It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was hoped Xavi would be the next Pep Guardiola for Barcelona, but he will leave at the end of the season after less than three years in charge. So, what’s gone wrong?
By most measures, this season has gone pretty poorly for Barcelona.
On Saturday evening, everything came to a head. Xavi Hernández announced he would be leaving his role as manager at the end of the season, seemingly coming to terms with the fact he couldn’t turn the ship around. The decision, he said, was made some time ago, but somewhere between the 84th and 102nd minute when Barcelona conceded three goals to lose 5-3 to Villarreal, he decided he was going to announce it to the world.
Captain Xavi watched as his crew were ambushed by a yellow submarine at Montjuic on Saturday night, with that the tipping point in a season filled with disappointment and frustration.
Xavi didn’t really specify why he was leaving other than to say that the club needed a change, while complaining that the pressure placed on Barcelona managers is just too suffocating for anyone to truly be successful or celebrated.
Barcelona lost to Royal Antwerp and Shakhtar Donetsk this season in the Champions League. They conceded four to Real Madrid and Girona, and then five to Villarreal in La Liga as they sit eight points off the top ahead of Los Blancos facing Getafe on Thursday. Barça also conceded four to Athletic Bilbao in a Copa del Rey quarter-final defeat recently. But these are merely facts, Lilliputian inconveniences for Xavi who believes that whatever he does just won’t be good enough.
But why couldn’t Xavi win his critics over and implement what we were told was a crystal clear ideology for total football?
Injuries and Squad Turnover
Barcelona have been beset by injuries this season to key players.
Marc-André ter Stegen played 1,170 minutes in La Liga this term before a back injury ruled him out for a number of months. The German was a big reason why Barcelona won the league last season, as his saves prevented 9.15 goals – fifth among all keepers in the top five leagues with at least 500 minutes played – according to Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) model. He was on course to save Barça’s bacon more often than expected this season too; before his injury, he prevented 1.34 goals.
His replacement, Iñaki Peña, has conceded 2.9 more goals than the average goalkeeper would expect to according to the same model during his 810 minutes between the sticks. Twelve teams have let in fewer goals than Barcelona (29) this season in La Liga; if Xavi mentions tension and anxiety, a lot of it stems from not having the steady hands (and feet) of Ter Stegen behind his backline.
In midfield, Gavi’s loss at a crucial time in the season has also been pivotal. He had just been deployed as a defensive midfielder against Real Madrid, doing an excellent job keeping tabs on Jude Bellingham. The England star still stole the show with a thumping shot from outside the box in the second half, but Gavi can’t be blamed for Bellingham’s sheer class. Injury struck just two games after and he was lost for the season. There’s an argument to be made that the opening 45 minutes in the first game against Real Madrid this season with Gavi as the defensive midfielder was the pinnacle of the campaign for Barcelona.
Three of the top five players in minutes played last term (Ter Stegen, Alejandro Balde and Gavi) have missed, or will miss, significant parts of the season. Xavi also lost five players in the summer who played over 1,000 minutes in 2022-23, with Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Ousmané Dembélé, Eric Garcia and Ansu Fati all leaving in some capacity.
If this is The Impossible Job given the media scrutiny, then it doesn’t help that the squad is unsettled and has been for a number of years now.
No Busquets, Mo’ Problems
Busquets left Barcelona last summer to join Lionel Messi at Inter Miami after spending his entire professional career at Camp Nou. Although he was in the twilight of a glittering career, they still needed to replace him. They didn’t, or couldn’t, given their financial predicament.
They signed 32-year-old Oriol Romeu, but his lack of athleticism has seen him pushed to the margins with only 716 minutes in the league. He has been subbed off in each of the 10 games he has started this season, including at half-time against Villarreal with Pedri and Frenkie de Jong then playing as the holding midfielders.
De Jong has seen his touches per 90 increase from 93.1 last term to 110.5 in the league this season having generally been asked to play that deep role, but he’s never been seen as a Busquets replacement, rather someone to complement such a player.
This is another problem that cascades from having no resources. Names such as Martín Zubimendi and Joshua Kimmich were mentioned as Barcelona targets last summer, but these are the crème de la crème of holding midfielders. There isn’t a palanca big enough that Joan Laporta could have pulled in the summer to sign either.
The Romeu signing made some sense with his history as a Barcelona academy graduate. Pedri, De Jong and İlkay Gündoğan have all stepped in to try and compensate, and sometimes they have even operated in tandem in an attempt to fill the role, but it hasn’t worked.
Xavi has said it’s hard for him to watch his players consistently pick the wrong pass when it was something he was so good at as a player. Losing Busquets, a player possessing a seemingly preternatural gift for knowing the right pass every single time, has arguably been more impactful than anyone expected.
Barcelona are second in expected goals (50.9) across the big five leagues behind only Bayern Munich (53.5), but they are 30th in expected goals against (24.6) and a significant portion of their goals conceded have come from direct attacks. The very mention of a counter has Barcelona shaking in their boots.
For as much possession as Barcelona have (65.1%), it always feels like they’re one counter attack away from conceding. We saw that against Villarreal, the game that sealed Xavi’s fate, when they led 3-2 with less than 10 minutes to play as they conceded three on the break before the referee called a halt to the game with Barcelona crying mercy.
They have seen 40 direct attacks against them this season, the third-highest total in La Liga and which highlights an inability to snuff out counters before they start. They have conceded five goals from those attacks; only Villarreal have poorer record when defending these situations (6).
Xavi played for Pep Guardiola, whose version of Barcelona were masters of defending with the ball. The current iteration under Xavi’s watch have proven themselves incapable of doing the same.
A Big Chance Missed
With a shaky backline and an inability to defend with the ball, Xavi needed his biggest names to finish the chances that Barcelona did create. That hasn’t happened.
While some of the excuses the current manager has used are difficult to back up with statistics, this one certainly isn’t.
No team in La Liga has a higher xG total this season than Barcelona (50.9). Girona are a distant second (40), followed by Real Madrid (38.1) and Atlético Madrid (38). Barça have underperformed in relation to their xG, though, scoring 6.9 goals fewer than would be expected considering the quality of those opportunities. This is in stark comparison to Real Madrid, who’ve scored 6.9 more than expected.
Barça have had 82 big chances this season in the league (second behind only Bayern Munich with 85 across Europe’s top five leagues). They have missed 55 of those, which tops all teams in the top five European leagues, and have a 32.9% big-chance conversion rate, which is considerably below average (39.2%).
Robert Lewandowski is the biggest culprit in a team of profligate chance-wasters, which feels like a remarkable thing to write considering his prolific past. The Pole has a 28.6% big-chance conversion rate; only Darwin Nuñez has a poorer record (20%) this season for players with more than 20 big chances in Europe’s top five leagues. Lewandowski has missed 15 and scored six.
The narrative around Xavi might be the same even if Barcelona managed to finish more of those big chances given their inability to defend, but at least he might have a few more positive results as he heads in to the final months of his time on Barcelona’s sideline.
Xavi can have his reasons for leaving, but ultimately the results haven’t been good enough.
“I take the ultimate responsibility,” he said after Saturday’s defeat. History might be kind to the club legend but the solutions to most of the recurring problems we saw during his reign are up to the coach. He simply couldn’t find them.