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.
Copa Del Rey final: Forgetting El Clasico, Supercopa Final and more
What seemed very unlikely at one stage in Barcelona’s season is now just one game away from a trophy. Saturday sees Ronald Koeman’s men contest this season’s Copa del Rey final against a familiar foe in Marcelino and his Athletic Club side at the Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, the scene of the Athletics’ manager’s most recent cup final triumph over the Catalan side.
The pair met in the Supercopa de España final back in January, with Athletic Club coming away from the tie as 3-2 winners after extra time. The defeat was a demoralising moment for Barça, as the Catalan side were just a minute away from victory until Asier Villalibre equalised.
Going into the final, Barcelona find themselves in another disheartening moment of the season after coming up short to bitter rivals Real Madrid in a 2-1 defeat in El Clasico, a result that could prove crucial in this season’s title race.
The potential of the season collapsing looms over the Catalan side, with doubt creeping into some of the players’ minds, with Jordi Alba being the first to express it.
Marcelino could not have asked for a better result to face Barcelona off the back of, as the Spaniard has a history of punishing dejected Barça sides. For Koeman’s men, the Clasico result must be swept aside because the manager in opposition dugout on Saturday provides a subtle reminder of what can happen if they fail to do so, the 18/19 season.
Forgetting El Clasico
“I don’t know, eh,” Jordi Alba’s words to Gerard Pique after Barcelona’s defeat to Real Madrid are simple, but those that know the place they are coming from know that they have the weight of fear and trauma behind them.
The conversation between the pair started with Pique stating “Relax, we will win [the cup final]” with the fullback replying “I don’t know, eh.” Unable to hear the centre back responds with “What?” before Barça’s fullback states again, “I don’t know [if we will win it].”
Alba’s doubt most likely casts back to the defeat in the Supercopa final, but in those words, “I don’t know” are the results of Anfield, the Valencia cup final, Bayern Munich and all the other setbacks the club have experienced in the last few seasons.
The 32-year-old knows the importance of El Clasico and the knock-on effect defeat can have in the weeks after, especially considering the importance of the latest chapter of the fixture.
Ronald Koeman cannot allow this psychological doubt to creep back into his team after doing phenomenally well to banish it over the last four months. There are positives to take from the weekend’s events, and it is here where the Dutchman can start to reaffirm the confidence shown throughout the Blaugranas’ 19 games unbeaten run.
Although the defeat was a setback in Barcelona’s pursuit of La Liga, focussing on the game itself, the difference between the sides was not that great.
It was a classic tale of two halves, with Real dominating the first with their counter attacks and Barça the second with their high positioning and possession. Koeman should find solace in the second-half performance, as his team came within the width of the crossbar of rescuing a point despite the added battle of monsoon-like conditions.
The match was somewhat ideal preparation for the final, as Athletic Club are also fantastic in transitions and are specifically very effective on both flanks of the pitch, areas of space that were exploited by Real. However, they are themselves in a sour spot, having already lost the Copa del Rey final 2020, against Real Sociedad, which was played no more than 2 weeks back.
Koeman will need to address this throughout the week, and it would not be a surprise if the Dutchman opted for four at the back for the cup final.
Another positive for Koeman is the timing of this cup final, as a result on each side of the coin could have an enormous effect on Barça’s season. Although defeat has the potential to ruin the Catalan sides season, there is no better way to bounce back from a defeat to Real Madrid than lifting a trophy, and it could be a springboard towards doing the double.
The problem for Koeman with addressing the doubts of Alba and others is not only the uncertainty left by the Clasico but the final of the Supercopa de España as well.
Expelling the Memories of the Supercopa Final
January seems a lifetime ago in terms of how Ronald Koeman’s team has developed over the months since. The formation has changed, Barcelona started winning big games, and a winning mentality has been firmly instilled in the squad. The Catalan club as a whole are moving in the right direction, and winning a trophy will somewhat symbolise this.
The Copa del Rey final will be the fourth time this season Barca have faced Athletic Club, winning two out of the three previous meetings.
Despite this, it is that single loss that has the potential to cause problems in the minds of the players on Saturday. The final of the Supercopa de España was the match that got away and reminded everyone in the squad of the embarrassing moments the club has experienced over the last three seasons.
Barça were one minute away from securing their first trophy since lifting La Liga in May 2019 until Asier Villalibre equalised to take the final to extra time. Iñaki William put Athletic Club’s name on the trophy with a wonderful strike leaving Koeman’s men dejected.
Jordi Alba’s doubts regarding this season’s Copa del Rey final most likely stems from this game, and if the full-back is thinking this way, there could be others as well.
Going into the final, Koeman must focus on the two wins the Catalan side have had over Marcelino’s men. The last time the sides met, Barcelona won the match 2-1 at the Camp Nou and performed brilliantly with the scoreline flattering the Basque side. Barca exploited Athletic Club on the wings and created multiple chances to score goals, with the winner coming from an Oscar Mingueza cross down the right.
Koeman can also turn to Athletic Club’s form for inspiration, with the Basque side winning only 4 of their last 14 matches. Within this run was a defeat in last years edition of the Copa del Rey final, in which Marcelino’s side lost to local rivals Real Sociedad 1-0.
At present, Barcelona are a much better side than Athletic Club. Form, head-to-head meetings, and the quality of players all fall in the favour of the Catalan side but having mentioned all this doubt, and how Koeman can address it, the fact is that there might still be some thanks to a recent encounter with the Basque side’s manager Marcelino.
The Ghost of the 2019 Final
In the 18/19 season, a Lionel Messi inspired Barca side were charging towards an unexpected treble at the start of May. With the league already wrapped up, two fixtures stood out within the final month of the season, a trip to Liverpool and the Copa del Rey final.
On the 7th of May, the infamous night at Anfield occurred, where Barcelona let a 3-0 lead from the first leg slip and failed to reach the Champions League final. The experience was confidence shattering and was not ideal with the cup final around the corner.
The 2019 Copa del Rey final was contested between Barcelona, and a Marcelino led Valencia. The Southeastern outfit won the tie 2-1 thanks to two first-half goals from Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo. As a stand only fixture, there is nothing special about this tie. However, the significance of this final to current events lies in the weeks that lead up to the final.
In the 17 days between Anfield and Andalucía, that one match would consistently nag away at the Barca players. Gerard Pique recently called that night the worst defeat of his career and previously stated that he believed that if they won that night, they would have claimed the Copa del Rey as well.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are present. Barça go into a cup final against a Marcelino led side after a disheartening defeat in an important El Clasico.
Luckily for Ronald Koeman, things are much different. The Dutchman’s team is certainly a better one who have been in fantastic form of late, the defeat in El Clasico did not end Barca’s hopes of winning La Liga, and despite Jordi Alba’s doubts, the player’s confidence will not have taken the same level of a confidence hit the Anfield defeat brought.
However, it is still a memory that remains and Marcelino will only remind them of that.
The 2021 Copa del Rey final is nicely poised for fans of Spanish football. For Barca fans, it will ultimately show whether this team has overcome their psychological traumas of the past. The signs in the previous rounds seem to suggest that they have, but with Barcelona, you never know.