Koeman sacked: Xavi the right man at the right time for Barcelona
Following the dismissal of Ronald Koeman expectations are zero at Camp Nou, providing the perfect opportunity for Xavi to take over at Barcelona.
Ronald Koeman’s sacking by FC Barcelona on Wednesday following defeat to Rayo Vallecano carried an air of inevitability that had hung over the Dutchman like a cartoon cloud, shadowing his steps from one disaster to the next from the moment Leo Messi departed for PSG until the instant Radamel Falcao’s effort went in off the post to condemn Barça to a third consecutive away defeat in LaLiga. The last manager to oversee a matching run of defeats was Terry Venables in 1987, and El Tel was duly sent packing. The fuse had been lit for some time and only a series of twists and turns prevented the flame licking the barrel of gunpowder under Koeman’s divided parliament much sooner.
Chief among these were the expense of showing Koeman the door, and a lack of any suitable candidates to invite back through it. Some familiar names had been bandied about in recent weeks, but non seem a perfect fit. Roberto Martínez has enjoyed considerable success with Belgium but has never managed a club of Barcelona’s size, with all due respect to Swansea, Wigan and Everton. Marcelo Gallardo has steered River Plate to a dozen titles - including two Copas Libertadores – and drawn favorable comparisons to the cream of Latin America’s maverick school of coaching but he has never taken charge of a club in Europe, a risk factor that Barça can hardly afford under the circumstances.
Martínez’s assistant coach with the Red Devils, Thierry Henry, warranted a mention but hardly covered himself in glory at Monaco or Montreal. Barça sporting director Jordi Cruyff has been linked but only in a temporary capacity – now filled by Sergi Barjuan – and with more than nod to romanticism, given the legendary status of his father.
Xavi the perfect fit for cut-price Barcelona
The one name that does stand out is that of Xavi Hernández. Barcelona’s record appearance maker until Messi pipped him last season occupies a place on the same pedestal as Cruyff and has proven to be an astute tactician during his tenure of Qatari side Al Sadd, securing a league and cup double last season. The former master of tiki-taka has put up some impressive numbers at Al Sadd: a 66%-win percentage and an overall goal difference of +139 are not to be sniffed at in any league. But of particular interest to Barcelona given their recent woes is a record that Xavi sustained earlier this week with a 3-1 victory over Umm Salal, which took Al Sadd’s unbeaten run in the Qatar Stars League to 34 games.
Not that Barcelona need to be sold on Xavi, who has been sounded out more than once about taking over at Camp Nou. He has so far declined, preferring instead to polish his CV before a reunion with his former employers. Now, though, both parties are likely to be poring over the fine print of the former midfielder’s contract at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium. For Xavi, particularly, the timing could not be better. Expectations at Camp Nou are at rock bottom and there will be no pressure to deliver anything this season other than a marked improvement on the pitch and some dressing room harmony in the wake of Koeman’s reign. A run in the Copa del Rey will give fans something to cheer finally and if Barça can scrape through their Champions League group and work deftly in the January market, anything is possible, as Roberto Di Matteo can attest.
More importantly, Barça president Joan Laporta will give Xavi all the time he needs, barring relegation. Koeman often pointed to the hand he had been dealt at Camp Nou and the Dutchman had a valid argument. Near-bankruptcy and the departure of a six-times Ballon d’Or winner will test the limits of any manager, although Koeman did help to make his own bed with his demands for Memphis Depay - who ironically missed a penalty in Vallecas that may have stayed Laporta’s hand - and Luuk de Jong, neither of whom have noticeably improved Barça’s lot.
Laporta will be well aware that Xavi will not look to the cheque book but to La Masia. Ansu Fati, Gavi and Nico González have emerged from the famed academy to cement first-team places and the signing of Pedri for €5m has been the club’s one genuine coup in recent years. Despite his relative lack of coaching experience, Frenkie de Jong’s undoubted talent will also benefit from the input of one of the greatest midfielders of all time and the prospect of a return to the glory days or tiki-taka may turn the heads of prospective signings who may not have been that keen to labour under Koeman, or a manager of similar methodology. Add Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol to Xavi's hypothetical coaching team and the effect on Barça's current squad will be even greater.
Barcelona need to adjust to current reality
Barcelona are a club not so much in transition as one in danger of being left behind. LaLiga is becoming more and more open after years of the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly, and not just via Atlético. More and more teams are looking for ways to compete on a level playing field with cunning recruitment, investment in their academies and – quite the notion in modern football – building a sense of local identity and pride in the club players represent. Osasuna, Real Sociedad, Betis and Athletic, all ahead of Barcelona in the table, are examples of making a little go away a long way. Villarreal have been masters of the trade for over a decade.
Laporta will never openly admit it, but Barça are not the big fish any more and this is the pond in which they will be competing for the next few seasons. The club’s financial situation makes big money signings unviable and it is to market nous and home-grown talent that the Camp Nou board must cast their rod. There is nobody more suited to the task than Xavi, who was at Barcelona for long enough to have seen how easily the Cruyff “Dream Team” era can turn into barren years under Llorenç Serra Ferrer, Carles Rexach, Louis van Gaal and Radomir Antic, only to be turned around again with the right manager – Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola – investment in academy infrastructure and a little bit of generational good fortune.