Why Barça sacked manager Xavi, replacing him with Flick

Xavi Hernández wanted to step down as Barcelona manager but was convinced to stay put, and then, when he wanted to remain in the role, he was sacked anyway. On Wednesday, in a decision that may come to define president Joan Laporta’s second term in charge, Xavi was formally replaced by German coach Hansi Flick.

It has been a saga marked by turmoil, turnarounds, the influence of agents and, ultimately, a lack of confidence between the two major players, Xavi and Laporta, even if they are doing their best to part on good terms.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Xavi said last week. That’s one way of putting it.

The former Barça midfielder insisted nothing could change his mind in January when he announced he would walk away this summer after a 5-3 loss at home to Villarreal. By the end of April, his mind had been changed, his commitment to Barça reaffirmed over a dinner at Laporta’s house that’s since become known as “sushi night.” The next day, at a news conference to announce Xavi would fulfil his contract that ran until 2025, an emotional Laporta choked up, tears rolling down his cheeks.

At the time, ESPN revealed that sources close to both the president and the coach referred to it as a marriage of convenience. Barça’s financial problems and the lack of managerial options on the market made appointing a replacement difficult.

Xavi, someone who has supported Barça all his life and made more than 700 appearances for the first team, was willing to put the club’s needs first. One source close to the coaching staff, though, detailed how they felt their position was “weakened” and that “at the first bump in the road we will be in the firing line.” What no one imagined is that the first bump would arrive three weeks after Laporta’s tears.

After reconciliation, cracks quickly appears

The trigger for the renewed focus on Xavi’s future happened on May 15, in a news conference before a 2-0 win at Almeria. He referred to the club’s difficult financial situation and explained to supporters the harsh reality that competing with rivals such as Real Madrid — who signed Jude Bellingham for €100 million last year and are expected to bring in Kylian Mbappé this summer — is not easy. Those comments irked Laporta, who did not travel to Almería the next day, but sources told ESPN that it wasn’t the only reason for the president’s change of mind.

A main factor is that Laporta was never fully convinced by Xavi as a coach, sources close to the president said, despite the fact he led Barça to the LaLiga title last season, the club’s first since 2019. Laporta had delayed sacking Ronald Koeman in 2021 because of a lack of alternatives. He had sounded Flick out to gauge his interest in the job earlier that year and almost reluctantly turned to Xavi who, despite being a club legend, had little managerial experience beyond a short stint in Qatar.

Also contributing to Xavi’s downfall in the past three weeks was the 4-2 defeat at Girona. It shifted the focus back on to Barça’s trophyless campaign, with the same flaws that blighted their 2023-24 season — individual mistakes, conceding too easily under pressure and failing to kill off games — once again evident. During that span, albeit briefly, minnows Girona vaulted above Barça into second place — significant because finishing second means Barcelona will play in the Spanish Supercopa, a Saudi Arabia-based competition that will earn the club more than €5 million.

Barça eventually recovered to finish second, ending the season with 85 points, their second-highest tally in the past five years and only three fewer than 2022-23 when they won the league. Yet the damage had been done, with exits in the Champions League and Copa del Rey quarterfinals and a hammering against Madrid in the Supercopa final. The pre-Almería comments also weighed heavy and there was some annoyance from the board over the contrast between Xavi’s messaging in public and behind closed doors.

Despite acknowledging Barça’s financial “reality” in public, Xavi also spoke of his belief in the squad, built around talented youngsters in Pau Cubarsí, Lamine Yamal, Gavi and Pedri but supplemented with the experience of Ilkay Gündogan, Robert Lewandowski and Marc-André ter Stegen and then players who should be in their peak years, such as Ronald Araújo and Frenkie de Jong.

However, Xavi also felt an overhaul was needed, especially in attack. ESPN revealed this week that Lewandowski, João Félix, João Cancelo and Vitor Roque were all dispensable. The Lewandowski situation was an especially tricky one: the Poland striker is represented by Pini Zahavi, who also happens to be Flick’s agent and who carries great influence over Laporta, according to sources, although they added that the president would have supported an exit.

The Roque situation also caused tension between Xavi and the club. It was a deal that sporting director Deco, previously Barç’s advisor in South America, had been heavily involved in. The Brazilian striker arrived in January for an initial €31m transfer fee, but he’s been used sparingly by Xavi, logging just 328 minutes in 14 LaLiga appearances. Before that now-infamous Almería game, Xavi suggested that Barça would have been better off waiting until the summer to bring him in, as was originally the plan when the signing was announced.

The differing stances on what was best for Roque caused further strain among the club hierarchy. Xavi felt the player’s progress would be best served on loan next season, but Roque’s agent, Andre Cury, disagreed, saying if he left Barça it would be on a permanent transfer. Sources told ESPN that other influential figures at the club also wanted to see Roque given more chances.

On the Friday before Barça’s final LaLiga game of the season, Laporta met with Xavi at the training ground. Deco and other members of the board and Xavi’s staff were present as they were told the match against Sevilla would be their last in charge. Xavi has said he “accepts” the decision, but he will not reveal the reason given to him. Laporta, meanwhile, has still not commented publicly on the firing.

On Wednesday, Barça conveyed their gratitude to Xavi after reaching an agreement to sever the final year of his contract. He agreed to give up the last 12 months of his salary, which, according to sources, was due to be around €12m gross. However, sources add he will be repaid a substantial part of the €2.5m he paid from his own pocket to secure his exit from his previous job, with Al Sadd, in 2021. The six members of his backroom staff will also be remunerated for the final year of their contracts at a cost of around €4m to Barça.

So why choose Flick?

Prior to sushi night, sources told ESPN Flick had been learning Spanish and preparing to take over Barça this summer. The news of Xavi’s U-turn came as a surprise to him — and to Flick’s agent, Zahavi.

However, Laporta’s interest in Flick predates the German’s professional relationship with Zahavi. When Laporta returned to the Barça presidency for a second time in 2021, ESPN revealed how he admired the German school of coaching. Flick, Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and even Julian Nagelsmann were among those exercising a style of play Laporta thought would be successful at Barça. He was drawn to the pressing and the fitness of the teams they coached.

ESPN previously revealed that the first call to Flick’s camp came in the spring of 2021, while he was still Bayern Munich boss and Laporta was looking to move on from Koeman. Bayern had won the treble the previous season, embarrassing Barça by beating them 8-2 en route to Champions League glory. However, the call came too late, as Flick had agreed to take over the German national team.

A disappointing spell with Germany, including a group-stage exit at the World Cup in 2022, led to Flick’s dismissal in September 2023, but Laporta remained a fan. Given Flick was out of work — which would make his appointment relatively cheap, given that there was no contract buyout needed — he was among the early favourites when Xavi announced he would step down at the end of the season in January. Flick’s decision to work with Zahavi, given the agent’s relationship with Laporta, soon after was as clear a sign as any that his chances of landing the job were high.

There were conversations over the ensuing months and by April, sources say there was a belief among the Flick camp that he would take over from Xavi.

Barça had considered other candidates, but one by one, they fell. Sources told ESPN that Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp were considered “impossible targets,” while Arsenal‘s Mikel Arteta and Brighton & Hove Albion‘s Roberto De Zerbi were deemed too expensive. Bologna‘s Juventus-bound coach Thiago Motta is close to Deco, but was never among the front-runners.

In February, the search for Xavi’s replacement was progressing slowly. Tuchel was considered, sources confirmed to ESPN, but it’s unclear how far Barça ever took their interest in the departing Bayern coach. That left Flick and Rafa Márquez, the former Mexico international who has been in charge of Barça’s B team in the Spanish third tier for the past two years.

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There was support for Márquez from Alejandro Echeverría — Laporta’s former brother-in-law, and another person who has influence within the president’s inner circle — as well as from Deco. However, sources told ESPN there was never an “official conversation” with the 45-year-old former centre-back about replacing Xavi. Laporta saw him more as a short-term option in the event Xavi left before the end of the campaign.

There was disappointment, therefore, from the Flick camp when it emerged Xavi would stay. But that disappointment turned to hope a few weeks later when, as first revealed by ESPN, Deco and Bojan Krkić, who works alongside the sporting director, travelled to London, where reports claimed conversations to appoint Flick accelerated.

The news of Xavi’s looming dismissal was met with mixed views by supporters. During the 3-0 win over Rayo Vallecano on May 19, Barça’s final home game of the season, some sections of the crowd chanted “Barça yes, Laporta no.” Other fans responded by whistling.

The German coach finally arrived in Barcelona on Tuesday, with the club confirming on Wednesday he had signed a two-year deal — reports suggest it’s a contract worth €3 million gross — to succeed Xavi, who offered some advice to his potential heir after Sunday’s win in Seville.

“They have to know it is a difficult situation, because Barcelona is a difficult club, but also because of the adverse financial situation, above all [LaLiga’s] financial fair play rules,” Xavi told reporters. “It won’t be easy at all. They will suffer and they will need patience because it’s a really difficult job.

“The only thing that can save them is winning, whether they have been part of the club [previously] or not.”