Xavi Hernandez lifted his first major title as Barcelona coach with their La Liga triumph, earning himself time, but still has plenty to prove with the club hungry for European success.
The 43-year-old has undoubtedly lifted the Catalans after their struggles in recent seasons, with their last league triumph coming in 2019 under Ernesto Valverde.
However the team failed in the Champions League with a humiliating group stage knock-out and were turfed out of the Europa League at the first hurdle by Manchester United.
Their painful European exits and the team’s efficient but unspectacular playing style are fuel for Xavi’s critics, despite lifting La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup.
With Xavi’s arrival in November 2021, some may have expected the second coming of Pep Guardiola, who led the team to a remarkable treble in his first season at the helm in 2008-09.
However the context of the club was vastly different then to where Barcelona had fallen when Xavi arrived, both in terms of the quality of the squad and also financially.
The coach is quick to make that point against any criticsm of the team’s performances, in his first full season in charge.
“We value where we came from and where we are now,” said Xavi in April — and many other times.
“Against a great team like Real Madrid, reigning La Liga and European champions, inside the club we (give this title) great value.
“If outside the club people don’t, I can’t control that, but we value it a lot and even more knowing where we came from last year.”
It is reflected in president Joan Laporta’s desire to hand Xavi an extension on his current deal which expires in 2024, something the coach said he will think about only after the title was secured.
Xavi has improved Barcelona’s defence significantly, phasing in Alejandro Balde for Jordi Alba at left-back and signing Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen, who have been key.
Barca have been remarkably tight at the back in La Liga, earning several 1-0 wins this season, atypically for a club usually heralded for their attacking talent.
Under Xavi, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has returned to his best level, while young midfielders Pedri and Gavi continue to thrive.
Xavi has also made the team more consistent, maintaining standards which slipped below an acceptable level in each of the past two campaigns under Ronald Koeman and Quique Setien.
Question of style
Occasionally the Catalan giants have sparkled, with the 3-1 win over Madrid in January’s Spanish Super Cup final one of the highlights of their campaign.
Xavi’s detractors will point out those exciting performances have been infrequent, with the team usually dependable but unspectacular.
The coach has also been more pragmatic than fans expected, given his reverence of Barcelona’s typical possession football.
Barcelona have not regularly played football reminiscent of the Guardiola era in which Xavi shone as a player, sometimes by design and sometimes inability.
Against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, Barcelona put in a backs-to-the-wall display reminiscent of a Jose Mourinho bus-parking special.
Barcelona came away with a 1-0 win, but were thrashed 4-0 in the return at Camp Nou in April—one of the big disappointments of their season.
Xavi has not been particularly innovative as a coach, sticking to the 4-3-3 formation Barcelona traditionally use before changing to more of a 4-2-3-1 later in the season, with Gavi operating on the left, effectively deploying four central midfielders.
However the team’s convincing march to victory in La Liga suggests Xavi did not need to be, at least domestically.
Winning La Liga puts some credit in the bank for Xavi, but potentially not enough to survive another early Champions League exit, even if injuries and bad luck played a part this season.
After Barcelona’s gamble last summer to spend big by selling off future television rights and more, Xavi and his team’s trajectory must continue upwards, without room for regression.
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