Xavi’s time at Barcelona has drawn to a close. The club’s hunt for their next manager begins now, but who can they feasibly target?
When you’re winning, managing an elite football club is extremely exhausting. When you’re not, it’s excruciatingly draining, extracting each ounce of your being on the training pitch, at the tactics board and in the press room. Without points and positive performances as a shield, external noise from fans, the media and executives eats away at even those strongest willed individuals.
It’s for this reason Jurgen Klopp has decided to leave Liverpool at the end of the 2023-24 season. It’s also for this reason Xavi is following suit, vacating his post as Barcelona manager when the current season concludes.
In many ways, there is no greater football pressure cooker than FC Barcelona. A politically divided, financially ruinous organisation hell-bent on returning to past glory as quickly, and dubiously, as possible, the club offers no room for stagnation.
For a brief period, Xavi, a legendary figure at the club, seemed to have wrestled some control amidst the chaos and guided the Catalan giants to the cusp of returning to the summit in 2022-23. Yet, in 2023-24, form and fortune have evaded him and his side, leaving the club’s second-most capped player rooted at base camp and abandoning the mission before it’s properly begun.
Xavi explained his decision to walk away from his managerial role a year before his contract is set to end has been influenced by his work ‘not [being] valued enough.’
In his eyes, a lack of appreciation for his side’s achievements, a sole league title in 2022-23, has ‘generated a wear and tear that [makes] you think, you do what you do [and] it’s not valued.’
“We have withstood the pressure and we have arrived at one of the most difficult times for the club and I prefer not to continue,” he added. All of which reads like a damning indictment for every facet of the organisation.
Ideally, Barcelona would like an elite manager to guide them back to football’s summit. However, nothing about their financial situation is ideal, limiting their options away from the Pep Guardiola’s and Jurgen Klopp’s of the world. Add to this several high-profile European and international managerial vacancies and Barcelona’s already difficult managerial hunt is now as hard as finding a four-leaf clover in a cornfield.
Who replaces Xavi at Barcelona?
Who are the possible replacements? Let’s break down the key names being heavily speculated.
Barcelona’s history of promoting managers from within is richly successful. Notably, Pep Guardiola moved from the club’s ‘B’ side to the first team in 2008-09 and immediately tasted success, winning a treble with a groundbreaking, possession-centric style of play that modern football is moulded after.
Rafa Marquez may not have the same instant success as the current Manchester City manager. Still, at a time when the club’s finances are in worse shape than Roman ruins, the Mexican provides the board with a cheap managerial option.
Marquez’s Barcelona B side currently sits 12th in Spain’s second division, one point above relegation, an uninspiring standing for Barcelona fans. Assessing Marquez’s credentials more positively reveals a club legend with a deep understanding of the Barcelona way, historically that’s proved enough for the club.
Whether he is the right man to return Barcelona to the successful period the club’s board, and accountants, desperately desire is about as clear as the Brisbane River. One could make the strong argument that going from Xavi to Marquez isn’t a sideways appointment, it’s a backwards step.
As someone who was schooled at La Masia, winning two league titles and a Champions League at Barcelona, Thiago Motta knows what it takes to succeed at the Catalan giants. In 2023-24, his Bologna is one of Italy’s best in-possession sides, completing more 10-plus passing sequences than just about any other side.
Citing Marcelo Bielsa as one of his stylistic influences, Motta emphasises defending while attacking and attacking while defending, pressing hard to win the ball back as soon as it’s lost and dominating the ball deeper until spaces open up for quick, incisive passes.
Such is the effectiveness of their press, Motta’s Bologna has won more tackles in the middle third of the park than all but one side in Serie A this season, while the Italian’s high defensive structure, which emphasises squeezing opponents deep in their half and forcing long balls into overloaded areas, has contributed to Bologna boasting the fourth-best defence in Serie A this season.
Roberto De Zerbi
Understandably so, Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi is one of football’s most desired managers. With fewer resources than most, De Zerbi has transformed the south coast side into one of the Premier League’s most entertaining prospects.
A core component of De Zerbi’s playstyle is baiting and breaking the press. Brighton’s defenders famously place their studs on the ball, patiently waiting for opponents to trigger their press before expertly slicing through them like a sharpened katana through an apple.
However, 2023-24 has seen their effectiveness stifled. Sides understand you can’t bait a press that does not exist, therefore sitting off Brighton slightly more than they would so and forcing them to play through more compact defensive structures. Alternatively, teams have also found success in high, man-to-man presses against De Zerbi’s side.
Given facing deep-lying defences is more common for bigger sides, such as Barcelona, such a chink in his tactical armour is something De Zerbi must work at improving if he’s to successfully move up the managerial ladder, as is expected in the coming years.
Michel’s Girona is surprisingly flying high atop the La Liga table, thanks in no small part to the manager’s tactical brilliance. Set up in an extremely fluid system, which alternates between a back-three and back-four depending on game state, Girona is having a brilliant season.
Only three sides average more possession than Girona’s 57.2% while only Barcelona have created more big chances. Michel’s emphasis is, evidently, on retaining the ball and moving it considerately and devastatingly between the lines and into dangerous attacking zones.
Whether Michel, who was born in Madrid, will stand in the dugout of his city’s top footballing rivals, and whether Barcelona fans accept him, are two complicating factors. Add to this Michel’s contract, which runs until 2026, and one must wonder if Barcelona can afford the Girona man’s signature.
Another man at the helm of another La Liga surprise package, Las Palmas, could be in with a shot at the Barcelona head coaching role. Garcia Pimienta’s Las Palmas side are, much like Michel’s Girona, comfortable in possession and laser-focused on death by 1000 cuts.
Only Barcelona and Real Madrid average more possession than Las Palmas in 2023-24, while only the El Clasico rivals and Girona are the only sides with more 10-plus pass sequences this season.
A Barcelona local who played once for the club before going on to coach throughout the club’s youth ranks, Pimienta knows all about what’s stylistically expected of the football club. He has constructed his Las Palmas outfit in this image.
What could prove a significant roadblock is Pimienta’s relationship with club president Joan Laporta, who deemed him surplus to requirements when he returned as the club’s president in 2021.