All Barcelona fans know that former midfielder Xavi Hernández will end up coaching their team one day. Nonetheless, the timing is decisive, and maybe now is not the right time for that to happen.
Xavier Hernández, or simply Xavi, was not just one of those players that represent the peak of positional style player at FC Barcelona; rather, he was one of the fulcrums that made sure that the engine of the team worked as well as it did. Trained and graduated in the famed La Masía academy, Xavi went on to represent and be identified as the face of a brand of football that has become the signature of this club.
Which was why, even as he pulled the blaugrana colours for the last time, Barcelona fans believed that it wasn’t the last they were going to see of him at the Camp Nou. They knew that one day he will come back and run the engine of this team – albeit from the sidelines. This was underlined when Xavi went on to apply for a professional manager’s licence and qualified for it last year. With all the negativity that was surrounding the club, it was predicted that Xavi would take the reins soon and he would set the course straight.
“Everyone knows that coaching Barça is a dream”
This dream came way too close to becoming a disaster when the Barcelona board – as has become a habit with them – made a mess out of a managerial change this season. Managerial changes should ideally be at the beginning of the season; instead it was done midway. It should also have been dealt with delicately, but was done with utter insensitivity. They went behind the back of Ernesto Valverde, made it public, humiliated him, and at the end, tried to blame it on the players. After his dismissal, their first choice was Xavi. Xavi did well to refuse the offer.
A few months down the line, this whole discussion is up and running again. The team came back from the break caused by the pandemic, had a couple of tough results and the sword was up in the air again for coach Quique Setién. “Bring back Xavi” was the call, with no regard for the current boss, no patience for his project and utter ignorance of the shambles that he inherited, in the name of a squad.
That any manager deserves a proper full campaign to start from the scratch and a good transfer window to implement changes in the personnel is being forgotten here. But even if, for arguments’ sake, we agree that Setién’s time is up at Barça, does that necessarily mean the time is ripe for Xavi to take up this job?
Managing any world-class team is a challenge. Managing one that is so unforgiving and demanding one as Barcelona is on another level altogether. Success on multiple fronts is the bench mark. The style has to be maintained. But in developing it, the team should keep winning too! In addition, it would probably be difficult to find a fan community that is as spoilt as those of FC Barcelona.
Everyone knows Xavi Hernández will end up coaching Barcelona, but the ‘when’ is key | Photo by Denis Doyle via Getty Images
Make no mistake, the day Xavi takes up this role, he is not going to be just Xavi; he will be dubbed the next Pep Guardiola. Constant comparisons will keep haunting him, irrespective of the fact that these are two different people, and that the game itself has moved on from Pep’s days at Barça. The challenge, therefore, is real. But Xavi has made it clear that it is his dream to take up this job.
As cited earlier, Xavi Hernández is one of the best exponents of the footballing style ingrained in La Masía. But being a brilliant student does not automatically make one a great teacher. Xavi’s potential is there for everyone to see, but what about experience? Remember, Pep began with the Barcelona B team. He went on to win the Tercera División with them, before being promoted as the senior team’s coach. Xavi’s experience in coaching spans to little more than one year at Al-Sadd in Qatar. With all due respect to the latter, it would be wrong to assume that the next step then is the managerial post of Barcelona.
This is one side of the equation. The other is Xavi’s own admission that he wants to start a new project from scratch, where he would have the power to call the shots. That is the exact opposite of what the situation is right now. There is no clear cut project with this team right now, other than stacking up ultra-expensive players that do not fit the team. Nor is the manager given a clear decision making power, with personnel or the style of play.
“I’m a club man. I would like to return at the right moment to start a project from zero. I’ve said it a lot of times but I want to take footballing decisions at Barcelona”
The negativity that surrounds the team is so heavy that even experienced coaches would suffocate under its weight. What would that do to a comparatively inexperienced one like Xavi? It will simply burn him out before he even had a chance. And that would be a shame, for he has the potential to lead future Barcelona sides to glory.
The bottom line therefore is simple. If – and that is a big if – Quique Setién must be replaced at the end of the season, Barça must turn to an experienced face; someone who has spent years and even decades on the sidelines. Someone, for instance, like B coach García Pimienta. The sheer number of years he has spent moulding the academy sides would immediately garner respect from the squad. Xavi, on the other hand, should probably replace Pimi at Barça B, or maybe assist him in managing the senior side.
“It’s clear that after the [2021 presidential] elections the stage would be set, of course. I’m not ruling anything out. They [the Barcelona board] came for me in January, we were speaking. I told them the circumstances and timing weren’t right”
It is not just that there is no need to hurry; the fact is that it would probably be a grave mistake to hurry. And Xavi Hernández, of all the people, should know not to release the ball too early.
Barcelona and the Georginio Wijnaldum affair
Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum has been at the heart of Liverpool’s robust, hard-working midfield for the past five seasons. He’s a player Culés know all too well, as he scored two goals in two minutes to help lift Liverpool past Barcelona in the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals.
Wijnaldum is an impending free agent this summer and has been linked with Barcelona ever since Ronald Koeman took over in the fall. Koeman coached him with the Dutch national team and has a real affinity for the player, even coming out in interviews claiming he was on his “transfer list”.
Barça are in a tough situation as they need to revamp their squad but lack the proper funds to do so. Wijnaldum could potentially be signed for free in the summer, but should Barça pursue him?
Wijnaldum rose through the ranks of the Feyenoord youth system before making his senior club debut at 16 years-old in 2007. In fact, he is the youngest debutant in the Dutch club’s history. He made 135 appearances with his boyhood club and won the Dutch Cup in 2008. Wijnaldum then had spells with PSV Eindhoven and Newcastle United before signing with Liverpool in 2016.
With Liverpool, Wijnaldum has won practically every trophy possible, from the Champions League in 2019 to the Premier League in 2020. He has made over 212 appearances for The Reds and is a staple in their midfield. Under manager Jürgen Klopp, he’s made a name for himself as a midfield engine, one whose high energy and pressing gives the team defensive stability as well as a quick outlet for transitional play.
Playing alongside Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Naby Keita in a midfield three, his work rate allows Liverpool to dominate opposing teams. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Against Barcelona in 2019, he played as a centre forward, and he’s even played matches at centre back.
The 30-year old is capable of fulfilling various roles in the middle of the park. In the early stages of his career with Feyenoord and PSV, he played as an advanced midfielder, a number ten, and even on both wings. To showcase his attacking prowess, he had seasons of 14, 15, and 16 goal hauls in 2010/11, 2012/13, and 2014/15 respectively. His roles during his one-season stint with Newcastle were varied, and he was impressively their leading goalscorer (11) in the Premier League that season (2015/16).
Wijnaldum is also a key squad member for the Dutch National team. He made his debut in September of 2011 and has made 70 appearances ever since. He often plays as an advanced midfielder and has scored 21 goals for the Oranje. Looking at the heap map below, it’s clear to see the different roles he fulfills for his club side and national team.
Wijnaldum is an extremely hard-worker on the pitch. Defensively, he’s nearly impossible to shake off with his physicality and positioning. Offensively, he’s press-resistant, efficient with his passing and has a knack for scoring goals. Once again, he’s not asked to do much on the creative-end for Liverpool, but his time in the Netherlands and with the national team proves he’s more than capable of fulfilling those duties.
Last season, he averaged 45.9 passes per game with a completion rate of 90.4%, 9.10 made passes while under pressure from opponents, and 1.69 tackles plus interceptions per game. This season, he is one of the squad leaders for Liverpool in terms of most passes made while under pressure (7.51). In the Premier League this season, he is winning 2.4 of his ground duels per game.
His averages of only 0.08 goal-creating actions per 90 minutes and 0.15 goal contributions per game last season may indicate a lack of creativity, but that’s only due to his positioning and tactical instructions from Klopp. For the Dutch National team, in which he plays in a more advanced position, he has tallied a staggering 11 goals and four assists in 17 appearances since 2019. That’s a rate of 0.88 goal contributions per game, albeit at a smaller sample size.
Where would he fit in at Barça?
Evidently, Wijnaldum is one of the most versatile players in the world. He does a little bit of everything and as such, could potentially fill a variety of roles for Barça.
In Koeman’s 4-2-3-1, Wijnaldum can play in the double pivot or even the number ten role. There, Winjaldum’s high energy and defensive work rate could cover a more attack-minded player, like Frenkie De Jong. Koeman has recently reverted to Barça’s typical 4-3-3, however, the 2014-2015 Netherlands Footballer of the Year can play in any of the three midfield positions. He’s had some experience as a number 6, playing in front of the defence and anchoring the midfield, but his box-to-box capabilities would best serve the team if he played as an “interior”, one of the two central midfielders.
Barça fans have often clamoured for a workhorse in the midfield, someone who will do the team’s dirty work night in and night out. This player’s defensive work rate would counterbalance the more attack-oriented and free-roaming midfielders. Arturo Vidal filled this role for a season or two and Ivan Rakitic to a different degree before him. Wijnaldum could play this part admirably for the Blaugrana, just as he currently does for Liverpool.
It’s easy to see why Koeman wants to sign him. The question is, should Barcelona move ahead with it?
Although there are many arguments in favour of signing Wijnaldum, particularly regarding his versatility and box-to-box acumen, there are equally as many against it.
To start, he is already 30-years old and would be 31 by the start of next season. While he is still performing at a high level and not showing signs of slowing down, signing him would put the club in an awkward place. His salary demands are reportedly why he wants to leave Liverpool, and the Catalans should be hesitant before signing him to a potentially long-term, high salary deal. He could easily end up in Arturo Vidal’s situation, where the club signed him at 31-years old and after a season and a half, decided to offload him for free.
Furthermore, because Barcelona are in dire straits financially, they need to spend what little money they have wisely. Squad building should be focused on long-term replacements for key positions such as left-back, centre forward, and defensive mid. Wijnaldum would be a complimentary piece, and while he could be a solid temporary fix, Barça require core pieces.
His addition would also crowd the Blaugrana’s jam-packed midfield, not to mention take minutes away from their various “gems.” To fill the three centre-mid positions, Barcelona have Sergio Busquets, Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Riqui Puig, Miralem Pjanić, the up-and-coming Ilaix Moriba (set to make his debut this Friday in the Spanish Cup), and even Sergi Roberto or Philippe Coutinho once they return from injury.
As mentioned, some fans would want him because of his work rate and tireless effort on the defensive end, but the squad’s defensive issues won’t disappear because of one hard-working player.
In years past, a signing like Wijnaldum would make perfect sense. He would have been younger and could fill a long-term need as a versatile squad piece, but Barcelona are now in a different place both on and off-the-pitch. It can be frustrating for culés to hear the age-old arguments about how their club is struggling financially. Still, the reality is that Barça must now be extremely diligent and effective with their signings, focusing instead on finding long-term replacements in key positions. Wijaldum could be a solid addition, but he is not a player the club absolutely needs.