On Saturday, the starting gun sounded on the search for the next Barcelona manager after another coach was, as one source described it to ESPN, “chewed up and spat out” by the club’s incredibly demanding, political and complex machinery.
It took four years to wear Pep Guardiola down, three for Luis Enrique to call it a day and, just over two years after taking charge, Xavi Hernández unexpectedly announced he will leave the club at the end of the season after a 5-3 defeat at home to Villarreal in LaLiga. That loss completed a miserable January for Barça in which they also lost 4-1 to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa final and were dumped out of the Copa del Rey, beaten 4-2 by Athletic Club in the quarterfinals.
Barcelona were ninth in LaLiga when Xavi took over in 2021, guiding the team to a second-place finish and securing Champions League football. He then led Barça to a first LaLiga title since 2019 in his first full season in charge, as well as claiming the Supercopa with a brilliant performance in the final against Real Madrid.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Since then, both midfielder Sergio Busquets and winger Ousmane Dembélé, two of Xavi’s favourite players, have left — and neither was properly replaced — while injuries, notably to goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen and midfielder Gavi, have also damaged the team. Decisions on incoming players, such as the double loan signing of defender João Cancelo and forward João Félix — both clients of superagent Jorge Mendes — have often been made above the coach’s head, too.
Cracks were papered over earlier in the campaign with some good results, but the wheels have come off in the past few months. Barça have conceded four or more goals on four occasions in their past six games; the 5-3 defeat at the weekend was the first time they’d allowed five goals in a home league fixture since losing 5-1 to Real Madrid in 1963. With the club 11 points off the pace in LaLiga and Xavi under extreme pressure both internally and externally, he revealed that he will walk away at the end of the season, regardless of any success between now and the summer, to “reduce the tension” that had grown around the club.
“We have done a great job and are proud of what we have done during these two years,” a source on Xavi’s coaching staff told ESPN. “We achieved all objectives, qualifying for the Champions League and winning trophies the next season, but now is the right moment to leave.
“Barça’s a club that chews people up and spits them out. It eats everything up. And there are times that we have felt there has been a certain lack of respect. The situation was unbearable.”
ESPN has spoken to people in and around the club about the background to Xavi’s decision, the curiosities that will once again arise when it comes to picking a new coach and who is in the running to be appointed.
Why Xavi chose to step down
Laporta supports Xavi’s decision to leave Barca
Barcelona president Joan Laporta discusses Xavi Hernandez’s announcement that he will leave the club at the end of the season.
Some might argue that Xavi, 44, is jumping before he is pushed. Neither results nor performances have been satisfactory for a while and while Barça’s spending has been curbed by LaLiga’s restrictions, he has been backed when possible by the club, with over €200 million used on signings during his tenure. However, Xavi insists that this is a decision he made a while ago — and one he’d been stewing on for much longer. He blames the intensity and the demands of the “entorno,” which loosely translates to “the environment that circulates in the club” and includes the swirl of gossip and leaks generated by the media, along with infighting among former and current board members.
Coaching Barça almost becomes a political position, as one source puts it: you deal with up to six news conferences a week, often receiving questions that are beyond your remit, related to other club activity or wider issues in Catalonia or Spain, with every response scrutinized to an agonizing degree. If that atmosphere got to Guardiola and Luis Enrique, two treble-winning managers with the club, what chance did Xavi have?
Sources say the writing was on the wall when the club’s hierarchy insisted Xavi include Ronald Araújo, Ilkay Gündogan and Robert Lewandowski in the squad for a meaningless Champions League clash with Antwerp in December — Barca’s path to the round of 16 had been confirmed when they beat FC Porto 2-1 in their previous game — after he’d originally left them out. That saga undermined his position, with the differences exposed when Xavi said it was a “club decision” to rejigger the squad and sporting director Deco said it was the manager’s choice. Barça lost that game in Belgium.
The source in the coaching staff added that Xavi finally feels “liberated” since making his decision to depart public, while the players rallied together by holding a team-bonding lunch at Lewandowski’s house on Monday.
Sources have told ESPN that some members of the squad feel responsible for Xavi’s exit and would have liked him to stay while, as previously revealed on ESPN, others had begun to lose faith in his ideas. However, the hope now is that united goals — in LaLiga and the Champions League — could have a galvanising effect. “We are going to give everything to finish the season in the best way possible,” the source said.
“The objectives from the start of season may seem distant right now, but we are not going to give up on them.”
The task of replacing Xavi
In the background, Barça will step up their search for Xavi’s replacement, with sources saying the club will carry out a “thorough recruitment process” and that no developments are imminent. The visible face of that process will be Deco, who in effect replaced both Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff last summer. Many others will also be involved, starting with president Joan Laporta, who will seek counsel from those he trusts the most — including vice president Rafa Yuste, director Enric Masip and his biggest adviser, Alejandro Echevarría, who does not have an official role at the club.
Laporta also tends to work with agents and intermediaries with whom he has close ties. That is true in terms of the transfer market, and sources say it will also be the case when it comes to appointing the next coach. Mendes and Pini Zahavi are two such agents with whom he has especially close links.
Beyond those influences, Barça tend to value certain factors higher than others in comparison to some of Europe’s other biggest clubs. Things like inside knowledge of the club, some kind of “club legend” status and talking up a game based on the club’s Johan Cruyff-inspired ideals are often given more weight than experience or suitability to the modern game.
The club’s financial situation also poses problems. Barça are over their LaLiga-imposed spending limit, which means they must either continue to make cutbacks or generate more revenue to be able to invest in the squad — including the coaching position. A source at LaLiga says the possibility of being able to pay compensation for a manager under contract — ESPN reported that Chelsea had to pay Brighton up to €21m to get Graham Potter out of his contract, for example — in addition to their salary at the moment is “slim.”
The thing the next coach must have is a clear idea of the way they want to play,” Xavi Vilajoana, a former Barça director and presidential candidate in the past election, told ESPN. “I am speaking about the idea, not the system. For that, you have to keep in mind what players you have and what players you are going to have — meaning players from La Masia [the academy]. From there, you analyse the coaches that fit that idea and the experience they have — and if they are free.
“You’re looking for someone who knows or understands the club’s ideas when it comes to playing style, someone who has confidence in the players coming from the academy and who is a good communicator, someone whose knowledge reaches the players, but at the same time is able to motivate and be demanding with the group.
“A history with the club carries weight, but the weight of expectation is much more. It cannot be the case that we have to win nearly every trophy every season. That is not possible. What can be demanded is that we compete in every competition and are in a situation to win it until the end.”
It all makes for a complicated cocktail when trying to agree on one name, with people pulling in different directions for different reasons, which explains why such a wide array of managers — with differing styles, levels of experience and/or contemporary employment — have already been linked to the vacancy.
Candidates for the job
Barça went for an in-house option after Guardiola stepped down, appointing his assistant Tito Vilanova in 2012. Members of Xavi’s backroom staff — which includes his brother, Oscar — are not being considered, but Barça Atlétic coach Rafa Marquez is in the running and perhaps represents the most affordable option on the table. Sources told ESPN before Xavi’s announcement that the former Mexico international would be a front-runner to replace Xavi on an interim basis should he leave midseason — which is still not completely out of the question — but there are doubts as to whether Marquez would be given the job long-term and his chances of a promotion are reduced.
Returns for Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Paris Saint-Germain’s Luis Enrique have also been touted, though both are viewed internally as “unrealistic” options.
Ex-Barça B coach García Pimienta also has been mentioned. He has done a remarkable job at Las Palmas, who sit in the top 10 of LaLiga after being promoted last season. However, sources note that his relationship with Laporta has been marked by the manner of his dismissal in 2021. Pimienta had done a good job with the reserve team, taking them close to promotion to the second tier while developing players, with many observers tipping him to be the first-team coach one day. It was a surprise to everyone that he was sacked, while still under contract, and replaced by Marquez.
“In the last two coaching changes when I was on the board, I was left ‘alone’ betting on García Pimienta to replace first [Ernesto] Valverde and after Quique Setién too,” Vilajoana added. “I was not able to convince my colleagues. Garcia Pimienta could be a good option now. [Portugal coach] Roberto Martínez also has a profile that could adapt to what Barça need.”
In Spain, Míchel, who has guided Girona to the top of LaLiga, and Imanol Alguacil, who has done a good job at Real Sociedad over a number of years, have been mentioned as possibilities. Yet neither has expressed interest — “I am focused on Girona,” Míchel said on Sunday. “I have a contract here until 2026. Xavi is Barça.”
Alguacil also has a contract through 2025, which could price Barça out of a move, while possible Premier League targets such as Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, who spent five years at the Catalan club as a youngster, and Brighton & Hove Albion’s Roberto De Zerbi would also come at a cost. Arteta has already ruled himself out: “It’s totally untrue and I’m really upset about [the rumour],” Arteta said at a news conference on Monday about reports that he wanted to leave Arsenal. “I’m immersed in a beautiful journey with the club and there is still a lot to do.”
Laporta, meanwhile, has developed a penchant for the German school of coaching. ESPN first reported in 2021, while Ronald Koeman was still in charge, that he had sounded out the availability of Hansi Flick, the Bayern Munich coach at the time. Sources say that market will be explored once again, with no doors being shut and agent Zahavi’s knowledge of the country and contacts likely to be used.
Flick has been out of work since being dismissed last September by the Germany national team, a role that saw him enjoy several matches at Barça’s Olympic Stadium this season in order to keep tabs on goalkeeper Ter Stegen and midfielder Ilkay Gündogan. But he’s far from the only candidate emerging from Germany: Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel last weekend spoke of a desire to coach in Spain, although the Bavarian side have since released a statement making it clear his comments were not in relation to Xavi’s announcement.
Elsewhere, Julian Nagelsmann has a contract with Germany only until after Euro 2024 and Jurgen Klopp last week announced he will leave Liverpool at the end of the season. Klopp has said he is running out of energy and will take a sabbatical, but that hasn’t stopped him appearing as the front-runner, with fan polls (39% of Diario Sport readers picking him as Xavi’s replacement) and media outlets (Diario Sport itself) branding him Barça’s top target.
Other options might seem out of left field at first, but a closer look will make them clear. Sérgio Conceição is out of contract with Porto in the summer and is represented by Gestifute, the agency owned by Mendes. Thiago Motta, a former Barça midfielder, is doing a good job at Bologna — sources say he also has a very good relationship with Deco because in addition to being former teammates, they both hail from São Bernardo do Campo in Brazil.
Sources close to the Barça hierarchy insist in a belief that the top job at Camp Nou — which is due to reopen later this year — remains alluring. There is some exceptional young talent coming through into the first team (Gavi, Pedri, Lamine Yamal, Alejandro Balde) and despite their form this season, they won LaLiga less than a year ago.
Sources have told ESPN that Deco has been inundated with agents offering their clients for the role. Some sources also suggest that Laporta would like to appoint a “big name” in the game, but others point out he has always gone for more inexperienced options — Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola and Xavi — across his two tenures as president.
Whoever is chosen will understand that the job does come with caution. Speaking on Tuesday, Guardiola said the “the pressure you feel in Barcelona is not comparable to anywhere else.” At the same time, Xavi was sending a warning to his eventual successor, saying he has felt “undervalued” and “worthless” and had the feeling that whatever he did would not be enough to satisfy the demands of the entorno.
“The same will happen [to the next coach],” he said. “This is the problem. I would advise them to be themselves, to be natural and to not allow themselves to be influenced.
“My dream was to coach Barça, win and play good football. I am proud of what I have done and I have a clear conscience. My advice to my successor would be to enjoy it, but it’s impossible.”