At last, the time was right and the place was too. Xavi Hernández returned to Barcelona as manager and revealed that not only had he twice turned the job down previously – first because he didn’t feel ready and then because he didn’t trust the previous administration or the chaotic situation in which the club found itself – but that he had also passed up the opportunity to work with the Brazilian national team under Tite in order to head home. That, he said, was what moved him.
“It’s the moment,” Xavi said, but he knows it is not an easy one. A total of 9,422 people turned out to see him take charge of a club that is ninth in La Liga, 11 points off the top, 10 points behind rivals Real Madrid, and level with city neighbours Espanyol, the club against whom he will make his managerial debut and one that have never finished above Barcelona. A club that is on the edge of European elimination, and this at a club where he said that “a draw is a defeat” and “a 1-0 win in the 90th minute isn’t acceptable.”
“Everyone has done their bit,” said the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, repeatedly sidestepping questions about who had paid Xavi’s release clause at Al Sadd. “This is the moment in which Barcelona most needed him. I would have liked to have offered him a club where things were easier but he knows he will be given room to work and that he will have all our support and trust.”
Xavi, though, talked in tones of optimism, not least when asked about Ousmane Dembélé who he said could become one of the best players in the world. The fans, meanwhile, they came in hope, handed flags as they made their way into the Camp Nou, seeing in him a new incarnation of Pep Guardiola, the line of Cruyffian succession re-established. “If they compare me with him, I’m already winning,” Xavi said, perhaps because he has lived with that particular parallel ever since he was a player and he knows the Manchester City manager better than anyone. He has “fed off” Guardiola, he said.
When another comparison was drawn to club idols returning to the bench at the places they played, the examples of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo explicitly offered up as cases where it didn’t always go to plan, he said that knowing the club is a huge advantage and shot back: “I prefer to be in the Guardiola, Zidane group than the other one.”
Xavi was there when Guardiola took over in 2008, and he recalled being immediately convinced. Not so much because of the ideas but the obsessiveness. “When they signed him I said: ‘Madre mía, we’re going to be flying,’” he recalled. “I swear it. He’s a perfectionist. If Pep decided to be a musician, he would be a good musician. If he wanted to be a psychologist, he would be a good psychologist. He is obsessive; he would keep going until he got it right. He demands so much from himself. And that pressure that he puts on himself, those demands are contagious – it spreads to everyone. He wants everything to be perfect. He is a pesado.”
Pesado means heavy. Hard-working. Intense. It is Xavi’s calling card too. If there was a recurring theme at his presentation, it was the demands he will make of his players. He is an ideologue and, yes, there was talk of philosophy and style – possession, pressure and a determination to attack – but the lasting impression was of a man who knows that there are practicalities to address first. One who suspects that some of the basic rules have been broken. Indeed, he talked explicitly of rules, and repeatedly.
“It’s not a case of being hard on them; it’s a question of order,” he said. “You have to have rules. When there have been rules things have gone well; when there haven’t been, things have gone badly. It’s crystal clear. At the start it is important we talk about work, values, respect, attitude, effort. If we don’t have those values we don’t have a team. We need that, then we can talk about the model. In my opinion, the most important thing is the rules first and then we will decide how we play. I have had a good teacher in Guardiola, of course.”
Xavi also has good players, or so he said. And while he did not hide from the fact Barcelona will be alert in the winter transfer market, he distanced himself from the discourse offered by Ronald Koeman, who offered up a realism that bordered on fatalism. He spoke warmly of the new “extraordinary” generation of players coming through, saying that it was “hard to understand” how a 17-year-old like Gavi would perform at the level he has shown so far while also noting: “Here you need excellence in every game. They’re a very, very good generation but a very young one so we have to help them.”
Asked if he would miss Lionel Messi, he shot back: “Yeah, and Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho.” The Argentinian had messaged him, he said, but he also said that Barcelona “cannot think about players that are not here”. One who is, and who he intends to keep, is Dembélé, in negotiations over a contract extension. Asked if the Frenchman was a priority despite a Camp Nou career punctuated by injury and with too few standout moments, he replied: “Right now, yes, yes.”
“For me, Dembélé, in his right position, worked on well, can be the best in the world. He has spectacular qualities. He can make the difference. It depends on him and we have to look after him and help him. His renewal is a priority.”
Sitting next to him, Laporta grinned. “Understood,” he said.
“There are always injuries,” Xavi continued. “But there are too many right now. There is prevention work, gym work, you can train well, maybe better – I don’t know how they have been training [before].”
If all that sounded good, and Xavi was convincing, his message clear and direct, there was one question: why didn’t all this happen sooner? Laporta explained, again, that he felt Ronald Koeman, another club legend, scorer of the winning goal at the 1992 European Cup final, had deserved time and their trust until the situation had become “unsustainable”. He had already said that he may have waited too long for his moment, on he was now keen to make the most of. As for Xavi, he explained why it hadn’t happened under the previous regime – one in which, while he was careful not to say so explicitly, he had little faith.
“The two times Barcelona came – and they did even though they said they didn’t …” Xavi began. “The first time, in January , I didn’t feel it. At a personal level and a footballing one I thought it was too early and I have to be honest with myself. In the summer [of 2021], I thought it wasn’t the right moment. There were elections coming, it wasn’t the right time, there was lots of uncertainty. But now with Jan [Joan Laporta] there’s a good relationship, there has been all my life – he’s the best president this club has had. He does not have two faces and there’s a good synergy. He called me, and I had no doubt.”
Story first published on The Guardian