Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona: midfield great must bring back renowned style of play to Nou Camp
Xavi Hernandez is about to take over as Barcelona coach at long last.
The Catalan has been destined for the top job at the Nou Camp ever since leaving his boyhood club in 2015 to embark upon a coaching apprenticeship and career in Qatar with Al-Sadd.
He has spoken to Barca on three occasions about taking over and is expected to finally be named as head coach next week following the sacking of Ronald Koeman, who was brutally fired on the flight home from Wednesday’s shock 1-0 defeat at LaLiga minnows Rayo Vallecano.
Al-Sadd coach Xavi Hernandez is set to take over at former club Barcelona next week
Xavi was one of Barca’s best ever players and spent a decade playing with Lionel Messi (right)
Reports in the Spanish media indicate Xavi will take charge of Barcelona next week
Xavi was the club’s most decorated player and all-time highest appearance maker when he left after 17 trophy laden years but the club he is set to take over could not be more different from the one he departed after holding the Champions League trophy aloft in Berlin after Barca had beaten Juventus 3-1.
He inherits a club in a colossal financial crisis, in debt to the tune of £1.1billion and still reeling from the shock departure of Lionel Messi in August.
The team sit an embarrassing ninth place in LaLiga after 10 games, already nine points off the pace of leaders Real Sociedad, and are in danger of crashing out of the Champions League, with only three points from their first three matches.
There are plenty of problems to solve in the squad, above all in defence, but also some reasons to be cheerful.
Sportsmail takes a closer look at what the legendary midfielder will be focusing on doing as he finally takes on his dream job.
BRING BACK BARCA’S RENOWNED STYLE OF PLAY
Xavi was the heartbeat of Barca’s best ever side and can restore their renowned passing style
Barca urgently need to return to their old, world famous style after playing desperately dull football under Ronald Koeman and restoring to knocking cross after cross into the box for the likes of Luuk de Jong or Gerard Pique to head at goal.
And as the puppet master of the greatest Barcelona side of all-time, no-one is better qualified than Xavi to get the team playing their renowned style of play again.
The diminutive Catalan was the heartbeat of the great Barca side coached by Pep Guardiola, who would routinely pass even the strongest sides in Europe into oblivion.
Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson, who said Xavi and midfield partner Andres Iniesta ‘have never given the ball away in their lives’ after his Manchester United side were outclassed by Barca in the 2011 Champions League final.
Xavi still believes the best way to build a winning team is to prioritise having ball possession
Barca played a more direct style of play under Ronald Koeman, who was sacked on Wednesday
Xavi has remained just as idealistic since becoming a coach and even though top sides such as Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Chelsea have won the Champions League by playing high intensity football centred around pressing.
‘The most important thing and the most beautiful thing is to have the ball, to attack and dominate the game with the ball,’ Xavi told The Coaches Voice.
‘It’s very clear to me that my team must have the ball, I suffer when we don’t have it. I was like that as a player and even more now I’m a coach. That’s why I do everything I can to control the game through the ball, through possession.’
Only time will tell whether Xavi can bring success to Barca, but one certainty is the days of pumping long balls into the box and looking for second balls are over.
GET THE BEST OUT OF TALENTED YOUNGSTERS
Ansu Fati (left) is one of many talented youngsters Xavi will be excited to work with at Barca
The one green shoot of this dark period for Barcelona is the emergence of an exciting new generation of young talents that gives the club hope for a better future.
First of all there is Ansu Fati, the club’s youngest ever goalscorer and the man who has inherited the number 10 shirt from Messi.
The forward, who turns 19 at the end of the month, spent most of the last year out injured with a recurring knee problem but is returning to his best, after sublime goals against Valencia and Levante.
Then there is Pedri, who joined in 2020 from Las Palmas but looks as if he has been playing in Barca his entire life. He became the breakout player in his debut season with the Catalans and then an overnight star for Spain, being named Young Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020.
Pedri, 18, has established himself as one of Barca’s top players since joining the club in 2020
Pedri is in good company in midfield, where 17-year-old Gavi has quickly established himself as a regular starter in his first season and also broken into the Spain team.
There is also attacking midfielder Nico Gonzalez, 19, the son of Deportivo La Coruna great Fran and who has been the subject of great excitement among Barca youth coaches for a few years and made seven league appearances this campaign.
And don’t forget Riqui Puig, a midfielder in a similar mould to Xavi who was frequently dismissed by Ronald Koeman to the chagrin of many fans.
Young midfielder Riqui Puig could be about to benefit from Xavi taking over as coach
Who better to harness these young talents than Xavi, who spent his childhood at the famed La Masia academy and has long spoken of the importance of having homegrown players in the team.
Xavi was on the pitch when Barca made history in a 2012 match against Levante by fielding 11 players who had all come through the academy and it is not much of a stretch to imagine him presiding over a team of entirely homegrown players in a few years time.
Putting faith in homegrown players will also help Barca get out of their miserly financial situation and allow them to save money on eye-watering transfer fees for the top foreign players.
GET OUT OF THEIR CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP…AND QUALIFY NEXT SEASON
Xavi won four Champions Leagues with Barca and must ensure they Barca qualify next season
Xavi hoisted the Champions League four times as a Barca player but he takes over a team that has had a nightmare of a time in recent years in Europe’s top competition.
Barca were thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool in the 2018/19 competition to somehow lose a semi-final tie they were 3-0 up in after the first leg and the following year endured the most humiliating night in their history as they were hammered 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
Their torment continued last season as they were beaten 5-2 on aggregate by Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 — their earliest elimination since 2007 — and they are in serious danger of crashing out of the group stage this season after losing 3-0 to Bayern Munich and Benfica.
The Catalans did get off the mark with a nervy 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev and Xavi must now try and guide the team out of Group E to avoid a first group stage elimination since the 1998/1999.
A top-four finish won’t be easy after a poor start in LaLiga, including a defeat to Rayo Vallecano
But most importantly, he must get the team winning again in LaLiga to ensure they finish in the top-four and qualify for next year’s Champions League.
It is unthinkable to imagine a Champions League without Barca but their results under Ronald Koeman have made that a real possibility as they lie ninth in the table on 15 points, six behind fourth-placed Real Betis.
LaLiga is far more competitive than when Xavi was a player and Barca face fierce competition for a top-four berth from the likes of Betis and Real Sociedad in addition to usual suspects Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla.
No-one is expecting Xavi to come in and lead Barca straight to the title but a top-four finish is a must for the new coach if he is to remain in the job for long.
Barca believe they should be competing to win Europe’s top trophy each season and the idea that they might not even be in the group stage next campaign doesn’t bear thinking about.
GET COUTINHO AND DEMBELE FIRING AGAIN
While Xavi will be no doubt excited about working with Barca’s youthful talents, he should not forget about the players who the club forked out huge sums of money to get but who have been a huge disappointment.
Step forward Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, Barca’s two most expensive players, who have both struggled to pay back even a small portion of their transfer fees.
Coutinho joined from Liverpool for £142million in January 2018 but never managed to gel in the team’s forward line and was loaned out to Bayern Munich only 18 months later.
He has looked no more comfortable in the team since returning, even with Lionel Messi leaving and giving him more freedom to operate in his favoured role in attacking midfield.
Xavi will try to get Barca’s most expensive player ever Coutinho to finally gel with team-mates
Ousmane Dembele has had a torrid run with injuries but is set to return to the team soon
Dembele, meanwhile, signed for a fee totalling £135.5million from Borussia Dortmund in 2017 but has seen his career in Catalonia blighted by a horrible run of injuries, forcing him to have two operations on a ruptured hamstring and surgery to treat knee ligament damage in June.
Dembele should be the easier player to restore to form, assuming he will be able to stay injury free once he returns to action.
The French winger is a strong candidate to operate on the right of the front three Xavi is set to deploy in the 4-3-3 shape the coach favours and has the pace the team will need to thrive.
Coutinho will be harder to accommodate, especially with so many options elsewhere in midfield, but Joan Laporta will be grateful to Xavi if he can find a place for the Brazilian or at the very least restore his value to allow them to sell him on and recover some of the money they invested in him.
RESTORE THE BROKEN BOND WITH APATHETIC FANS
While Barca have never quite had the passionate fan base as some of Europe’s top sides, there can be no question that the club has a serious problem right now with fan apathy.
The club failed to sell out last week’s Clasico with Real Madrid, which used to be the hottest ticket in town, while the week before only 47,000 fans turned up to the 99,000-capacity Nou Camp for the 3-1 win over Valencia.
The club may have been badly hit by the drop in tourism to Barcelona due to Covid, but there are more than enough fans in the city and across Spain to plug the gaps.
Xavi was a fan favourite and can help get supporters back after a sharp fall in attendances
But Xavi’s return as coach can go a huge way to recovering the broken bond between the club and supporters.
The midfielder was brought to tears by the reception he received from fans in his final game at the Nou Camp and he is a player beloved equally by local fans and the club’s legion of international supporters.
And if he can get the team playing thrilling football again and mark a clear divergence from the soporific play served up under Koeman and the far-from-thrilling offerings of predecessors Quique Setien and Ernesto Valverde, the fans should come pouring back through the Nou Camp doors in no time.