Tactical Insights

Barcelona season review: Xavi rollercoaster, Araujo red card and a summer saga to follow

It has been a rollercoaster year for Barcelona.

They started the 2023-24 season as defending La Liga champions after Xavi led them to their first title since the days of Lionel Messi. They ended it 10 points behind champions Real Madrid, out of the Champions League at the quarter-finals and with their coach and legendary former midfielder sacked — after a saga over his future which lasted for most of the second half of the campaign.

Barcelona writer Pol Ballus looks back at a season which promised much and delivered little apart from turmoil for the Blaugrana.

How would you sum up 2023-24 in 23-24 words?

As The Smiths sang back in the day: no hope, no harm (well, there was some harm, to be fair), just another false alarm.

The moment they’ll remember the season for

When Barcelona beat Luis Enrique and Kylian Mbappe’s Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes — and believed they might somehow achieve Champions League glory.

It was the first test of the season against true European giants — they had faced Porto, Royal Antwerp, Shakhtar Donetsk and Napoli before this — and the first time in four years they had reached the quarter-finals of the competition. The efficiency and maturity they showed in Paris was as unexpected as it was reinvigorating for the fans.

Robert Lewandowski produced a masterclass in being a target man, Raphinha enjoyed a renaissance on the big stage and the 17-year-old centre-back Pau Cubarsi marked Mbappe out of the game — not to mention Pedri’s magical assist for Raphinha to level the game before Andreas Christensen’s header secured a 3-2 win on the night.

It led to a week of excitement in the city, with the kind of buzz Barcelona had not seen in a while for the second leg. Being on the kinder side of the draw allowed fans to dream. It also made the despair that followed even tougher.

The moment they’ll wish had never happened

Ronald Araujo’s red card in the second leg against PSG.

For months, the Champions League sustained Barca’s hopes for the season. They worked hard in the first leg to be in a strong position for the return game — only to be given a cruel reality check when Araujo was sent off for making light contact with winger Bradley Barcola in the 29th minute.

Barca were simply unable to contain PSG with 10 men and could only watch as goals from their former player Ousmane Dembele, Vitinha and now-Madrid forward Mbappe sent them out of Europe with a 4-1 defeat. The defeat could not have been any more painful.



Four goals, three red cards, one meltdown: How Barca’s season imploded

Goal of the season

Lamine Yamal against Real Mallorca. It was named La Liga’s goal of the month for March and ensured Barcelona got all three points in a scrappy 1-0 win.

This effort from their most exciting rising star was all about the way in which he created space down the right. He received a pass from Lewandowski, produced a feint to skip past the defender and cut on to his left boot, before sending a curling shot into the far post.

Still just 16 years old — he turns 17 next week — Yamal will be Barca’s undisputed right winger next season. Goals like the one he scored against Mallorca could became the teenager’s trademark and much is expected of him with Spain at the European Championship.

The stat that sums up the season

Only one player scored 10 or more goals for Barcelona in La Liga: Lewandowski with 19. Barcelona’s next three top scorers in Spain were Fermin Lopez (eight goals), Ferran Torres and Joao Felix (both with seven).

Madrid scored eight more goals than Barca and conceded 18 fewer than their 44 goals against. Xavi’s team won La Liga because they were more effective than any other team in both boxes rather than being especially good, but as soon as they lost that their title chances were finished.

Lewandowski was the only player to score 10 goals or more for Barca in La Liga (Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Another stat illustrates the lack of progression in terms of the attacking actions Xavi so wanted from his team: Barca scored just nine goals after sequences of 10 or more passes, something that used to be their blueprint. Girona scored 20 and Madrid scored 17 in La Liga.

Did that really happen?

The Xavi saga was unbelievable — even by Barcelona’s standards.



Barcelona sack Xavi: The inside story on manager’s exit

He decided to resign in January but pleaded to stay until the end of the season as he believed his job was unfinished. President Joan Laporta did not know how to react and decided that was a good idea — then publicly asked Xavi to reconsider his decision and stay beyond the summer.

Xavi finally did that in April and asked to stay, but the board still had doubts over his role. Laporta accepted the U-turn at a now-infamous sushi dinner at his home and the following day he, the coach and sporting director Deco posed for the cameras. But that still wasn’t the end of it.

With the league already lost and Barca trying to secure second spot, a press conference in the build-up to a match against Almeria reignited the fire. Xavi told fans they should understand the club’s “difficult situation, especially on the economic side” and added: “Our financial situation is not the same as 20 years ago, when the club manager could say, ‘I want to sign this player, this player and this player’ and we got them all”.

Xavi before his final game as Barca coach against Sevilla (Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

There was nothing wrong about what Xavi said, but Laporta was far from impressed. According to those close to him, the president decided to stick with the Barca icon because of his trust in the current squad. Laporta believed Xavi had told him one thing in private and publicly said another.

So what did Laporta do? He sacked the coach, one month after deciding to keep him on. Another one for the Barcelona history books.

Best quote

What Ilkay Gundogan said after Barcelona lost the first Clasico of the season in October now looks like a frightening prophecy and sums up some of the deep-rooted issues at the club.

“I’m coming from the dressing room and, after a result like that, I wished to see more anger, frustration or disappointment,” Gundogan said.

“This is a little bit of a problem, you know? There has to be more emotion, especially when you lose. We need to make a huge step in that because otherwise Real Madrid or even Girona are going to run away.

“I didn’t come here to lose this type of game or let that gap create. There’s also this responsibility from myself as a more experienced player to not allow the squad to just let things happen. No — we need resistance.”

Gundogan called out standards at Barca (Franco Arland/Getty Images)

What the president might have said to the coach after full-time on the final day

“Goodbye — again.”

Xavi’s departure was confirmed two days before the last game of the season against Sevilla. But it’s unlikely the coach and Laporta had a long conversation given their relationship had eroded over the last few weeks before then.



From Messi to Xavi, Barcelona have thrown their legends to the lions

The issue that will dominate the summer

Araujo — to sell or not to sell?

Barcelona’s finances remain a concern — they need to raise €130million ($141m; £111m) by June 30 if they want to register new players with La Liga. Player sales will be key for that and Araujo would appear to be the best chance for Barca to receive a big fee. The Uruguayan is due a new contract which would establish him as one of the highest-earners, but can Barca afford to lose him?

Some people at the club, including Laporta, don’t want to entertain the prospect of a sale. The president believes Araujo is captain material and that he could become an elite defender if he is well coached.

But there are other senior figures who think that the centre-back position is covered at Barca and who say the club could use the money from selling Araujo to reinforce other areas that need improvement.

Previous reports have linked Bayern Munich and Manchester United with the 25-year-old. Barca would want an offer of around €80m to even start to think about selling the young defender.



‘Until I was 16, football passed me by’ – an exclusive interview with Ronald Araujo

The player who could be a breakthrough star next season

Keep an eye on Marc Bernal and Guille Fernandez — two La Masia-made youngsters. Both are in with a big chance of being part of the first-team squad for the preseason tour to the United States this summer.

Bernal, 17, has become a key player for Barcelona Atletic, the club’s ‘B’ team, under manager and former Mexico defender Rafa Marquez. He can play as a holding midfielder of further forward but his preferred position is No 6. He has been instrumental in Barca Atletic’s bid to reach the second tier — they are 2-1 up in their play-off semi-final against Ibiza, with the return leg on Saturday — and is from the same age group as Cubarsi and Yamal.

Fernandez became the reserve side’s youngest-ever debutant this season at 15, beating Yamal’s previous record by 10 days. He is another attacking midfielder off the La Masia conveyor belt — but with a physical side to his game that sets him apart.

Next year might come too early for them, but don’t be surprised if they feature given how Yamal and Cubarsi have stepped up with the first team.

(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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