Barcelona confirmed the return of Xavi Hernandez as coach on Saturday, with the legendary midfielder facing an immense challenge to restore the fallen Spanish giants to their former glory.
The Spaniard left Camp Nou to play for Al Sadd in 2015, after making 767 appearances for the Catalan club, which included winning eight LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues.
Nicknamed the “Maquina” (the Machine), Xavi is widely considered one of the club’s greatest ever players and there is huge excitement about his potential as a coach after his influence on the iconic Barca team managed by Pep Guardiola.
His passing style was seen as the embodiment of Guardiola’s “tiki-taka” team that won the treble in 2009.
“One of the greatest midfield maestros of all time, he helped redefine the art with his creative mind, pinpoint passing and sublime ability to read the game,” Barca said in their statement, heralding the return of “an absolute legend”.
Qatari club Al Sadd, which Xavi had coached since 2019, embodied this playing style so noticeably, all be it in a much smaller league.
“It was always my dream to coach Barcelona. “Xavi.
Xavi had made no secret of his desire to return to Barcelona, which he joined through the club’s La Masia academy at the age of 11.
“My main objective, when I can do it, is Barca,” Xavi told the sports daily Marca last year. “It’s my home, that’s the dream.”
There are high hopes Xavi can draw on his incredible playing career to revive Barcelona, who currently sit ninth in LaLiga, with concerns growing they might not finish in the top four.
The club are also in dire financial straits, having posted debts of 1.35 billion euros.
Xavi faces a formidable challenge after Barcelona let Lionel Messi join Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.
In Europe, Barca face a fight even to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League while any rebuild will have to be carried out on a shoestring budget as the club struggles to deal with the debts it partly built up paying Messi’s wages.
Xavi will also be charged with improving the team’s style of play, which was a key criticism during the tenure of Koeman, another former Barca player.
‘Rules come first’ – Xavi lays down the law after unveiling as Barca coach
Xavi Hernandez said Barcelona’s players will have to play by his rules and raise their standards as the club’s new coach laid down a firm message at his unveiling on Monday.
“In the first moment it’s important we put rules in the team, that’s the first point,” said Xavi.
“Then we talk about values – respect, attitude, effort – if we don’t have these values, we don’t have a team.
“And then we can look at models of play, how we defend and attack, but the rules come first.”
Barcelona are unlikely to be able to make significant signings any time soon.
“I know that it is a difficult time, both economically and on the pitch,” said Xavi.
“But I will ask the players to have high standards because we are Barca, the best club in the world.”
Asked if his message meant he was going to be hard on his players, Xavi said: “It is not about being hard, but about order and rules, and the rules must be followed. When I had rules in the dressing room, things went well. Without rules, things have not gone so well. It is not about discipline, it is about order.”
Xavi’s pivotal role in Guardiola’s iconic Barcelona side has many at the club hoping that he can now follow in Guardiola’s footsteps, especially with his football intelligence being something consistently on display previously in his playing career, fans will hope he can emulate a similar type of football genius as a coach.
“Being compared to Guardiola is a victory, for everything he has given to football and Barca. For me he is the best coach in the world,” said Xavi.
Xavi brushed over whether he would like to coach Lionel Messi.
“Of course,” he said.
“And all the others, (Samuel) Eto’o, Ronaldinho.
“Leo sent me a message and wished me luck. We joked a bit and I wish him the best, he is the best player in the history of the club.
“But he’s gone. We have the players we have and we have to work with them,” he added.
What about more seasoned players earning higher wages that are under performing?
“The ones I know are the ones I’m going to push the most,” Xavi said.
“I see it as an advantage, I know Gerard and Busi and Jordi and (Marc-Andre) Ter Stegen and Sergi (Roberto), they are the ones that have to pull the wagon.”
The most notable praise was reserved for Ousmane Dembele, the France forward who has suffered a string of injury problems in recent years and whose contract expires next summer.
“He can be the best player in the world in his position,” said Xavi.
“But we have to work with him and demand it. It depends on him, on his mentality.”
Xavi took over as coach of Al Sadd in Qatar in 2019 and said he has since turned down an approach from the Brazilian national team. He said there had been three occasions when he decided against coming back to Barca.
“The first two times it was in January and we didn’t feel it, both as a family and personally, I needed more time,” Xavi said.
“Then it was in the summer but there was the presidential election in between, and there was a lot of uncertainty, it was not the moment.”
His team craves the ball, just as he did as a player. “It’s clear to me my team has to control the ball; I suffer when I don’t have it,” he told The Coach’s Voice.
“When I was a player, and even more so now on the bench, I do everything possible to dominate the ball through possession. I’m obsessed with possession. Not just for the sake of having it but for attacking and creating chances.”
“The most important thing is to open the pitch up, widen it, as wide as possible and as deep as possible,” he continued. “We work constantly [on positioning] in training… to generate numerical superiority. To play as much as possible in the opposition half.”
Xavi’s Barcelona would be a team that presses in a way that they have only managed to on rare occasions under Koeman. The Catalan coach will most like spend countless hours meticulously drilling the players on where they need to be in which moment. That will be a key difference from previous regimes, where players have complained about a lack of training and tactical instruction.
Xavi’s priority this term will be to ensure Barcelona qualify for the Champions League by finishing in the top four. They also face a tough fight to secure a last 16 place in this seasons champions league as well. Do you think he can save their season and shape the future of Catalunya once more? Let us know in the comments below.
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Main image credits:Embed from Getty Images