Champions League exit shows Xavi was right: He needs to leave Barca

I was genuinely bummed out when Xavi announced, after the 5-3 home defeat to Villarreal in January, that no matter what happened from there, he’d be stepping down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season. Partly because I think he’s good at what he does, partly because he was one of my favourite players and remains one of my favourite people in football, and partly because I found the following comment thoroughly depressing, if probably true: “The feeling of being Barca coach can be unpleasant … It’s cruel, there’s a lack of respect towards you … it’s terrible on your mental health and morale.”

No job — certainly not in sports — should be like that, and when he brought up mental health and family — wanting to see his kids grow up — all you could do was respect his decision. Barcelona went on a tear (at least in terms of results) after his announcement, going undefeated for 13 games with 10 wins, prompting speculation over whether the club would persuade him to stay. But seeing Barcelona’s stunning meltdown against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals — with a 3-2 first-leg lead undone by a 4-1 defeat at home after going a goal up — leaves little doubt: Xavi made the right choice. It’s pretty obvious that emotionally, this job takes far too much of a toll on him. At this stage, as we saw Tuesday, that toll can impact his team, too.

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

Xavi got himself sent off in the 11th minute of the second half shortly after Vitinha’s goal put the visitors 2-1 up, making it 3-3 on aggregate with all still to play for. It was the third time this season he was shown a red card: The other two were in the scoreless season opener against Getafe and in a 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid last month. Contrast this with his playing career where, in 900 games for Barcelona and the Spanish national team, he was sent off just twice.

Former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger once told me that one of the most difficult adjustments to make once you go from player to manager is control. As a player, you have “total knowledge” of all your inputs — what your eyes, brains, heart, legs and manager tell you — and then have “total control” over how you will react to them. As a coach, you have to work with inputs — often incomplete ones — from the 11 players on the pitch, plus the guys on the bench and then decide accordingly, knowing you can’t actually control what the players then do. That loss of control can be frightening until you get used to it, and it remains nerve-wracking until the very end.

You imagine it’s all the more the case with Xavi. This is the kid who was born 15 miles from the Camp Nou, joined Barca’s La Masia academy at 11 and spent 27 of his 44 years on this Earth either playing or coaching for the club. When things go wrong, it hurts him viscerally, as it does supporters. Xavi is a pro, of course, and you imagine there’s some distance and some coping mechanisms in place to separate the two. But evidently since becoming a manager, that compartmentalisation has wavered.

And make no mistake about it: His actions on Tuesday hurt Barcelona, which is the opposite of what he’s paid to do and what he wants to do. There’s never a single isolated reason for such a defeat, but what’s evident is that he did not help matters on the night. His assistant — and brother — Oscar was booked in the first half. After Xavi’s ejection, his goalkeeping coach, Jose Ramon de la Fuente, was also sent off, as was — following the final whistle — Sergi Roberto, who was suspended for this game and hanging with his boss on the bench.

The tone is set from the top and when Barcelona needed calm and cool heads, they didn’t get it from their bench. Yes, you can point to individual errors on each of PSG’s first three goals. (Their fourth was a simple counterattack in garbage time with Barca chasing the game.) There’s João Cancelo losing Ousmane Dembélé at the far post, and then doing the same moments later when Dembélé put it wide. Or the back line defending way too deep and not challenging Vitinha for his shot or simply stepping up to play PSG’s forwards offside. (The worst offender here was Pedri, who seems to hide behind Marco Asensio.) Cancelo — him again — needlessly conceding that penalty when Dembélé was going nowhere. (There has to be a parallel universe in which Alejandro Balde doesn’t get injured and this column never gets written.)



Xavi: All decisions went against Barca in UCL exit vs. PSG

Xavi Hernandez lashes out at the referee after Ronald Araujo’s red card in Barcelona’s 4-1 loss to PSG in the Champions League.

And while we’re at it, let’s not let Ronald Araújo get away without blame, either. We can debate whether the red card was harsh, but in that position and at that stage in the game, you expect better decision-making from your defensive leader.

I don’t think you can blame Xavi for those, except maybe the decision to sit deep after the sending off, something this version of Barca are not cut out to do. But you have to hold him to account. On an injury-riddled side already bereft of leaders, they lost their biggest one way too early in the game. Or, as Ilkay Gündogan (never one to hide) put it after the match: “It felt like we destroyed ourselves.”

And that’s the rub. It would be neat for Xavi to stay and oversee the growth of Gavi, Pedri, Lamine Yamal, Pau Cubarsí and whoever else La Masia unearths. It would also be useful to have a grown up at the club who could steer Barcelona through the gathering storm caused by the financial mismanagement of the Josep Bartomeu era and the reckless Lever-pulling of the Age of Joan Laporta. But not like this.

If games of this magnitude — precisely because he’s so invested in the club — become so nerve-wracking and draining that he ends up losing the lucidity required to make good decisions (like not getting himself sent off), then maybe Xavi is right. Maybe he did make the right choice back in January. There’s no shame in it, either; heck, his old boss, a guy named Pep Guardiola, spent two of his four seasons at the club talking about how the job was too punishing for him and he needed to leave, only for him to do a U-turn at the last moment. He eventually took a sabbatical and went on to do pretty well for himself in Manchester.

Maybe that’s what Xavi needs: a job somewhere else that’s just a job. But only after taking some time out to clear his head, be with his family and figure out what the next stage of his life is going to bring.