‘Baby, please go,’ aka Reconsideration and ego

I let you down again / What’s another harmless lie between friends / Now you can’t be disappointed / I thought I gave you just exactly what you wanted

These song lyrics, from “Exactly What You Wanted” by Helmet, are so apt in thinking about the suddenly ongoing tenure of Xavi as FC Barcelona manager.

When he said he was leaving, said it was all too much and that he was making this move for the love of the club, talked about expectations and entornos, about impossible situations, one thing stands out as being absent in all of that alleged self-reflection: self reflection.

For a player so cerebral, nicknamed the “Cerebral Dictator” by Ray Hudson, there seemed to be very little actual introspection, very little thought or acceptance of his very own role in the alleged shitstorm that led to his saying “Enough.”

And the team suddenly started getting better results. It wasn’t necessarily playing better, but it was getting better results. And on two different occasions when asked if he had changed his mind, Xavi said no, his decision to leave at the end of the season was still firm. And the team kept going, defeating Napoli to make the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and within eight points of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, and the talk began.

Laporta and his confederacy of dunces wanted Xavi to continue, said they would be working to make that happen, even as Xavi continued to say no. And then, his team won the first leg in Paris, even as the same problems that precipitated the poor play that brought out the long knives that caused him to say “Enough” in the first place, persisted.

Then came the second leg against PSG and elimination, then came the loss in the Classic to put paid to any notions, faint as they were, of “hay, Liga.” And in the wake of those two, jarring spectacles of collective ineptitude came the last straw: apparently, Xavi is staying.

Let’s be clear about what is going on here. It isn’t that Xavi is a bad manager, but rather that he doesn’t know how to be a good manager. The two are different. Bad managers never learn. Team after team to the same results. But a new manager such as Xavi needs to build up to a big club, needs to learn how to build a team, learn how to manage adversity, learn what to do with injury situations, how to adapt to opponents who have adapted to you. Most crucially, a manager learns what he doesn’t know.

We don’t know what Xavi knows, what he has the capacity to learn. All we know is that he is in the wrong place to continue to fool around, showing us what he doesn’t yet know, might or might not have the capacity to learn.

When Xavi’s name came up, my view was that he was unequipped for the job tactically and in overall knowledge, and too dogmatic to assume the helm of such a complex entity. Don’t forget this was the man who, in a 7-0 thrashing by Bayern Munich over both legs, crowed something about winning possession, and blablabla. You don’t — or at least you shouldn’t, go from managing the PSG of Qatar to FC Barcelona. You don’t go from running a team that can screw up and still have success to one that is in the process of being rebuilt, cash-strapped and further hamstrung by being run by egotistical fools.

Over the two years of his tenure, people have asked, “Where is the structure, where is the style of play? Where is the repeatable action that gives the team a foundation from which to build?” And the answers came in ChaosBall, a misguided notion of verticality and getting the ball forward, anytime and all the time. Let’s roll.

The signs of dogmatism were present in such a rigid adherence to this style, even when it cost the team time and again, particularly against PSG. The signs of dogmatism were present in his sticking like a remora to a left back in Joao Cancelo who has let the team down time and again, who damaged it in the first PSG leg, then helped kill it off in the second.

People talk about Xavi and his giving youth an opportunity, yet a better defender in Hector Fort sat on the bench, watching a disasterclass and likely wondering why he wasn’t being given an opportunity. If Fort — as some of us crazy people wanted — started both legs against PSG, is the result different? It’s a valid question. Xavi said no, despite all the evidence that trusting Cancelo at fullback was doomed. Then he repeated the error in the Classic, with the same results.

The rush for verticality in the second leg as in the first, led to counter after counter for PSG, who were given the ball time and again via long passes, hoofed, hopeful clearances from Ter Stegen, hospital balls into passing lanes. With a two-goal lead on aggregate in that second leg, Xavi’s team persisted in playing the exact same way. Climbing the managerial ladder teaches you that there should be other ways to play, teaches you that playing to an opponent’s strength isn’t the best idea. It teaches you to believe results, that a player is who he shows you that he is, teaches you to cut bait.

FC Barcelona is a brutal crucible for a new manager to learn on the job. Xavi should have known better, but ego convinces. “I can do this.” And his team won a title his first season, and few asked why, few looked at opponent chances missed, passes in the final third so bad it almost seemed like Fate was guiding Barça. Nobody asked what would happen when those passes were made, those chances in front of goal converted. Nobody asked whether the team was playing better, playing as if it was learning something, as if it had a notion of what to do.

A fanbase that used to say, “We would rather lose playing beautiful football than win playing ugly,” morphed into “Hey, we’re winning. Great.” Even now, people want Xavi to stay, are convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that he has learned what is necessary to be a successful manager at FC Barcelona.

He is aided and abetted by a blustery blowhard of a president in Joan Laporta who, like all blustery blowhards, never is willing to admit being wrong. The “consequences” he talked about in discussing failure seem to be continued opportunities for failure.

FC Barcelona overachieved this season, one in which grumps like me figured they would just make it out of Champions League group stages, and finish top four in Liga, just enough to make the competition next season. Almost making the semi-finals and likely finishing second in league is better than what should have happened, particularly after the injuries to Balde and Gavi, robbing the team of two of its most important talents.

But this overachieving doesn’t point to managerial excellence, but rather one-off moments of brilliance. The structure still wasn’t there. Pedri plucking a perfect rainbow out of the sky and dropping it on the foot of Raphinha isn’t a tactic. It’s magic.

Xavi gave young players a chance; young players who were so obviously brilliant that any person in their right mind would give them a shot. You watch them in training and think, “I’m no fool,” even if you often play one on TV. Lamine Yamal and Cubarsi were no brainers. Fort is the risk, the one you work to build on, work with from the instant Balde is ruled out, because you know that your two veteran LB options are a player who doesn’t belong in the squad under any circumstance, and a player who doesn’t belong in the squad if his main job is being a defender.

His “innovation” in moving Christensen to midfield was, again, in the “Well what else is there to do” category. His chosen option, Oriol Romeu, proved to be nothing more than a right-priced pylon, a turnstile with arms. So yeah, let’s give Christensen a run out.

Taking a risk on the obvious isn’t a risk. It’s just the obvious.

A manager should learn comportment, learn not to be ejected match after match because you just won’t shut up. A team needs its manager, even if that manager isn’t up to the task. What kind of picture does a manager who has been ejected yet again prove? “He’s fighting for us.” Likely not. More likely it’s “Man, can’t dude learn to shut up so that we can have our manager on the sideline?”

Xavi has demonstrated hardly any of the qualities necessary to be a successful manager at giant club level, right down to witch doctors for physios. Even the signs that he had instilled in the club a spine that allowed it to fight, and fight back proved to be illusory, a spine that was more like a Jenga column, collapsing the moment the right peg got yanked away.

So why IS Xavi staying? Unfinished business? The entorno isn’t going to get any nicer or more forgiving. Real Madrid will be adding Alphonso Davies and Kylian Mbappe, among others. Barça will be shopping around for freebies and inexpensive talents, in addition to spending money it doesn’t have on a couple of bums named Joao, to keep their superagent happy. The team isn’t going to be any better equipped for success next year than it was this year. Balde and Gavi will be back, so that will be something. One or both of the CBs from Atletic will get good looks, with Faye likely to stay. Casado likely promotes. But nothing is looking to happen that will tip the scales, and the team is shaping up, roster-wise, to look pretty much like this season’s group, right down to a forward aging like bananas, the Deluding Dutchman who still has people believing he’s a good midfielder and a renewed Sergi Roberto.

Xavi made an error in coming, and is making an error in deciding to stay. For a man who knows football and loves a club so much, why does doing the right thing for that entity seem to be so difficult?