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Pique, Memphis, Fati and the issues Xavi must solve when he takes over Barcelona

13:00 GMT 31/10/2021
Xavi Al-Sadd
The legendary midfielder will be taking over at the Catalan club at a time of financial woe and underperformance on the pitch

When Xavi Hernandez takes over he will find a Barcelona side quite different from the one he left in 2015. The legendary midfielder departed on the back of a sensational treble-winning season, to see out his playing days in Qatar with Al-Sadd, whom he is currently coaching.

Since then, Lionel Messi has departed, the team’s finances have fallen to pieces and Luis Enrique left, followed by three more coaches in Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and Ronald Koeman.

There is a new president too, a familiar face, in Joan Laporta, and the challenge of not only restoring Barcelona back to their throne both domestically and internationally but recovering a cherished style of play that has been diluted and abandoned in the past half-decade.

To do that, Xavi must face several daunting issues while also accepting that the club is currently in the midst of an economic crisis.

Goal analyses the situation as Xavi prepares for one of football’s trickiest jobs.

TRUST ISSUES

“I would just like to thank…” said Victor Font. “Xavi!” joked Joan Laporta.

He was just a punchline for the president-to-be during the electoral campaign. Laporta joked at Font’s plans for the club, which featured Xavi as a key player, and considered the former midfielder too wet behind the ears as a coach to lead Barcelona.

Instead, he reluctantly decided to keep Koeman in charge during the summer, unable to get any of his preferred targets.

“We need a coach with more experience,” said Laporta in February of Xavi, suggesting he should take over at Barcelona B first. However, after finally sacking Koeman, Laporta is turning to the people’s favourite.

It puts Xavi in a potentially tricky situation though; because he is clearly not Laporta’s man, just the best option at this point to lead the team forward. The president will try to smooth things over in the press conference at Xavi’s presentation but if there is no cohesion and trust behind the scenes, things can crumble quickly.

Koeman and Laporta were engaged in a cold war that hurt the Dutchman.

OLD FRIENDS

Xavi perhaps, in an ideal world, might have liked to come to a Barcelona side where he did not have to coach any of his former team-mates. The relationship he had with them will have to be different when he is their boss.

To make matters harder, the club captains are the subject of one of the biggest debates around the club. Should they be phased out of the team and how do you do it?

While the wise heads of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba can obviously be useful, their performances this season have not been strong enough to match their statuses or salaries, even after pay-cuts.

Pique has been badly exposed at centre-back, most recently by Luis Rioja in the 1-1 draw with Alaves on Saturday, while Busquets can be overrun in midfield. Roberto is regularly the target of whistles from a frustrated Camp Nou, while Alba’s defensive weaknesses can be exploited.

Xavi, in his final months at Barcelona, largely had a substitute role where he could come on and help slow the game down to keep his team ahead and take the sting out of it, so at least he knows one way he could go about the issue.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Barcelona fans will likely give Xavi time and leeway to revert the situation which sees the club ninth in La Liga and struggling in their Champions League group. They know it will take time for him to implement his tactical ideas, and for some of the many injured players - Pedri, Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Ronald Araujo, Frenkie de Jong, etc - to return.

The supporters understand that the squad is weak and youngsters will need to be blooded and developed to plug gaps, and that the greatest player in their history, Messi, is no longer around to pull them out of potholes.

However, the undercurrent of emotion around Xavi has always pulled towards the idea that he will be the club’s saviour; the second coming of Pep Guardiola. As Johan Cruyff coached Pep, Pep coached Xavi.

Not only will he be expected to play football the fans enjoy watching - which is his M.O. in any case - but eventually he will be expected to achieve greatness, as Pep did.

Guardiola set a ludicrously high bar and however well Xavi does, it is extremely difficult to live up to those standards. Supporters expect legends to return and flourish, but recent cases - Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, Frank Lampard at Chelsea, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United and, of course, Koeman at Barcelona, show it often goes awry.

GROWING UP

The development of young players at Barcelona under Koeman has been questioned in the media. There’s no doubt the coach threw plenty of youngsters on for their debuts, but whether or not they have progressed is a different question.

For every Pedri, there is a Riqui Puig, who was barely given a chance. Frenkie de Jong is one such player who has stagnated, given the responsibility of carrying the team on his back when he himself is 24 and needs a coach who can help him become one of the best midfielders in the world.

Ansu Fati is another player, heralded as a saviour, but he has only just turned 19 and should be allowed to grow, instead of being asked to produce match-winning contributions week in, week out.

Xavi must help these players along in their journey and, because of the money issues at Barcelona, also use them to challenge for trophies.

"Losing brings consequences," warned Laporta in June.

DEFENSIVE DEFICIENCIES

Barcelona have picked up a bad habit under Koeman, of conceding the first shot on goal. In six of their past seven games, the first effort on target has gone in. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is not at his best and the defence in front of him has been porous.

Xavi wants to play attacking football and having a high level of possession will naturally limit the number of opposition attacks, but without a quick defender who can catch countering strikers, there is the chance that Barcelona will be vulnerable when pushing teams back into their own half.

Furthermore, and despite his image, under Guardiola the team were more proficient at football’s darker arts. Tactical fouls were a key weapon in Barcelona’s armoury and should be again to stop opponents getting through to areas where they can mortally wound the Catalans.

DOUBLE DUTCH

There are two players in particular whom Xavi’s arrival will not bode well for - Luuk de Jong and Memphis Depay. The former, on loan from Sevilla, may already have played his last minutes for the club, depending on Sergio Aguero's condition after he went off against Alaves.

Memphis, meanwhile, is an important part of Barcelona’s attacking line, but his risk-taking style does not mesh well with Xavi’s ideas about keeping the ball. The Dutch forward is guilty of numerous turnovers in each game and always wants to produce a moment of magic.

Philippe Coutinho has also struggled to fit in and may also be a victim when Xavi wants players who are quicker on the ball and can play wider in the attack. By contrast, Riqui Puig will be given far more chances, along with forgotten defender Samuel Umtiti, if he is fit.

Xavi must decide quickly if players can be salvaged from the scrapheap and, if not, whether they can be sold in January.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Barcelona fans have not been showing up for the team this season at Camp Nou. Their attendance of 37,278 for the Saturday night clash with Alaves is the lowest since 2001 for a weekend home match, outside of the Covid-19 restricted period.

Supporters are frustrated with the team, their style, the departure of Lionel Messi and more. Along with reduced tourism and some fans staying away because of the pandemic still, it has led to the stadium being half empty most weeks this season.

The 41-year-old's challenge is to bring the crowd back, through performances and results. That in turn will help breathe some life into the club’s depleted finances, which will allow more investment to be made in the transfer market, starting a positive cycle.

Xavi will not just be the coach of the team, but the frontman for ‘Barcelonismo’ as a whole, with all the pressures that brings.