonders why everyone is doing everything wrong, not the way it used to be and still should be. Until that is fixed, the next manager is going to be every bit as doomed as Xavi.
Every now and again, the notion of a Guardiola return pops up, insanity. A manager as smart as Guardiola is aware of not only the returning hero pitfalls, but what a mess the club is. He might return as president one day if he decides sending postcards from Hell is a fine thing to consider. But as a manager? Never. Nowhere to go but down, onto the same rocks flecked with the carcasses of predecessors.
Xavi is leaving at the end of the season on a bed of failure not entirely of his own making, but the great majority of it is. He still has no idea of what he has and how to operate with it. No matter the players, a team has to have a structure, a way of playing. Xavi’s team has nothing, unless headless chicken ball is a tactic. All of the other factors matter, but on the pitch? That’s Xavi, as unprepared to run a team like Barça as a new manager can be.
That said, until the hubris and arrogance is eliminated from the club boardroom, until a manager comes in fully empowered to run a team the way he wants and needs, there will be more Koemans, more Valverdes, more Xavis. As a returning hero, Xavi had probably the highest probability any new manager will have of setting up that structure, being that empowered. That he couldn’t accomplish it is yet another failure in his tenure.
When a hero comes home again, he arrives with the burden of expectations. The arrival of Xavi was hailed with hope, stuffed with joy and anticipation. But the very things that made him so amazing as a player, made him ill-suited to be a manager. Guardiola learned from his time as a player, but evinced the immense adaptability that has made him into the best manager in the game. He also had the luck of moving to well-run clubs, finally going to Manchester City, a club tailored to meet his needs and expectations.
Xavi strolled into the Barcelona dawn like a tourist wearing cargo pants stuffed with dollars — ready to get rolled by charlatans and hustlers. How many player decisions were his? How many sporting decisions were his? And what of the plague of injuries besetting his team. These are fair questions to ask, even as the truth of his tenure exists in the beatdowns his unprepared team has been taking, now that opponents are making proper passes, and finishing according to statistical expectation. His teams make the same mistakes as last season, still has the same structural flaws and tactical blinders. He’s still shaping an attack around the skills of a player who is long gone, making mistake after mistake.
What does his team work on in training? What work is done? Match after match the group seems unprepared. Spaces are too big between players, who don’t quite know what to do with the ball when they get it. The idea(l) of “playing the right way,” whatever that is in the here and now, has been replaced with “Huh? What?”
Stat types talk of xG, and better finishing, all off the mights and maybe that just exist as blinders serving to obscure the reality of an absolute mess of a team in the hands of a clueless manager. Every manager has injuries and other things to deal with, but this team was a mess even beFORE all the injuries. It was clear to see what was coming if you bothered to look, but few did. Why? It’s easy to see a bright future in the headlights of an approaching train until the moment of impact.
Xavi should have done better, had the materials to do better. Teams such as Girona and Bayer Leverkusen stand in mute, eloquent indictment of Xavi’s failure, as managers with rosters not as talented play excellent football and top tables. The Xavi decision should never have been made but Laporta, full of hubris and arrogance, was always going to make it because it plays to the showman that he ultimately is, a footballing P.T. Barnum.
That a midfielder so smart, so accomplished, fell for these blandishments when he should have known better isn’t really surprising. Everyone wants to hear that they are amazing, ready for the dreams they themselves have been having. But how often are dreams reality, how frequently do they turn into nightmares? Xavi is living a nightmare right now, one of his own choosing as well as own making, a deal done at the crossroads. It was doomed from the start, and whoever that next manager is had better be well prepared. Because right now, FC Barcelona is a big club in name only, a fiscally strapped, rickety thing running on the fumes of a glorious past.
So much has to change at the club before it will again be prepared for excellence. Xavi leaving is the first of many of those things. He isn’t leaving because of boardroom dimwittery, injuries and bad luck. Those were just contributing factors. He’s leaving because he isn’t good enough, wasn’t ready enough, ultimately yet another correct decision from a man known for such things.