Barcelona’s LaLiga crown justifies Xavi’s coaching career

Graham Hunterspanish writerMay 16, 2023, 3:00 a.m. ET9 minute read

Did Barcelona go too far with the title celebrations against Espanyol?

Gab & Juls discuss Barcelona’s title celebrations following their 4-2 win over Espanyol in La Liga.

By far the most interesting response Xavi gave in the press conference after Barcelona won LaLiga on Sunday was about how he felt now compared to 1999 when he won his first LaLiga title as a then 19-year-old midfielder, still emerging. Stone-faced, not a hint of emotion and far from a smile, he replied that what tied the two experiences together was self-doubt.

This title, nearly a quarter of a century later, had also given him “credibility”. Not in the eyes of others, though – that wasn’t what he meant at all.

The Barcelona manager – arguably the greatest Spanish midfielder of all time, twice world champion for his country (U20 in 1999; senior team in 2010) and his serial trophy-winning club, definitely in THE BlaugranaThe all-time XI, young, talented, handsome, funny, still in the same size clothes as in 1999 – suffers from self-doubt, like everyone else. And he’s brave enough to admit it.

“It costs me to believe in myself,” he said, still with an immensely serious expression on his face.

I didn’t start interviewing Xavi in ​​depth until he had become an absolute kingpin for his club – already a leader, a winner, settled into his favorite position and hugely successful. It would have been the summer of 2008 when we first had a long and interesting conversation.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (US)

It then took a while to get to the stage of confidence where he expressed his feelings about the times Barcelona had made it clear he could leave if he wanted to, the times he found out the club were trying to get him. transfer behind his back, the time the Camp Nou crowd mocked him as a substitute entering the pitch because they thought he was ousting Pep Guardiola in midfield and not being as good . Over time, he could have left for Manchester United, AC Milan or Bayern Munich (among others) but chose not to.

The most surprising thing I’ve heard him admit is that when then-coach Frank Rijkaard, a few years after that first La Liga title in 1999, asked him to play as a midfielder attacking right field that became his own, where he became the best in the world, he was afraid. He thought about the central midfield position, the Pivotas his safe and happy space.

Xavi told the Dutchman: “I’m not sure I can do it… I’d rather not.” Rijkaard, like all good coaches, stuck to his guns, pushed for the vision he needed to be embraced and, indeed, the rest is truly history – two trophies before that moment, 29 after.

The problem, then, was that Xavi looked like the master and commander of all he surveyed. Not a hint of self-doubt was evident – then or now.

No matter the pressure of the moment, no matter his form, good or bad, no matter the mood of the crowd, no matter how tight the situation on the pitch and the risk, Xavi wanted the ball. He wanted to accept the pressure to race, to take risks to win.

Pivot was a position where, much like Sergio Busquets now, Xavi could influence the pace and tempo of the game. But when he moved into attacking midfield, he played like a pivot but with vastly more creative and menacing responsibilities. He played as if he were in two positions at once, and the result was Spanish, European and world dominance for club and country.

I stress this point to remind you how strange it is to realize that he was, and still is, someone who suffered from self-doubt. Most professional footballers who play with authority, clarity of goal, intelligence for the game and hunger for Xavi are, off the pitch, extremely confident, not to say haughty, and show or rarely admit the need for other people to reward them. legitimacy or credibility.

So, flashing back to Sunday night at Espanyol’s press conference, it was quite Xavi’s admission that this first real big win as a manager (no one should belittle the seven trophies that he won as coach of Al Sadd in Qatar but, equally, that environment was nowhere near as trying and demanding as that) would boost his self-esteem.

There were notable moments during his reign as Barca coach where he might have been keen to admit he doubted himself, but couldn’t: the hammerings of Bayern Munich; the elimination in the Europa League against Eintracht Frankfurt last season; Real Madrid’s 4-0 thrashing in the Copa del Rey semi-finals this season; that tasteless performance in losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at the San Siro in mid-winter; and some of the 11 1-0 La Liga wins which, despite a valuable 33 points, were often boring, edgy and lacking in authority.

Despite an illustrious playing career, Xavi suffered from self-doubt. Hopefully winning La Liga as Barca manager can help boost his confidence.Pedro Salado/Quality Sports Images/Getty Images

If indeed Xavi was then suffering from self-doubt, feeling that his credibility was at stake, if he was worried that perhaps his players were giving the impression that they believed in his methods and doctrine but weren’t actually doing it. not, so he did a hell of a job of hiding it. In good times and bad since taking over in November 2021, with his club, squad and finances in horrendous states, Xavi has been clear, consistent, defiant, successful and has demonstrated the invaluable ability to take jarring backhands on the chin and come back strong with nerve-wracking explanations in public and invigorating his troops in private.

It is his absolute evangelical belief in what he preaches and what he will bring that convinced his players.

Winger Ousmane Dembele lives better, is fit more often, contributes better and frankly didn’t leave the club because Xavi was under his skin. Defender Ronald Araujo has become more consistent, a better match player, much better at distributing the ball from the back, an expert at marking Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior and the team’s new stalwart leader because Xavi inspired and convinced. him. Frenkie de Jong stayed, mainly because he never wanted to leave, but the Dutch midfielder has long since started playing with more authority, accepting more responsibility, pushing himself until ‘He’s downright exhausted and showing mature stubbornness until Barcelona win games that go against it. them because Xavi transmitted his evangelical spirit to him.

The list could go on even longer.

There’s the maturation of 19-year-old left-back Alex Balde and 18-year-old midfielder Gavi. The former now makes better use of his natural speed and is more productive because he uses his vision and his brain, and not just his Formula 1 gearbox. The latter had to adapt his position and play as a half-forward and a half- midfielder to be able to press, fiercely, and he did it while reducing the number of times he was cautioned or found himself in a head-to-head confrontation. with a rival or the referee.

Both youngsters were inspired by their teacher, Xavi.

There are other examples: Raphinha’s defensive work rate, Pedri’s finishing around the opposition penalty area and the quality of his assists, Andreas Christensen’s relearning of the central defensive role and the obligation to play risky and creative passes out of defence. All of this and more is a hallmark of Xavi’s first La Liga win as a manager despite the fact, as he admitted on Sunday, that he faced the same internal monologue from ‘Ai “I’m right? Can I get out of this?” “which plagued his early playing career.

There is an analytical argument, that his agent should pass him by, that having won two trophies in his first full season as Barcelona manager (the Spanish Supercopa final victory against Madrid was by far the best performance of his team this season), it could be a good time to walk away and leave the crowd wanting more.

This type of actuarial calculation includes the fact that there are still disturbances behind the scenes: investigations into whether Barcelona have influenced referees over the past two decades; enormous financial gymnastics necessary simply to remain stable; departure of key transfer market guru Mateu Alemany; lack of clarity on whether Jordi Cruyff will stay or move to a less turbulent club; at least two seasons playing at the loathsome Montjuic Olympic Stadium instead of the Camp Nou while the latter is redeveloped; the potential return of Lionel Messi, who, genius aside, turns 36 in a month. The list doesn’t even end there.

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Faced with all these obstacles to “what happens next”, some shrewd coaches would walk away, knowing that absence would make the heart grow fonder. There would always be a chance for Xavi to return to Barcelona like Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane did in Madrid; to return with finances sorted, with the team playing at the Camp Nou and with his generation of Araujo, Pedri, Gavi, Balde nearing their peak.

Remember, he’s the guy who this season said being manager of the club he loves has brought him some of the worst days of his footballing life. It’s a big statement.

Can you imagine sorting out the squad, with an average crowd of 83,000, getting the better of Madrid and winning Barcelona’s first title without Messi since 1999, then, with panache, walking off the stage? One of the most enduring laws of business is that reducing the supply of something popular increases demand and price.

The clue, most likely, is what Xavi, the title-winning player in 1999, did next. He suffered but did not give in. He and his teammates entered a drought in which they won no trophies between 1999 and 2005. The club tried to chase him, other big teams tried to tempt him.

“I stayed because it’s my club and I’m stubborn as a mule,” Xavi once told me.

It’s likely that, despite the self-doubt, that’s his mindset now. If so, Barcelona really don’t know how lucky they are.

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