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Has Barça’s style exhausted itself?

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Has Barça’s style exhausted itself?

Before the duel against SSC Napoli there is chaos in FC Barcelona. Coach Xavi Hernández has had enough of the sugarcoating.

Barça coach Xavi complained several times about a lack of appreciation.

Jose Breton / Getty

Recently the canapés flew through the air in the VIP box of FC Barcelona. Joan Laporta knocked over some serving trays with spring rolls in her anger. Laporta is president of the club, and what made him so angry were the sloppy defensive errors in the 3-3 draw against second-to-last Granada. As well as the fact that a group of spectators insulted the club boss.

When popular anger reaches the management level, the coach often has to give way. In Barcelona, ​​however, the coach has already fired himself. When the result against Villarreal was 3-5 a good three weeks ago, Xavi Hernández announced his resignation after discussions with confidants – but only at the end of the season. Laporta was surprised by this decision, but grudgingly accepted the unusual deal. “I’m getting involved because it’s Xavi”: homegrown, Catalan and playmaker for the most legendary Barça team.

If the upcoming Champions League round of 16 duel against SSC Napoli is lost, even Xavi will probably not be able to be retained. Given that they are eight points behind Real Madrid and have been eliminated from the Spanish Cup, the European Cup is seen as the last chance to end the season with dignity.

Napoli, ninth in Serie A, are in even worse shape – including when it comes to coaching. On Monday evening, Walter Mazzarri was replaced by Francesco Calzona. The former assistant of the Napoli grandees Maurizio Sarri and Luciano Spalletti as well as the current national coach of the European Championship participants Slovakia will take on a dual role in the next few months. Calzona is already the third coach for the fallen champion this season.

Instead of further development, there was a relapse

Barça also became champions in 2023, which earned Xavi a lot of credit given the turbulence and money problems at the club. But instead of the promised further development, there was a relapse this season. The Barça coached by Xavi proves to be incapable of doing what the player Xavi’s FC Barcelona did best – controlling a match. So it is constantly at the mercy of the whims of fate. The 2-1 win on Saturday at table 17th. Celta de Vigo was typical in this respect, a balanced game was decided by Robert Lewandowski in the seventh minute of stoppage time with a chance penalty scored in the second attempt.

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Xavi, 44, then interpreted the happy victory as proof that he had achieved the liberation the players wanted by announcing his retirement at the end of the season. He spoke of a “good Barça”, a “remarkable game” and a “step forward”. And once again caused a lot of ridicule and frowning. His whitewashing of disappointing performances is part of the soundtrack of the season. Barça’s crisis lies not least in the difference between discourse and reality.

The trainer himself has complained several times in the last few weeks “that our work is not appreciated”. He often looks tired, far more aged than his two and a half years as Barça coach would suggest. Xavi once started with a lot of optimism, but he has long since ended up with bitterness and fatalism. It was “cruel” to be a coach at FC Barcelona, ​​he complained against the notoriously difficult media environment. “You get the feeling every day that you’re not worth anything.” Whatever he does, it is never enough: “If I have created such an atmosphere, then I have to leave.”

A disturbed savior, failed by the club he loves – but the explanation also includes external factors: the move to the poor Olympic Stadium because of the renovation of the Camp Nou; a plague of injuries to key players; refereeing bad luck in various matches; Finally: personnel policy.

In the summer, the team lost brains (Sergio Busquets), muscles (Franck Kessié) and esprit (Ousmane Dembélé). The free transfer Ilkay Gündogan and the loan players João Cancelo and João Félix were signed for this purpose. Big names, but as much as the ever-optimistic Laporta spoke of improving the squad, the truth is that the cash-strapped club simply couldn’t afford any top-class transfers. Xavi supported this loyally, but found no solution, especially for Busquets’ successor.

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The last survivor of the great Barça, in his position in front of the defense, ensured the preservation of the style that no longer works without him. This manifests itself in the forward passing game, which lacks agility without Busquets’ unimpressive efficiency. But it is even more blatant in the defense, in which Busquets prevented opposing counterattacks through anticipation and protected the spaces between the full-backs. Barça have already conceded 34 goals after 25 league games. In the last championship season there were only eight at the same time.

The only bright spot in the current Barça team: 16-year-old Lamine Yamal.

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When the dynamic youngster Gavi tore his cruciate ligament in November, Xavi lost the only midfielder who kept the team together compactly. Gündogan and Frenkie de Jong lack tactical discipline and self-sacrifice. In defense, however, the team suffers from French international Jules Koundé’s unexpected tendency to make mistakes; in attack, until a recent upturn in form, Lewandowski only looked like a counterfeit of the former goal machine. The only bright spot that remains is an exceptional talent from our own youth – the 16-year-old winger Lamine Yamal was recently Barça’s strongest player.

Does Deco want to establish a new way of playing?

As chaotic as it is on the pitch, it also sounds from the management level. There, the commitment of former Barça player Deco as sports director and strongman in the summer resulted in the departure of Xavi’s confidants Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff. Most recently, Deco surprised everyone with an interview in the Portuguese magazine “Luz” in which he explained that Barça’s “method” was “exhausted,” that they needed to “break with the past once and for all” and establish “a new paradigm.”

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In a club that has been using this method across all youth teams since Johan Cruyff’s time, this was virtually tantamount to a declaration of civil war. Xavi, symbol of the paradigm, learned of the comments during the press conference after the Granada game. When the spring rolls flew further up, the astonishment was once again written on his face: “Deco doesn’t say anything like that to me.” The interviewer later took the edge off the statements with a mea culpa: “Deco has no intention of changing the method or paradigm.” The sports director also received approval. “Without Messi’s 40 goals this season, the DNA is in its underwear,” wrote a columnist from “Mundo Deportivo”.

If fundamental style debates are taking place at Barça, then the club is at a crossroads. The question of Xavi’s successor is considered all the more groundbreaking. The dream candidate Jürgen Klopp is probably not available after his announced sabbatical, but Laporta is generally considered a fan of the German coaching school and is keeping a close eye on whether Hansi Flick, Thomas Tuchel or Julian Nagelsmann will leave the Bayern-DFB coaching carousel.

The favorite at the moment is probably the Italian Roberto de Zerbi from Brighton, whom Pep Guardiola’s powerful voice has repeatedly ennobled as the greatest coaching talent in the Premier League. Should Xavi be fired during the season, the current coach of Barça’s second team, former defense chief Rafael Márquez, would be available.

Whoever becomes his successor, Xavi has already predicted that he will have to be prepared for pain and frustration: “The next person will be like me.”

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