Up-And-Coming Coaches: Xavi Hernández
You can’t have a ‘greatest midfielder of all time’ debate without throwing Xavi Hernández’s name into the ring. One of, if not the most, transcendent midfielders in recent footballing history alongside his Barcelona counterpart in Andrés Iniesta, Xavi was the living, breathing depiction of beautiful one-touch football and the ‘Barcelona way’ of playing. In short, he pulled the strings. The puppet-master.
Everything comes full circle eventually, and of course, football is no different.
Xavi Hernández is Barcelona-born and bred. Joining the famous La Masia youth academy at just 11 years of age and making his much-anticipated debut at the age of 18, the signs of greatness were on display from the get-go. A diminutive midfield maestro with a natural eye for tactical movement and a perfectly-weighted pass meant that his fit at the time was seamless. New manager Louis van Gaal was quick to shake things up in his first season at Barcelona, selling Ronaldo Nazário to Inter Milan before the season started, and recruiting Brazilian journeyman Rivaldo to fill the void.
For Xavi, 1998 was a year of firsts. His senior (if unofficial) debut against Lleida in the Copa Catalunya in May, his maiden goal coming in August in a 2-1 loss to Mallorca in the first leg of the Supercopa de España and his LaLiga debut in October at the famous Estadio Mestalla. It wasn’t a coincidence that Barcelona went from 10th to lifting the LaLiga title after Xavi’s introduction into the first-team squad.
There’s a reason Xavi retired as the player with the most appearances in Barcelona’s long and storied history. Stylistically, no other player, aside perhaps Iniesta, has embodied more the beautiful, inimitable and maddening style of football that Barcelona lived and breathed under Pep Guardiola.
The possession-based ideology focuses on a simple concept of short and laser-focused passing. The team relies on positional fluidity and intellectual movement to overcome the opposition, who need to constantly adjust defensively if they are to counteract the system. It goes far beyond simply maintaining possession, however. With the ball, players have to move with intent and purpose, creating space, overloading one side or the other…without it, they must apply pressure at the right time to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible, to create a counter-attacking opportunity.
So the ideology of the system is simple. But as many teams throughout history have discovered, without players of the technical astuteness and mental strength of Xavi Hernández, it becomes almost impossible to recreate successfully.
In an interview with Goal.com, Xavi explained his own style of play and coaching, attributing it back to the earlier Barcelona teachings that originated from the great Johan Cruyff and developed all the way through to Guardiola and beyond. “I’ve been lucky enough to be brought up on the Barcelona ethos which has taught me the value of being part of a team. Today for you, tomorrow for me. Those qualities are essential for life in general.”
And that’s exactly what he tries to instil into his own players to this very day.
After leaving Barcelona in 2015 following a treble-winning campaign, Xavi signed an initial three-year contract to join Qatari side Al-Sadd with an understanding that he would take on the additional role as ambassador for the country’s 2022 FIFA World Cup and begin working towards his coaching qualifications, following in the footsteps of former Spain teammate and Real Madrid legend Raúl.
But for a man used to so much success on the pitch, 2015-16 must have been a strange experience – no trophies to speak of, and beaten in two finals: the Qatar Cup and the Sheikh Jassim Cup (the nation’s Super Cup equivalent). And while his last experience of the UEFA Champions League in Europe had been beating Juventus in Berlin, his first of the AFC Champions League in Asia was somewhat less glorious – a defeat on penalties to Al-Jazira of Abu Dhabi in qualifying for the group stage, with Xavi missing his own spot-kick. Still, soon enough, domestic silverware would arrive – two cups the following campaign, a Super Cup triumph in 2017-18 against league champions Al-Duhail, and then Al Sadd would take their major title too, crowned champions of Qatar in 2018-19.
And the Qatar Stars League, as it was officially known, was becoming just that. Samuel Eto’o had been signed by Qatar SC, Wesley Sneijder turned out for Al-Gharafa, Mehdi Benatia had left Juve for Al-Duhail, and joining Xavi at Al Sadd was Atlético Madrid’s Gabi Fernández. Those two had captained their respective teams to the last two LaLiga titles before Xavi left Spain, so perhaps it was no surprise to see them combine in midfield and help Al-Sadd comfortably become league winners.
And then, after a professional playing career spanning 21 years, having amassed 31 senior honours for club and country, Xavi announced his retirement on 2nd May 2019, with his final appearance coming in a 2-0 defeat in the AFC Champions League group stage to Iranian club Persepolis. He openly stated that his intention was to remain in Qatar post-retirement and pursue a career in coaching, so naturally just eight days after hanging up his boots, Xavi was announced as the manager of Al-Sadd, replacing his own former coach Jesualdo Ferreira.
It was a quick turnaround, and a flying start. In early August, taking control of Al-Sadd for the very AFC Champions League knockout ties that he had helped them qualify for as a player, they beat Al-Duhail again, 4-2 on aggregate to reach the quarter-finals. To stoke up that rivalry even more, Al-Sadd then defeated the same opposition in the same stadium 1-0 in the Super Cup final just four days later – so barely three months into the role, Xavi had his first trophy as a manager.
Perhaps the next game would be even more significant though. The 4-1 league thrashing of Al Wakrah was the first game since his appointment where Xavi implemented a 4-3-3 formation – such a familiar tactical shape from his time at Barcelona, but the similarities didn’t stop there. The ball was more secure in possession, the Al-Sadd midfield led by Gabi had a recognisable metronomic pattern to the way they moved, and the inflated (league-leading) ball possession figures bore a clear resemblance to the style that Xavi had been schooled in from those early days at La Masia and that he had honed in four trophy-laden years with Guardiola as Barça coach. ‘Tiki taka’, ‘take the ball, pass the ball’, call it what you like – Xavi’s learnings were already becoming his teachings.
So what about coming back to the Catalan cradle? Many believe that Xavi is destined to return to Barcelona to take the reigns as head coach, and after the embarrassment which ultimately led to the messy departure of Ernesto Valverde, he very nearly did. But the timing needs to be right. Xavi himself has stated that it will hopefully happen someday: “I cannot hide it's my dream to coach Barcelona, I've said it many times in many interviews. Everyone knows I support Barcelona from the bottom of my heart. But I'm doing my job here. I'm doing my best.”
And he’s not doing at all badly.
The 2020 Qatar Cup provided Xavi with yet another honour (again Al-Duhail were soundly beaten, 4-0, this time in the final) before the domestic season was halted – especially frustrating for the player-turned-manager who was just starting to build momentum and gain experience. Nevertheless, aside a three-match winless run in the league which some observers wildly saw as Xavi’s first ‘crisis’ as manager, it’s generally been ‘so far, so good’ for the 40-year-old in Qatar. No complaints.
Nor are there from the powers that be at Al-Sadd. The club are well backed and heading in the right direction under one of the world’s most iconic footballers. And with the imminent retirement of Andrés Iniesta, could we see a Barcelona midfield partnership of the ages blossom on the touchline in the not-so-distant future? It’s a tantalising prospect, for Barça fans and neutrals alike.
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