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Ken Early: Disillusioned Xavi ready to lay down Barcelona burden

If you don’t have stars you’d better at least have a plan, and currently Barca have neither

Another dramatic week in the history of the incredible shrinking Barcelona – the club that used to be appointment viewing for football fans around the world, and have now melted away into a spectral presence whose results you occasionally notice on LiveScore.

It was always going to be a struggle to move on from the era of Messi but it’s surprising how bad a job Barcelona have made of it.

No longer able to pay the highest salaries in the world post-financial-implosion, they now stock their squad from the bargain bins of Premier League cast-offs and free transfers: Ilkay Gundogan, now 33, João Cancelo, Oriol Romeu, formerly of Southampton, João Felix, fresh from his zero-impact loan at Chelsea, Raphinha . . . Other recent signings include Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Memphis Depay and Sergio Agüero. They seem obsessed with signing players in the declining phase of their careers – most poignantly the 35-year old Robert Lewandowski, now an almost unrecognisable figure as he clanks and stiffly labours up front.

The result is a team nobody wants to watch, though they have at least been generating some compelling highlight videos. Their recent trip to Saudi Arabia to play the Spanish Super Cup culminated in a 4-1 thrashing by Real Madrid in the final. Last Wednesday they lost an epic cup tie 4-2 after extra time at Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, where the home fans taunted them about the Negreira refereeing scandal.


On Saturday came the worst result yet as Barcelona hosted Villarreal at the Olympic Stadium in Montjuic, where they are playing while the Camp Nou is redeveloped.

Villarreal are 14th in the league and also have a squad packed with ex-Premier League journeymen, maybe of a slightly lesser level than the ones who end up at Barcelona.

Pepe Reina is the sub keeper, still plugging away at 41. The back four at Barcelona included Alberto Moreno, the error-prone ex-Liverpool fullback, Eric Bailly, stalwart of the Old Trafford treatment table, and Kiko Femenia, the former Watford battler.

Running the midfield was Francis Coquelin, who almost broke through at Arsenal in the mid-2010s, with Etienne Capoue, once of Spurs and Watford, and Goncalo Guedes, a winger who failed at Wolves, coming off the bench.

By the 60-minute mark this unlikely crew were leading Barcelona 2-0. Then Barcelona restored order to the world, scoring three times in 11 minutes to go 3-2 up. Cue mass relief and celebrations – which quickly proved premature. Barcelona conceded in the 84th, 99th and 102nd minutes to lose 5-3. It was the first time they had let in five goals against Spanish opposition in nearly 30 years.

It was more than an hour before coach Xavi Hernandez came out to speak to the media and when he did finally appear it was to share some big news. Despite being contracted until 2025, he had decided to leave the club at the end of the current season.

For a second time in the same weekend, the coach of a major European club was telling us that he was quitting after being beaten down by the demands of the job. But while Jurgen Klopp was diplomatic enough to blame his own dwindling energy reserves, Xavi castigated the toxic environment at Barcelona.

“It’s a cruel job, it wears you down,” he said. “In Barca you always feel like you’re not valued, you’re mistreated – that’s how the club works. You see how they kill you, they criticise you, it affects you. From a mental health level, it’s tough. I’m a positive guy but the battery levels keep running out – and at some point, you realise there’s no point in staying.”

“You asked me many times if I’d be the Sir Alex Ferguson of Barca. The truth is, that it will never happen here. You guys won’t allow it.”

Ferguson once expressed his bemusement at Pep Guardiola’s decision to walk away from the Barcelona job in 2012 after four years.

“You’ll never have another team as good as this,” he warned his younger colleague. But Ferguson perhaps did not appreciate how stressful and exhausting being the Barcelona manager really was.

In this giant quasi-democratic members club the political jockeying never stops, and coaches must contend with ambitious directors and media who are often serving hidden political hidden agendas.

Ferguson’s own stickiest patch at United coincided with a rare spell of political upheaval in 2004-5, when he was fighting two of the major shareholders over the Rock of Gibraltar stud fees. For most of his years at United, the private ownership structure provided an underappreciated stability.

The following day, in Germany, the embattled Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel told journalists, apropos of who-can-say: “Moving abroad would appeal to me again. Spain has an extraordinary league. Based on my experience working with Spaniards, they are characterised by a tremendous amount of self-confidence. When you speak with Spanish players, I quickly get the sense that you are engaging with the person.”

A subtle intervention from the German. Tuchel, though, would not be a typical Barcelona appointment. They haven’t gone with an ideas-driven foreign coach since Louis van Gaal left the club for the second time in 2003.

Since then, Barcelona have appointed either legendary ex-players, ideally with “Barca DNA” (Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Ronald Koeman, Xavi) or lower-profile “continuity” coaches, the type who are expected to keep things ticking over, to assist and facilitate the players rather than tell them what to do (Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien). This is the Barca way.

At which point you remember the words of Anton Chigurh: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

Barcelona’s obsession with Barca DNA led them to appoint Xavi, a mistake that should have been obvious before they ever made it. A really serious coach would hardly have wasted six years in Qatar, prioritising a giant salary over the opportunity to develop his skills in a competitive environment.

The time has surely come to open up this jaded institution to new influences, to bring in someone from outside the stagnant Barca gene pool. It might even be time for one of those “busy” dictatorial managers they traditionally hate – because if you don’t have stars you’d better at least have a plan, and currently Barcelona have neither.