Why Xavi decided to reverse course and stay at Barcelona

What started with a 5-3 defeat at home to Villarreal in January ended on Wednesday with a sushi order at Barcelona president Joan Laporta’s house to mark Xavi Hernández agreeing to stay on as the club’s coach.

That shocking loss at the start of the year had prompted Xavi to announce his intention to step down at the end of the season. However, just 91 days later, he performed a U-turn on that decision following a meeting with Laporta this week. During that time, Barça had embarked on a 13-game unbeaten run as the clamour grew from club officials and supporters for Xavi to continue as manager. That streak ended last week with back-to-back defeats to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals and Real Madrid in LaLiga, leaving the Catalan side facing a trophy-less season.

Undeterred by those results, Barça maintained their conviction that Xavi, who made over 700 appearances for the club as a player, was the right man to lead the team forward. Xavi had always insisted that his original decision was irreversible, but on Wednesday he backtracked and agreed to fulfil his contract, which runs until 2025.

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With the local media camped on the pavement outside Laporta’s house, Xavi arrived and within minutes, sources confirmed to ESPN there was an agreement for him to remain at the helm. “As soon as he came in and we said hello, we knew that he had to stay,” Laporta said Thursday.

Sporting director Deco and vice president Rafa Yuste were among the other members of the club’s hierarchy to arrive shortly after. A sushi delivery followed as Barça began to prepare for next season with the certainty, at last, of who would be in charge.

Why Xavi decided to stay

There are two primary viewpoints when it comes to assessing why Xavi, who had remained adamant he would walk away this summer, all of a sudden decided to commit his immediate future to the club. The first is the club’s and the second is the coach’s.

From the club’s side, the financial situation has been a factor, though not necessarily the only one. While Laporta maintains the club never spoke to or approached any other coach, always hoping that Xavi would change his mind, sources said Barça did their due diligence on various candidates.

The problem they encountered was that it would have been very difficult to appoint an in-work coach — first because of the compensation, and then because of the lack of budget they could have realistically offered said coach. That second point was also a problem when it came to appointing high-profile coaches who will be out of work this summer.

Beyond that, there was also a lack of unanimity within the club regarding several candidates. Sources told ESPN that B-team coach Rafa Márquez, the most affordable option, and Germán tacticians Hansi Flick and Thomas Tuchel were among those considered. From there, the question was simple: Are they going to do a better job than Xavi?

Barça also prioritised stability and wanted to give Xavi the benefit of the doubt. He took over in 2021 from Ronald Koeman with the team ninth in LaLiga and in risk of missing out on Champions League qualification. They finished second. Then, in the 2022-23 season, Xavi’s first full campaign in charge, they won LaLiga and the Spanish Super Cup. While acknowledging that the expected steps forward haven’t followed this season, Laporta is focusing on the positives.

Xavi & Co. managed a first Champions League quarterfinal appearance since 2020 — even if they blew a two-goal advantage against PSG on their way out of the competition. Beyond that, there is an appreciation for the bravery shown by Xavi in selecting and backing youngsters like centre-back Pau Cubarsí, 17, and forward Lamine Yamal, 16, who have been earmarked as players who could define a generation at the club.

What is harder to gauge is why Xavi has agreed to stay.

In January, he spoke about the “cruel and unpleasant” atmosphere that often surrounds the club and of being mentally exhausted by the toll that comes with being the Barça coach. Speaking Thursday, he accepted that such an atmosphere will continue at the first sign of trouble. But he also said that given his 30-plus-year association with the club, he knows exactly what to expect.

Xavi says the main reason he has decided to remain in charge is the support he has received from the president, the board of directors, the players and supporters during the past three months. He adds he has the “energy” to continue and that the project — built around a talented spine of youngsters in Cubarsí, Ronald Araújo, Gavi, Pedri and Lamine Yamal — is far from finished.

What’s happened since January to cause the U-turn

Xavi’s January announcement about his exit didn’t happen in a vacuum. The 5-3 defeat was the straw that broke the camel’s back after weeks of poor results and terrible defending. Barça had exited the Super Cup and the Copa del Rey and conceded four or more goals in losses to Girona, Madrid, Athletic Club and Villarreal.

In December, club sources had already hinted that Márquez was being considered as an interim replacement should a change be needed. Then, in early January, Xavi denied an ESPN report that the dressing room was split and defended his position. Just over two weeks later, he announced that the team needed a “change of direction” and that could only come through him leaving at the end of the season.

By the end of February, sources told ESPN that Barça were realising how hard it would be to replace Xavi. Laporta’s dream candidates (like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp) were viewed as “impossible,” while there were doubts about the other options. Sources say the club’s hierarchy questioned Flick’s track record working with youngsters, expressed concerns about Tuchel’s spells with Chelsea and Bayern Munich, worried about Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbi’s lack of top-level experience and feared Mikel Arteta would not want to leave Arsenal.

In the meantime, Barça’s results and performances began to improve. They climbed from fourth to second in LaLiga and reached the Champions League last eight for the first time since 2020, going 13 games unbeaten in all competitions. That run included impressive away wins at Atlético Madrid and PSG, and that in turn led to calls for Xavi to stay. Laporta, Deco and Yuste all publicly stated they wanted him to reconsider his position, while fans routinely chanted his name at the Olympic Stadium.

Xavi said the improvement was explicitly because of his announcement and that without the “calm” brought by his spell as Barça manager having “an expiry date,” those results, including the Champions League win over Napoli, would not have been possible. Yet his players often contradicted that narrative: “The team’s reaction has nothing to do with Xavi resigning,” Raphinha said after a win at Las Palmas in March. Despite all that, Xavi continued to insist he would not change his mind, though he did begin adding nuance to his answers with “as of today,” subtly leaving the door open.

The high of the 3-2 win at PSG earlier this month was met with last week’s crash. Barça, 1-0 up on the night and leading 4-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinal, crumbled in the second leg after Ronald Araujo was sent off. They eventually lost the tie 6-4 to the French side, missing out on a first Champions League semifinal since 2019. After that game, club sources told ESPN that Márquez’s chances of taking over had increased, while stressing that the club still hoped Xavi would change his mind.



Xavi explains his decision to stay at Barcelona

Xavi Hernandez addresses the media after deciding to reverse his plan to leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

For his part, sources close to Xavi insisted that his decision to leave remained firm regardless of the PSG result. However, that changed after the Clásico loss to Madrid last Sunday, which effectively ended Barça’s title hopes while also opening the door to Xavi staying. Sources told ESPN on Monday that he was open to meeting with the club to discuss his future.

That meeting happened on Wednesday. At first, Xavi met with Deco and Alejandro Echevarría, one of Laporta’s trusted advisers, at the training ground. At that point, it was far from certain he would continue. Sources say Xavi did not issue any demands to remain in the post — it’s understood that he’s fulfilling his existing contract, rather than signing a revised deal — but that the club felt changes were needed behind the scenes, notably by bringing in an extra coach to work on physical preparation.

Behind the scenes, there was division among the decision-makers about whether to stick with Xavi, but in the end, the club sought stability.

What this means moving forward

According to some sources, there is the feeling of an uneasy truce regarding Xavi and Barça choosing to continue together. Xavi says he has made the decision in the club’s best interests, but is it in his best interests to do so? “There is a bittersweet feeling,” one source told ESPN. “It’s hard to work in an environment where at the first sign of trouble, [the coaching] staff could be gone.”

Both Laporta and Xavi insisted that there were no conditions imparted by either side to reach agreement on Xavi fulfilling his deal, but sources have told ESPN that there are likely to be additions to the backroom team. Julio Tous, who was part of Antonio Conte’s staff at Chelsea, is likely to come in to work on strength and conditioning, though Xavi dismissed reports of changes higher up among his staff. There has been criticism that Xavi’s assistants — his brother, Oscar, among them — lack the experience needed to complement him. “I have a wonderful team working with me who are completely implicated in the project, Barça fans from birth and really feel [the club],” Xavi said Thursday.

It is from that position that the club must now plan for a difficult summer transfer market. Sources have told ESPN that Xavi’s No.1 priority remains the signing of a defensive midfielder. The club also need to clarify the full-back positions and decide whether they want to extend the loans of João Félix (from Atletico Madrid) and João Cancelo (Manchester City).

The problem facing Barça, though, is that they are not sure what their financial situation will be. They are currently in excess of their LaLiga-imposed annual spending limit and are subject to spending restrictions. Laporta says he is hopeful those restrictions will be dropped by the summer, but that is by no means a certainty given the gravity of the club’s economy. Players may need to leave for others to come in; meanwhile Madrid, who have won all three El Clásico fixtures this season and remain on track for a possible LaLiga-Champions League double, expect to sign Kylian Mbappé from PSG as they continue to strengthen.

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For now, though, there are no big changes anticipated, despite Laporta’s previous comments that “losing has consequences.”

“Of course losing has consequences, and they will be the changes that Deco and Xavi make,” the president said Thursday. “We haven’t hit our objectives this season but there have been positives. The project has been consolidated, youngsters have broken through thanks to the brave decisions made by Xavi. That really helps the club.

“Consequences don’t have to be drastic. We will take the just measures for the benefit of the project and Barça.”