Barcelona’s LaLiga crown vindicates Xavi’s coaching career

By far the most interesting answer Xavi gave in the news 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, still-emerging midfielder. Stone faced, not a hint of emotion and nowhere near a smile, he answered that what linked the two experiences was dealing with 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 his meaning at all.

Barcelona’s manager — arguably Spain‘s greatest-ever midfielder, twice world champion for his country (U20 in 1999; senior team in 2010) and club, serial trophy winner, definitely in the Blaugrana‘s all-time XI, young, talented, handsome, funny, still fitting into the same size of clothes as he did in 1999 — suffers from self doubt, just like anyone 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 begin to interview Xavi in depth until he’d become an absolute lynchpin for his club — already a leader, a winner, settled in his preferred position and hugely successful. It would have been the summer of 2008 when we first had a long, interesting conversation.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

It then took a while to get to the confident stage where he’d express his feelings about the times Barcelona made it clear he could leave if he wanted to, the times he found out about the club trying to transfer him behind his back, the times that the Camp Nou crowd would jeer him as a substitute entering the pitch because they felt he was ousting Pep Guardiola in midfield and wasn’t as good. Over time, he could have left for Manchester United, AC Milan or Bayern Munich (among others) but chose not to.

The most startling thing I’ve heard him admit to was that when then-manager Frank Rijkaard, a few years after that first LaLiga title in 1999, asked him to play in the attacking right midfield position that became his own, where he became the best in the world, he was frightened. He thought of the central midfield position, the Pivote, as his safe, 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 had to be enacted and, effectively, the rest really is history — two trophies before that moment, 29 after it.

The trouble was, then, that Xavi looked like the master and commander of all he surveyed. Not a shred 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 the tightness of the on-pitch situation and the risk, Xavi wanted the ball. He wanted to accept the pressure of running things, of taking risks in order to win.

Pivote was a position where, just like Sergio Busquets now, Xavi could influence the rhythm and tempo of play. But when he moved into attacking midfield, he played like a pivote but with hugely more creative and threatening responsibilities. He played as if he were occupying two positions at once, and the result was Spanish, European and world dominance for club and country.

My point in emphasising this is to remind you how strange it is to understand that he was, and still is, someone who suffered from self-doubt. Most of the professional footballers who perform with Xavi’s authority, clarity of purpose, match intelligence and hunger are, off the pitch, extremely self-assured, not to say haughty, and rarely exhibit or admit any kind of need for other people to award them legitimacy or credibility.

So, cutting back to Sunday night in the Espanyol news conference, it was quite the admission from Xavi that this first real big win as a coach (no one should denigrate the seven trophies he lifted as coach of Al Sadd in Qatar but, equally, that environment was nowhere near as testing and demanding as this) would reinforce his self-esteem.

There have been notable moments during his reign as Barca coach when he might have felt like admitting self-doubt, but couldn’t: the hammerings from Bayern Munich; the Europa League elimination against Eintracht Frankfurt last season; the 4-0 thrashing by Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal this season; that insipid performance in losing 1-0 to Inter Milan at San Siro in mid-winter; and some of the 11 1-0 wins in LaLiga that, despite yielding 30 valuable points, were often dull, nervy and lacking authority.

If indeed Xavi was then suffering from self-doubt, feeling like his credibility was on the line, if he was worrying that perhaps his players were somehow making it seem like they believed in his methods and doctrine but really didn’t, then he did one hell of a job hiding it. In good times and bad since he took over in November 2021, with his club, his squad and the finances in horrific states, Xavi has been clear cut, consistent, defiant, successful and has demonstrated the invaluable ability to take jarring setbacks on the chin and come roaring back with nerve-settling explanations in public and reinvigorating of his troops in private.

It’s his absolute evangelical belief in what he’s preaching and what it will bring that has convinced his players.

Winger Ousmane Dembele lives better, is fit more often, contributes better and, frankly, didn’t leave the club because Xavi got under his skin. Defender Ronald Araujo has become more consistent, a better match reader, far better in distribution of the ball from the back, an expert in man-marking Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, and the team’s new out-and-out leader because Xavi inspired and convinced him. Frenkie de Jong stayed, principally because he never wanted to leave, but the Netherlands midfielder has long begun to play with more authority, accept more responsibility, to push himself until he’s downright exhausted and to show mature stubbornness until Barcelona win matches that are going against them because Xavi transmitted his evangelical spirit to him.

The list could go on.

There’s the maturing of 19-year-old left-back Alex Balde and 18-year-old midfielder Gavi. The former now harnesses his natural speed better and is more productive because he uses his vision and brain — not just his Formula One gearbox. The latter has had to adapt his position and play like half a forward and half a midfielder so that he can press, ferociously, and he’s done that while reducing the number of times he’s been booked or found himself in a nose-to-nose confrontation with a rival or the ref.

Both youngsters have been inspired by their professor, Xavi.

There are more examples: Raphinha‘s defensive work rate, Pedri‘s finishing around the opposition penalty area and the quality of his assist giving, Andreas Christensen‘s re-learning of the central defensive role and the requirement to play risky, creative passes out of defence. All these, and more, are hallmarks of Xavi’s first LaLiga win as a coach despite the fact, as he admitted on Sunday, that he’d been coping with the same internal monologue of, “Am I right? Can I pull this off?” that bedevilled his early playing career.

There’s an analytical argument, which his agent should be running past him, that having won two trophies in his first full season as Barcelona coach (the Spanish Supercopa final win over Madrid was by far his team’s best performance of this season) this might be a good moment to walk away and leave the crowd wanting more.

This type of actuarial calculation includes the fact that there’s still disruption behind the scenes: investigations into whether Barcelona were influencing referees for the past two decades; huge financial gymnastics needed simply to stay stable; key transfer market guru Mateu Alemany leaving; lack of clarity over whether Jordi Cruyff will stay or move to a less turbulent club; at least two seasons to be spent playing at Montjuic’s unloveable Olympic Stadium instead of Camp Nou while the latter is redeveloped; the potential return of Lionel Messi, who, genius aside, will be 36 in a month’s time. The list doesn’t even stop there.

play

1:38

Why Lionel Messi might not fit Barcelona right now

Gab & Juls debate what would happen to Barcelona if they can make a Lionel Messi move work financially.

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

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

Imagine sorting the squad out, averaging crowds of 83,000, getting the better of Madrid and winning Barcelona’s first title without Messi since 1999 and then, with a flourish, walking off the stage? One of the most enduring commercial laws is that to reduce supply of something popular increases demand and price.

The clue, most likely, is what Xavi the 1999 title-winning player did next. He suffered but didn’t surrender. He and his teammates entered a drought in which they didn’t win a trophy between 1999 and 2005. The club tried to push him out, other major outfits tried to tempt him away.

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

The likelihood is that, self-doubt notwithstanding, that’s his mindset now. If so, Barcelona really don’t know how lucky they are.