Football Betting

Ben Gray: Whoever replaces Xavi at Barcelona will take on an impossible job

Fair to say, it’s been a tough week or so for Barcelona, but not one that was too unexpected.

Earlier this month, the Blaugrana were hammered 4-1 by Real Madrid in the Supercopa de España final Final in Riyāḍh, with their kamikaze high-line exploited time after time and, while this certainly isn’t the most important Clásico, it emphasised the gulf that exists between the big two.

Then, last Thursday, Barça’s hopes of more silverware were ended, this time dumped out the Copa del Rey in the quarter-finals by Athletic Club, conceding twice during extra time at San Mamés.

Sunday then proved to be the final straw as Barcelona were beaten 5-3 by struggling Villarreal at Montjuïc, conceding in both the 99th and 102nd minutes, as the Catalans capitulated towards the end.

This is the first time since January 1963, against Real Madrid, they’ve shipped five in a home league game.

All the talk straight after this latest defeat was discussing whether Xavi would be sacked, but the head coach took matters into his own hands, announcing he would step down at the end of the season.

As alluded to, this could be to protect himself from being fired now, given that Barça are fourth in La Liga, 11 points below leaders Girona, facing a real fight just to remain in the Champions League spots.

So, what lies ahead for the five-times European Champions who are riddled with debt, playing at a temporary stadium and have already sold off huge amounts of future revenue?

Has Xavi done a good job as Barcelona manager?

It’s worth remembering up front, Barcelona are reigning La Liga champions, with Xavi guiding them to the Spanish title just last season.

This triumph was very much build on defence, with Barça conceding a frankly ridiculous 11 goals in 33 matches prior to rubber stamping the title across the city at Espanyol.

Marc-André ter Stegen was rightly named La Liga player of the season, a rare feat for a goalkeeper, ending the campaign with a 84.7% save ratio, while xG suggests he should’ve conceded 24 more goals than he actually did.

This though was unsustainable, with Barça having let in 29 goals after 21 league games so far, not just because Iñaki Peña has deputised for the injured ter Stegen eight times, but due to the fact that the chaotic defending has continued.

On four occasions since the start of December (vs Girona, Real Madrid, Athletic and Villarreal), they’ve shipped four or even five in a match.

Nevertheless, even though we’ve put an immediate downer on it, winning La Liga last season was a great triumph for Xavi and his players, but it almost came too soon, raising expectations to an unsustainable level.

The lack of success in Europe has always left Xavi under pressure, largely due to the need for money.

The Blaugrana suffered back-to-back Champions League group phase exits in 2021 and 2022, albeit Xavi was only wholly responsible for the second of those, before being dumped out by Manchester United in the Europa League first knockout round 12 months ago.

This time round, they did manage to get through, set to face Napoli in the last 16 next month, but away defeats at both Shakhtar Donetsk and Royal Antwerp, even if inconsequential, more than raised concerns.

Barcelona need the revenue that comes with not only being in the Champions League, but also from winning matches and making a deep run, due to their crippling finances that we’ll discuss in more detail shortly.

Xavi is yet to prove he’s the man who can achieve this, which was always going to be a big issue.

To end on a positive, the Xavi era will be most fondly remembered for the trust he showed in youth.

Pedri (21), Gavi (19), Alejandro Balde (20) and Lamine Yamal (16) have all become key figures in the first XI, while we’ve also seen Fermín López (20), Vitor Roque (18) and Pau Cubarsí (17) play important roles.

Marc Guiu’s match-winner off the bench against Athletic Club in October, scoring with his first touch mere seconds after being introduced, is one of the moments of the campaign for sure.

Of course, Barcelona have been forced to to give youth a chance, but that’s exactly the point, Xavi has embraced this challenge and Joan Laporta might find it difficult to hire someone with the same mindset.

The challenges facing any future Barcelona manager

As has been pretty well documented, Barcelona’s finances are not in the best shape right now.

They’re over €1.35 billion in debt, largely due to the unsustainable transfer spending and sky-high wage bill during the Josep Maria Bartomeu era, the catalyst for which was Neymar’s move to PSG.

To balance the books, current president Joan Laporta pulled financial ‘palancas’ (levers), selling 25% of domestic TV rights for 25 years, as well as stakes in Barça studios and 25% of merchandising revenue.

This helped raise over €400 million, enabling them to sign Jules Koundé, Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and others, but this is not sustainable, and will surely catch up with them in the not too distant future.

Also, as you will have noticed if you’ve tuned into any Barça home game this season, they’re currently playing at Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, venue of the 1992 Olympics.

Camp Nou is currently being demolished and rebuilt, a project that’ll cost over €1.25 billion, and they’re hoping to move back in by November 2025, but good luck with that is what I say!

Montjuïc has a capacity of just 55,000, half that of Camp Nou, while Barça’s average home league attendance is only 41,000, with a measly 34,568 witnessing their 1-0 win over Atlético Madrid in December.

All 80,000 season ticket holders were given the option to freeze their membership for the season, if they didn’t want to travel up to Montjuïc, with only 18,000 opting in, less than half what the club were expecting.

All of this is to say they’re spending huge amounts of money on Camp Nou, having spent a not insignificant amount to get Montjuïc up to standards, all while matchday revenue has plummeted.

Given all these financial constraints, as well as the fact La Liga’s FFP rules are the strictest in Europe, this not a particularly attractive job for any potential Xavi replacement.

Young players, especially those from La Masia, have become the core of this season, making the experienced signings they can afford to bring in all the more important, although they continue to underperform.

İlkay Gündoğan is yet to really impress while, after making an instantaneous impact, Robert Lewandowski has been generally poor, dating all the way back to the World Cup break over a year ago.

Questions have to be asked of Deco, who took over as sporting director last year.

The fact young players are given a chance is great, but these kids are being over-played, with Ansu Fati, Gavi, Pedri and now Alejandro Balde all suffering long-term injuries, with the long-term welfare of people like Lamine Yamal disregarded for short-term results.

In short, whoever takes over from Xavi has got one hell of a job on their hands so, while the current boss has had a far from perfect stint in charge, in time the good work he has done will be appreciated by imminent future struggles.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".