There have been ups and downs along the way, but it’s indisputable that Barcelona are in a better place now than they were when they appointed Xavi Hernandez, as the coach took charge of his 100th game on Wednesday night against Porto in the Champions League.
Xavi, 43, replaced Ronald Koeman in November 2021 just months after Lionel Messi had left Barça, with the club in financial crisis, ninth in LaLiga and on the verge of elimination from the Champions League. Almost two years on, the Catalan side are reigning LaLiga champions, outplayed bitter rivals Real Madrid to win the Spanish Super Cup earlier this year and have hopes of regaining their status among Europe’s biggest sides.
The path back to the summit has not always been straightforward, especially in the Champions League. Barça have been knocked out in the group stage in back-to-back campaigns and after dropping into the Europa League as a consequence, have also failed to make it past the quarterfinal stage of the continent’s secondary competition.
Overall, though, the highs outweigh the lows. There have been two trophies — including a first LaLiga title since 2019 — 63 victories from 100 games and a squad overhaul that’s seen the focus switch back to La Masia, the club’s famous academy. Gavi (19), Lamine Yamal (16), Alejandro Balde (19), Pedri (20) and Fermín López (20) are five players aged 20 or under getting regular minutes under Xavi, who has also added premium, top-flight experience in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gündogan.
Incredibly, just three players remain from the starting XI in Xavi’s first game, a 1-0 win over Espanyol on Nov. 20, 2021: goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen, plus midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Gavi. Meanwhile Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are among the heavyweights who have left as Xavi managed to separate his friendships with his former teammates from the storied club’s sporting issues.
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The 21-man squad for the current season — the 19 players registered for the first team plus youngsters Lamine and Fermín — features 11 Xavi signings, plus various players who were in the B team or youth teams at the time when he took over. It’s a combination which Xavi, who recently signed a new contract until 2025, feels is fuelling Barça’s push for trophies.
“What I would highlight is the mix we have achieved between veterans and youngsters and the human quality of the players in the squad,” he told ESPN as he looked ahead to his 100th game in charge. “It is not easy to create the atmosphere we have in the dressing room at the moment.”
(With reporting by Jordi Blanco)
The games Xavi remembers most fondly are the ones that yielded trophies. The first came via a 3-1 win over Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final in January this year.
“That was the best game, absolutely no doubt,” Xavi said. “I have said it several times and I stand by it. I go for that game because of the performance, because you saw how we wanted to play and because it was our first trophy. Also, because of who it was against. After that day, the players believed in everything we wanted to do.”
The LaLiga title followed a few months later. After Franck Kessié‘s dramatic late winner in the Clásico against Madrid, Barça sealed top spot with a 4-2 win away against Espanyol, prompting angry home supporters to chase the Blaugrana players off the pitch as they celebrated a first domestic championship in four years.
“Winning the league will always be unforgettable,” Xavi added. “We finally did it. It had been our main objective since we took on the job. We showed that we could do it — and against our city rival as well. We produced one of our best performances of the season.”
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While there were no trophies in 2021-22, there were memorable moments as Barça climbed the table to secure Champions League qualification — something that was far from guaranteed when Xavi took the job. The midseason signings of Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dani Alves and Adama Traoré sparked a revival and produced some scintillating performances between January and March. The 4-2 wins against Atletico Madrid and Napoli stand out, while that run of form going into the international break culminated with a 4-0 over Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in LaLiga.
That win prompted Pique to post on social media: “We’re back.” Pique’s comment proved premature as Barça suffered a dip in form after the international break, but those results laid the foundations for a title charge the following campaign — albeit after a summer in which Lewandowski, Raphinha, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen and Kessié arrived after club assets were sold off to fund a splurge on the transfer market.
The Super Cup win over Madrid, in which Xavi fielded four midfielders plus Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembélé in attack, provided the squad with the self-belief to go on and win LaLiga, but it was two performances this season that Xavi described as “the best Barça have played” during his tenure.
Following the loan signings of João Cancelo and João Félix, Barça blew Real Betis and Royal Antwerp away in the space of four days in September, winning both matches 5-0. The way Barça played, with Cancelo stepping into midfield, Felix linking with Lewandowski and quick, one-touch positional play across the pitch “is the path to follow,” Xavi said.
Despite success domestically and impressive wins over 14-time European champions Madrid, Barça have still struggled in Europe. Capitulations in recent years against Roma, Liverpool and Bayern Munich have left their mark, and it is in the Champions League where Xavi’s side have suffered their bleakest nights.
A goalless draw at Camp Nou against Benfica in Xavi’s first Champions League game in charge left them with a mountain to climb going to Munich in 2021. Needing a win to get through to the knockout rounds, they capitulated, losing 3-0. Xavi labelled that defeat “rock bottom” but it was elimination a year later, when he had been given time to put his mark on the side, that stung more.
“The 3-0 loss at home to Bayern last season,” Xavi told ESPN when asked for the worst game of the 99 he has overseen. “It was a tough defeat, the worst because it was the night we were knocked out. We either weren’t able to or didn’t know how to compete in the necessary way.
“Bayern have been my toughest opponent. It’s always difficult to play against them. And, of course, Madrid. They are always a hard side to face whatever the circumstances because of who they are and because of everything that surrounds a Clásico.”
That Bayern defeat had already been preceded by some disappointing European nights: a 2-0 loss in Munich, a 1-0 defeat to Inter Milan and a 3-3 draw at home to the Italians, which was actually the result which effectively ended Barça’s Champions League campaign that season. A Europa League exit followed at the hands of Manchester United, although elimination in the same competition to Eintracht Frankfurt — when the German team’s supporters took over Camp Nou, snapping up over 20,000 tickets in the home end and prompting an internal club investigation — was arguably more painful.
“The problem was we were considered favourites going into it,” Xavi said of Barça’s Europa League struggles. “I don’t think we fully believed that we were playing in that competition. It is hard to compete in a tournament that a lot of Barca fans and people, in general, don’t care much about.”
The 4-0 Copa del Rey semifinal reverse to Madrid in April at Camp Nou, after winning the first leg 1-0, was minimised due to the number of players missing for the game and the fact that the LaLiga title was imminent, but it was a result that sewed just a few doubts about whether Barça really were back.
Where will Xavi go over the next 100 games?
There is no letup at Barça and winning one title does not buy you another 100 games in charge. Xavi, who made 767 appearances for the club — a number only bettered by Lionel Messi — knows that.
“For those that know the club, it’s about excellence in everything we do,” he said in a news conference earlier this year. “That’s why this is the most difficult club in the world. There is no comparison. There is no other club in the world like this, [with that] demand to win playing well. It is very difficult.
“We are obliged to win and play well. This is Barça. A 1-0 in the 90th minute is not enough, we know this.”
That lays out what is expected from Xavi over the next two years. Barça must continue to improve aesthetically. They have to be in the running to win LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. It is in Europe, though, where Xavi faces his biggest challenge. There will be no excuses if they fail to get out of a Champions League group this season that includes Porto, Royal Antwerp and Shakhtar Donetsk.
From there, there is an element of luck of the draw, but Barça need to show they can at least compete with — not necessarily beat — Europe’s biggest teams again, as they seek a first Champions League trophy since 2015, back when Xavi was still part of the team’s midfield. They are on the path to doing that and are in an infinitely better place than they were when they appointed Xavi, whose only previously managerial experience was in Qatar with Al Sadd, but there are challenges ahead.
Despite victories over Madrid and winning LaLiga, there is still the nagging feeling that big European performances are needed. And if Barça make it to those games, there are questions for Xavi: Will playing Cancelo and Balde as full-backs leave you too exposed in more open games? Which is his best centre-back pairing? Does he pick Oriol Romeu at the base of the midfield, or simply arrange his best midfielders? A box midfield four or a front three? Who starts on the right wing? Can he get the best out of an ageing Lewandowski?
The answers to those questions, and others, will shape his next 100 matches.