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Can returning Xavi revive Barcelona’s fortunes?

Xavi is back.

With him as coach, FC Barcelona wants to revive Pep Guardiola’s great era. Thanks to his technique and overview, Xavi was a world-class player.

He played strategically and with the team in mind. He supported his team-mates as a play-off station, he set the scene precisely, he always found solutions. It seemed impossible to separate him from the ball, even when he was surrounded.

In Xavi’s heyday, the Spanish national team was practically unbeatable, becoming European champions, world champions, European champions in succession.

In the two European Championship finals in 2008 and 2012, he set up four goals. During this time, he dominated the Champions League with FC Barcelona – winning the title twice and reaching the semi-finals over a four-year period.

“The one that made the biggest impression on me is the Barcelona,” Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson said after losing the 2011 final when Tiki Taka was at its peak. “They were unplayable.”

In midfield, Xavi complemented Andrés Iniesta ideally. Xavi was the metronome, Iniesta the ball carrier. The two had a similar division of the work load as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who with Real Madrid replaced FC Barcelona as the benchmark of club football.

Xavi also shares with Kroos the high quality of long passing.

Xavi was a perfect fit for the philosophy of FC Barcelona and that of Pep Guardiola.

Under his direction, Xavi, Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Lionel Messi internalised the variable idea of total football, according to which everyone can do everything. Together they raised the balance between attack and defence to a new level. Body size was not decisive, not even in attack and defence.

At that time, I could have moved to FC Barcelona. It would have been a great experience to be on the pitch with these greats.

I look back with a teary eye, but as a Munich kid I really wanted to win the Champions League with my club FC Bayern. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t been there for the victory at Wembley in 2013.

At that time, Barcelona was a role model for the whole world in another respect: the club had UNICEF as its shirt sponsor.

Times have changed. The last time FC Barcelona won the Champions League was in 2015.

Since then, it has not been in the final, and instead is remembered for some high-scoring defeats: 2-8 against Bayern Munich, 0-4 in Liverpool, 0-3 in Rome, 1-4 against Paris St Germain, and most recently 0-3 in Lisbon.

That is the downside of this football, which demands the best technique and a high level of intelligence from everyone involved. It sometimes backfires.

The opponents have long since deciphered Barca’s game.

As early as 2010, José Mourinho and Inter succeeded in preventing Barcelona from scoring. In the semi-final, he barricaded the penalty area with the entire team.

The principle of “everyone behind the ball” has become socially acceptable, everyone has it in them. Often, only simple goals such as standard situations, counter-attacks and other brutal solutions help against this.

Barca’s dominant possession of the ball has been called into question, football has become more physical and dynamic. The present knows new protagonists on the pitch: Trent Alexander-Arnold, N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Alphonso Davies or Erling Haaland – all athletes who resemble Usain Bolt more than the 1.70 metre tall Xavi.

And Lionel Messi plays in Paris. There is, in fact, new economic competition.

In 2011, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the clubs with the highest turnover in the world, were followed at a distance by Manchester United (€365 million), FC Bayern (€320m) and FC Chelsea (€250m).

Today, large investments are being made at many locations. In Europe, there are about ten clubs with an annual turnover of around half a billion euros or more. Meanwhile, about twice as many clubs compete for the best players and coaches.

PSG and Manchester City, both in the hands of very rich owners, are new on the map.

The dynamics in this market have forced a coming and going.

Once Arsène Wenger, Alex Ferguson or Johan Cruyff became institutions in their clubs. Today, it is the exception when a coach gets a lot of time.

Jürgen Klopp being granted a four-year run-up to a title was only possible at an underdog like Liverpool. Guardiola is bucking the trend, but he too is making compromises, making his team play more defensively and sometimes give the ball away.

Most of the top ten to fifteen coaches like Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti rotate every two to three years at the big clubs. You can’t develop much in that time.

It’s more important for them to create a good atmosphere in the team and to be accepted by the stars.

Zinédine Zidane, who won the Champions League three times in a row with Real Madrid from 2016 to 2018, says of himself: “Tactically, I’m not the best coach.”

Like no other, he led his team through charisma. This has become the decisive factor, not philosophy or a sophisticated idea of the game. Liverpool FC even relies on artificial intelligence for squad planning.

Charisma can also be attributed to Xavi, who has long shaped Barca’s football.

But can it still work? Is the Barca school strong enough for international titles?

Is he given enough trust and patience in a place where his two predecessors did not last two years combined?

These are exciting questions that accompany Xavi on his great task.

Author

  • Philipp Lahm is the tournament director for Euro 2024. His “Views of a footballer” column will appear regularly in The Sunday Times of Malta. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.

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