Xavi comes home. Will the good old days follow?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 08: New FC Barcelona Head Coach Xavi Hernandez (R) and Joan Laporta, President of FC Barcelona pose for a photo during a press conference at Camp Nou on November 08, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 08: New FC Barcelona Head Coach Xavi Hernandez (R) and Joan Laporta, President of FC Barcelona pose for a photo during a press conference at Camp Nou on November 08, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /
Xavi Barcelona
Barça fans are desperately hoping that the return of Xavi Hernandez brings with it a return to the Glory Days. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

When news broke of Ronald Koeman’s departure from Barcelona, there was only one name on the tip of Catalan tongues (and many more worldwide) to replace him: Xavi.

They didn’t have to wait long to get their wish.

There long has been a desire to welcome home Barca’s prodigal son, the man who anchored the Blaugrana midfield during one of the most prolific periods in the club’s glittering history. A graduate of the much vaunted “La Masia” Academy, Xavi embodies the unique nature of a club that prides itself on its culture, values and political separatism; indeed, it is “mes que un club” after all.

So, when Qatari outfit Al-Sadd were approached about the availability of their current head coach, it seemed like there was already palpable expectation amongst the Catalan faithful. For a club embroiled in an identity crisis both on and off the park, recalling its former midfield linchpin seemed like the perfect antidote to the poison of recent months. Inevitably, Xavi answered their call.

The size of the task for Xavi

Xavi rejoins a club looking markedly different to the one he left in 2015. Barcelona’s stature as a major force in global football will surely never erode, but its reputation has taken a serious beating of late.

The ill-fated Super League Project, financial peril, the seismic loss of Lionel Messi (not to mention the contractual tug of war the season prior) and a chastising chasm between fans and club leadership, has gathered some considerable storm clouds over the Nou Camp.

On-pitch affairs have also left much to be desired. Far from the tiki-taka style enjoyed by Xavi & Co during an unprecedented run of success under Messrs Guardiola, Vilanova and Luis Enrique, Koeman’s rather more pragmatic approach has disillusioned both fans and club executives. To lose football matches is one thing, but to do so in a way which compromises the club’s identity, trademark passing style and attacking intent, is another thing altogether.

Koeman’s critics have perhaps been a tad over-zealous in their convictions. Barcelona were the highest scoring outfit in last season’s La Liga campaign, netting 85 times and registering 18 more goals than both Atletico and Real. The team lacks quality in depth, has been unsettled by a series of injuries that prevented Koeman from playing more expansive styles, and, perhaps, most critically, lost the world’s best player to Parisian giants PSG.

But it’s the decline of the Barca “brand” that has had the most de-stabilising effect on fan, public, and media opinion. In just over a year, the club has gone from Champions League contenders to European periphery, from hallowed hallmark attracting the world’s elite, to a squad riddled with mediocrity & inflated wages, and, most disturbingly, from an enterprise perfectly aligned to its footballing, cultural and moral philosophy, to a movement rudderless and confused in its onwards journey.

New hope or a false dawn?

So, can the famous little No. 6 turn the tide? If he pull the strings as head coach like he did whilst wearing the famous red and blue jersey, he has as good a chance as any.

His presence alone has re-invigorated a club in desperate need of a lift, with a string of extravagant signings apparently lined up for a blistering raid on the January transfer market. A Premier League trio of Mohammad Salah, Cesar Azpilicueta and Raheem Sterling have all been mentioned in dispatches, as has a blockbuster return of Lionel Messi. Yet, even the most optimistic of Barça fans would surely not hold out much hope of securing many, if any, of those four. Still, former teammate Dani Alves has already put pen to paper to secure a second spell at the club.

However, the transfer jockeying does rather slap of a presidential self-preservation act. Under-fire boss Juan Laporta seems to be hunting a marquee signing, perhaps buying himself a little more time with a fan base whose patience is already eroding rapidly. But, there is argument to suggest such activity has only transpired due to Xavi’s return to the club, and it’s exactly that kind of influence that could lead to further galvanization of players, fan base and club.

One must also not underestimate Xavi’s credentials as a coach. In a relatively short stint at Al-Sadd, the Spaniard delivered an impressive seven domestic trophies for the Qatar All-Stars League outfit, including a title winning campaign last time out.

Although he favours a 3-4-3 as opposed to the hugely successful 4-3-3 adopted during Xavi’s heydays at Barca, the possession dominant, offensively minded approach he trusts is reminiscent of that inspiring Barcelona style we saw a decade ago. Time will tell whether he has the playing staff to execute such a brand of football, but at least his intentions tap into the club’s historical modus operandi.

Even so, there are some influential detractors expressing doubt in Barca’s appointment strategy. Speaking to Off the Ball Sports, popular Spanish reporter Guillem Balague stated:

"“Is Xavi really the only manager that everyone will agree Barcelona deserves or needs? Out of all the millions of managers and coaches that there are, is he the only one? I think Barcelona are becoming smaller and smaller. If you want to reproduce success – you think you have the formula – and you start copying and copying, the tenth copy becomes a really thin version of the original. Barcelona got to the top because they absorbed from so many influences. At the moment, it seems like Xavi is the only one.”"

He went on to describe Xavi’s approach as “all very familiar, all very 2010.” A stark warning indeed from one of La Liga’s most celebrated analysts.

Xavi and his Catalan connection

Xavi has an organic understanding of a club he not only grew up with, and he helped mold the very identity to which it yearns to return to. His connection with the fan base is instant and authentic, and, without trying to champion an over-used cliché too hard, his presence alone in the dressing room will surely rejuvenate a group of players lacking real confidence and belief. Will it give them an insight, or, at least a clearer one than Koeman managed to impart, into what it means to play for Barcelona?

Balague’s concerns are not totally misplaced. The footballing tactical narrative has changed radically in recent years, but who’s to say Xavi hasn’t adjusted his possession-based style accordingly? A sort of tiki-taka 2.0? He has after all cultivated his coaching style under a certain Pep Guardiola, and there’s no doubting the latter’s all-encompassing grasp of the modern game. Time will tell.

Will it be a case of the right appointment at the wrong time? Or a masterstroke from a club needing inspiration and a return to the good old days? We won’t have to wait long to find out.

Next. Scotland beat Denmark, advance to playoffs. dark

Just the smaller matter of a Catalan derby against Espanyol to navigate first, over to you Mr. Hernandez….