The Xavi and Pep Guardiola comparisons are irresistible.
Both are legends of the club with little coaching experience when hired by Joan Laporta, but nonetheless highly regarded for their tactical acumen. Logically, one day they would get their chance.
Not all great players make great managers, even when they were taught by the best. Ronald Koeman is one example of how knowledge can be transferred, but not intellect, and the limits of how far that can take you.
Xavi, like Pep, is a natural learner who savors the process of coming up with new ideas, and enthusiastically experimenting until they work. Both were the type of student destined to become the master, if only given the opportunity to learn from one.
Where would a player like Pep Guardiola be without Johan Cruyff?
Where would a player like Xavi be without Pep Guardiola?
Great, but not fulfilling their true potential.
As the new manager, we now eagerly wait to see whether the third evolution of Barcelona genius comes to fruition with Xavi.
This time, however, it will take more than tactical prowess.
Xavi is right to explain to his players and the world what his footballing philosophy and expectations are, even if they seem grandiose. There’s no reason why he can’t get this group of Barcelona players to play total football again if he could ask it of Al Sadd.
This style of play is something most football fans have become familiar with. We know the Barca way of dominating in possession when we see it, but that’s just part of the equation.
Success at Barcelona has always been about more than winning. Being the rival of the royal Real Madrid taught the hard lesson that if you spend enough money you can generally find a way to win trophies. But Barcelona isn’t Real Madrid, and if the reign of Bartomeu proved anything, it’s that we shouldn’t copy their approach.
Go back to what makes the game special. Not just possession, but embracing the hard work of winning the ball back in advantageous areas. The ball, indeed, is a precious thing to have, so fight for it, and when you have it, take care of it by sharing it widely and quickly.
Many of these Barca players know the tactics that Xavi will try to impart. Like a student content with a passing grade, they have the text memorized, but they’ve lost the excitement that comes from putting that knowledge to work in an ever changing footballing world, and succeeding.
That’s job number one for Xavi. Make studying football fun again. So fun that at the end of every training session they can’t wait to show off what they’ve learned in front of 100,000 die-hard fans at the Camp Nou.
But that’s not all. The conditions for Xavi are far less favorable than what Pep inherited with the residual excitement of the Ronaldindo era, and the beginning of the legend of Messi, and star students Xavi and Iniesta there to glue the project together. Not to mention one of the best right full-backs to ever play the game.
Speaking of Dani Alves, the wisdom of Xavi to bring him in without hesitation is clear. He needs a better dressing room with a true leader, and winner, the players will respond to. He is now the de facto captain of this team, sorry Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets.
And no, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in Sergino Dest. No one will benefit more from the arrival of Alves than the American. I can’t wait to see what this does for his development.
And yet, even an improvement in attitude and leadership won’t be enough to bring success to Xavi and the club he loves.
He’ll need to make La Masia the best academy in the world again. He can prove it by taking the likes of Pedri and Ansu Fati from great to the best in the world at their position. And from there, make sure the Barca B team is being held to the same high standards as the seniors.
And what about the forgotten and underperforming assets? Can he unlock the best of Ousmane Dembele, and keep him healthy? He seems determined to try.
Can he find a role for Samuel Umititi that reminds us all of the potential we saw not too long ago? What a footballing and financial bonus that would be, and if reports are to be believed the Frenchman came alive at practice last week, and it didn’t go unnoticed.
Perhaps it seems like we’re asking for too much when you list it all out like that.
Except this is what great managers at great clubs do day in and out.
Xavi knows it and will embrace the challenge.
It’s sink or swim, and no honeymoon, with Espanyol, Benfica, and Bayern Munich among the first up. Building momentum will be essential to see the team through the early days of this next chapter.
He will be given more time and patience than most managers given the circumstances, but there is still urgency.
Win or lose, it’s going to be fascinating watching his mind at work as he tries to solve this complex puzzle.
And for everyone watching, that counts for something.
No doubt there will be bumps in the road, but this is a journey to get on board for.
Time to leave the past behind.