Tactical Insights

Barcelona want Xavi to change his mind and stay on as manager – this is why

As strange as it might sound, the man who a few months ago said he was stepping down as Barcelona manager now looks like the club’s preferred choice to lead them next season.

On January 27, Xavi announced his intention to resign at the end of this term as he described the Barca job as “cruel”, cited concerns over his mental health and said, “At some point, you realise there’s no point in staying.”

But for weeks, with the team unbeaten since he spoke those words — an 11-match run that includes reaching the Champions League quarter-finals — support for the idea of keeping Xavi has been growing.

Barcelona club president Joan Laporta said before the international break that he would try to persuade the 44-year-old to stay and on Saturday, vice-president Rafa Yuste continued in that vein. “Xavi knows what we want,” he said. “It’s his decision — what I’m going to do as far as I can is try to convince him to continue.”

So, how did we get to this point? How has Barca’s managerial search informed the club’s thinking? And how crucial is next Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with Paris Saint-Germain in shaping what happens next?

After the legendary former club midfielder Xavi revealed his decision to leave — following a 5-3 home defeat by Villarreal that left them fourth in La Liga — Barca began their search for a successor, but they have not made much progress.

Senior club sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their positions, say that a lack of suitable candidates is the main reason there has been little development — at a time when money is tight.

Several Barca executives spoken to for this article describe three types of managers in the industry. First, the elite-level individuals who tick every box they are looking for — Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique or Mikel Arteta — but who are not available.

Next, there are what they describe as coaches who excel at managing dressing room harmony; those who get the best out of a group by finding the best balance among diverse personalities.

Finally, there are those whose biggest strength is in making players better: in getting the best out of each individual.

Inside Barca, there’s a belief that the latter type would be the best fit for them. But again, club sources say no suitable candidate has been found.

As The Athletic has already reported, former Bayern Munich and Germany manager Hansi Flick was approached (he was offered to the club through his new agent Pini Zahavi). However, his lack of fluent English or Spanish is seen as a hindrance.

With regards to Tomas Tuchel, the way he left roles at PSG, Chelsea and now Bayern (whom he will exit this summer) does not leave a great look. Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi was also discussed, but he is still seen as unproven at the elite level.

Regardless of whether Barca could afford to pay Brighton any compensation for De Zerbi, the Italian might have more tempting offers on the table. Liverpool and Bayern are also in the market for a new manager, and the previous frontrunner for both, Xabi Alonso, will be staying at Bayer Leverkusen.

This is where we get to Barcelona’s finances, which are a big factor.

Rafael Marquez’s name helps illustrate why. He was also mentioned in recent months as an emergency option to cover for the rest of this season when there was some speculation poor performances might see Xavi fired before June.

The Mexican fits this bill because his wage as manager of Barcelona Atletic (the club’s reserve team that plays in Spain’s third tier) is already accounted for in La Liga’s salary limit.

In February, La Liga further cut Barca’s permitted salary limit (which is calculated according to a club’s revenue) from €648million (£554m; $696m) last year to a new figure of €204m. Barcelona’s real squad cost for 2023-24 — the total of salaries and transfer amortisations — is officially budgeted at €492million.



Barcelona’s money worries: What Xavi’s replacement should know

As Barca are overspending, competition rules say they must make cuts before signing any more players or hiring coaching staff. So from a potential new manager’s point of view, it is difficult to envisage any outsider willing to commit when they cannot be offered certainties over funds available for new signings, or guarantees that key players will not be sold.

Although the 45-year-old Marquez — another celebrated former Barca player — is doing good work with Barca Atletic (they are pushing for promotion this season), he remains unproven at the top level and would only have been considered as an option if Xavi’s side had suffered embarrassment by Napoli in the Champions League last 16.

None of the candidates considered has created an undisputed consensus among Barca’s decision-makers, who are keenly aware of the importance of getting any appointment right. “We are in a situation where we can’t miss our next shot,” one club source said in recent weeks.

Sticking with Xavi is considered a safer bet by many at Barcelona. He may have his flaws and aspects to improve, but it appears the club would be happy to wait for him to change his mind.

Xavi and Laporta in August 2023 (Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

Informed as he is by his background as one of La Masia’s most successful graduates, Xavi is possibly the best-placed professional to continue trusting in the Barcelona academy; Lamine Yamal, 16, and Pau Cubarsi, 17, have been the standout young stars to have announced themselves under his watch this season. Relying on such talent is seen as the only option open to Barca, given their financial situation.

If he were to stay on, one might expect Xavi to enjoy a stronger position than he has this season, too. There are lessons from this campaign that he can learn from.

The first one has to be taking a stronger stance against decisions taken by the board — the Joao Felix loan signing on deadline day provides a great example. Xavi’s camp was against the arrival of the Portuguese forward, but last-minute departures, a sudden lack of options up front and the close relationship between Laporta and agent Jorge Mendes brought Joao Felix to Catalonia regardless. The move has not paid off.

Xavi has also proved his understanding of the club’s difficulties regarding squad assembling and this season has been a humbling process for him and the players. There have already been signs that such a period of self-reflection has had a positive effect on him and the wider group. After Barca’s impressive 3-0 La Liga win at Atletico Madrid on March 17, Robert Lewandowski spoke of an improvement in training intensity since Xavi’s announcement he was leaving.

Keeping him on is not without its risks.

Convincing Xavi to stay on next season would leave everyone at the club further exposed if things were to go wrong. Questions would be asked, not just of the manager, but of the club’s planning and decision-making.

Barcelona have had since January to start laying the foundations of a new project. Justifications would have to be found to explain why they opted not to. And a new manager in the autumn would have no time to plan signings or shape the club’s structure.

Nor could Xavi realistically expect the pressure to ease. The unique mix of expectations and demands on the Barca manager will make sure of that.



Barcelona’s ‘entorno’ – the toxic mix not even Guardiola and Xavi could avoid

At the moment, these are risks multiple senior sources seem happy to take. They are not progressing with any candidates as their priority is to keep waiting for Xavi.

Barcelona play PSG in a Champions League quarter-final first leg next Wednesday (David S Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

In the past, Xavi has never hidden that he would love to manage outside of Spain, with the Premier League being one of his most appealing competitions. However, if he leaves Barcelona at the end of this season, it is hard to picture him being considered for any vacancy among England’s ‘Big Six’, or any other elite force in Europe.

Club and manager know each other perfectly and, even in his worst moments, Xavi reiterated he will always be “a man of the club”. Quotes such as, “The day I feel I am a problem here, I’ll leave” prove his love for Barca. Is there any bigger show of devotion than staying on when the club’s president and executives are pleading with you to reconsider your future for the sake of Barca?

However, we have seen little public indication of Xavi changing his outlook. “My thoughts are focused on staying here until June 30. Next season, the plan is to rest,” he said last month.

After Saturday’s 1-0 home win over Las Palmas, he repeated that message. “Now it’s time to rest,” he said. “Nothing more, step by step.

“I insist: nothing has changed for me so far. But this is a better atmosphere to work in rather than when there is a need to sack the manager.”

If fans are wondering when to expect some further resolution, they need look no further than the Champions League quarter-final tie with PSG.

With Real Madrid leading La Liga by eight points, Europe’s biggest prize looks like being the only title Barca can compete for. Next week’s first leg at the Parc des Princes is a decisive fixture for the Catalans, who dream of finding a way to save their season. Progress is key to helping improve the club’s finances.

A win against PSG would further create a positive mood around the club, and the logical assumption would see that working in favour of Xavi staying on. It is a situation that somehow sums up some of the particular virtues and problems at Barca.

Is it functional that two games should dictate structural decisions in this way? It probably isn’t, but here we are.

(Top photo: Alberto Gardin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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