“President, I’d like to speak with you.”
Barcelona’s traumatic 5-3 home defeat against Villarreal prompted an agitated evening behind the scenes at their temporary home ground on Montjuic on Saturday.
Club executives immediately held an urgent meeting after the final whistle at the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys, just next to the VIP boxes, where other board members were still having dinner.
Alongside Barca president Joan Laporta was vice-president Rafa Yuste, sporting director Deco, director Enric Masip and Laporta’s closest confidant, Alejandro Echevarria. The topic of discussion was Xavi’s position. At that meeting, Laporta decided he had to stay true to the convictions he had held over the past few weeks and keep Xavi as manager.
Suddenly, as the meeting came to an end, he felt his phone buzzing.
Xavi’s message to Laporta asking to speak prompted a dramatic turn of events. Top executives feared the manager had decided to abandon his role that very same night, leaving Barcelona in a tough position. The decision had already been made not to sack him, partly because it would have been hard to bring in a replacement due to the financial state of the club. Barca are over La Liga’s limit on salary spending, which makes it tough to register new players; the rules apply to managers’ wages, too.
One of the executives present at that meeting even texted Xavi back, asking him not to “take final decisions in heated moments” and to “let the situation cool down”.
But Barcelona’s legendary former midfielder, who led them to the Spanish league title in his first full season in charge last term, had made his mind up. He could not keep carrying the same amount of pressure and needed to tell the board.
Well-placed Barca sources — who, like all those cited here, preferred to speak anonymously to protect their positions — told The Athletic that Laporta was very surprised by how well Xavi articulated his message when they eventually spoke and that he quickly understood this was a decision he had deeply considered.
The manager’s wish to step down not now but at the end of the season would also give them some time to make plans and Laporta accepted his request.
In this piece, we explain:
- How Barcelona’s toxicity ended up wearing down Xavi, a man who knows the club as well as anyone but who could still not escape its unique pressures and saw his family affected
- When Xavi made his decision and why it ended up being revealed so abruptly, with players hearing the news through social media
- How the dressing room reacted, with some relationships with the manager deteriorating and others open to seeing him staying
- What went wrong from last season and why, despite being a man of the club in tough times, players and executives believed Xavi ended up underperforming
“Xavi slept better tonight than he had in a long time,” sources close to him told The Athletic on Sunday morning. They said he felt liberated after making known his decision to leave the club on June 30 — and so did his entourage.
The coach had been mulling over the decision for months, but it was only after the 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final that he made it known to those closest to him: his brother and assistant manager Oscar Hernandez, his wife Nuria Cunillera and a few most trusted members of his staff. Not many knew.
They had devised a plan to make his decision public, with the idea to tell the players at a training session the day before a match over the upcoming weeks. He would then give a press conference with the board to explain it to the media. Instead, everything came to a head after Saturday’s game with Villarreal.
Barca lost the match despite coming back from two goals down to lead 3-2, suffering a 3-5 defeat that leaves them fourth in the table, 11 points off surprise La Liga leaders Girona (on whom they have a game in hand) and 10 points behind rivals Real Madrid.
Barcelona’s thin, injury-plagued squad will not be fixed by Xavi leaving
The defeat essentially saw them say goodbye to a third competition in 15 days. First, the Supercopa de Espana, then the Copa del Rey (Athletic Bilbao knocked them out last week), now an almost definitive farewell to the league title they were defending.
After the final whistle, Xavi did several flash interviews with broadcasters and nobody could have guessed what was going to happen next.
After Xavi wrote the message to Laporta, he communicated to the board that he was leaving the position. According to sources close to the coach, he then went to find the players in the dressing room, hoping to tell them himself before they heard it elsewhere.
In their own post-match interviews, Frenkie de Jong, Joao Cancelo and Ronald Araujo had all strongly defended the coach, with De Jong saying: “It’s our fault, not the coach’s.”
Xavi wanted to talk to them, but by the time he was in a position to, over an hour after the final whistle, they had all left the stadium already.
Xavi had already said several times at recent press conferences that if he ever became “a problem” for the club, he would leave.
There were several reasons behind the decision.
After suffering another defeat, Xavi could see a week of polls in the media coming, asking whether Laporta should sack him or not — a turbulent week in which Barca had to play two games that were now key to keeping up the pace in the race for Spain’s Champions League spots.
He wanted to calm the waters and face the end of the season without the extra tension and uncertainty. He felt the club needed a change and the best thing to do was to make it clear that he would be leaving.
But there was also another reason. According to sources close to Xavi, he was fed up. The toxicity of being in the Barca environment not only affected his mood but also had consequences for his closest family.
Club sources saw him as being overwhelmed. These sources also said that some Barca board members had been calling for his head for some time and that this also affected him, even though Laporta had defended him. He felt this only added pressure to an already critical environment.
Xavi is not blameless but Barcelona’s problems run far deeper
When Xavi left his meeting with the board after Saturday’s game, his only concern was how the players were going to take it. He felt bad that he had not spoken to them earlier. His announcement took the squad by total surprise.
When the manager and players did finally get a chance to speak at training the following morning, several club sources told The Athletic that the group was affectionate towards him. Some of them approached Xavi at the end of the session to ask him if there was anything they could do to make him reconsider and stay.
It might be surprising to hear that Xavi, a man who spent half his life at Barcelona and knows the ins and outs of the institution better than possibly anyone else, just could not deal with its unique demands. But this was actually a major factor behind his decision to step down.
“Over the last weeks, you could see that he was not going through a good time,” a club source said. “He was not enjoying his work and he was especially affected by the fact all the pressure was not just impacting him, but his family.”
The club’s hierarchy expected Xavi to deal with the demands of the job in a more healthy way given his background. Xavi played for Barcelona for 17 years, making 767 appearances (only Lionel Messi has more, with 782) and winning 25 trophies.
Pressure has grown on him since the start of his tenure in November 2021. He arrived at a difficult time for the club, amid financial struggles and with a weakened squad, but as the years went by and patience levels were tested, Xavi began to face the kind of criticism any manager deemed to be underperforming will be subjected to at Barca. This became a problem for him.
“He focused too much on knowing everything that was said around him and even followed daily radio programmes and TV shows,” a club source said. “He also read the press too much, and it didn’t do Xavi any favours.”
Those who have worked with Xavi on his backroom staff point to the pressure of the merciless Barcelona ‘entorno’ as the main reason for the manager’s downfall.
Xavi’s position at Barcelona: From winning La Liga to fighting for his future
The Spanish word ‘entorno’, literally translated as environment or surroundings, was coined by Barca legend Johan Cruyff when he was the manager in 1992 to describe the noise that is constantly generated around the club: the media, the fans, the politics of its executive board, or other major figures across the city and wider Catalonia region.
“Here, everyone belongs to one side or ideology,” a club source said. “Every journalist, media outlet or person who can give an opinion has their own agenda and uses whatever happens on the pitch to turn the tide to their favour. There were constant attacks on Xavi and barely ever a will to build on and help the project.”
But it’s not only in the media where Xavi felt left out and mistreated: he’s been progressively isolated within the club as well.
Xavi was aware that multiple Barcelona executives have been criticising the team’s performances for months, as well as an alleged lack of intensity in the training sessions his staff led. Some were even pushing for president Laporta to sack him after the Supercopa de Espana final.
Looking back to the end of last season, just after Barca won La Liga, there were signs of Xavi’s influence being eroded. The day after the bus parade through the city, where the Spanish league title was celebrated with fans, then-sporting director Jordi Cruyff announced he would be leaving.
Jordi Cruyff explains his Barcelona departure – and what’s next
Cruyff and Xavi had established a close bond. The Dutchman was an ally to the Catalan’s vision of how the squad should be assembled and defended it to the board of directors. But Barcelona’s senior management was already working on the arrival of Deco in the sporting direction department and Cruyff eventually felt there was no space left for him.
Just a few months later, Cruyff’s partner in the role, Mateu Alemany, also left. Despite initially not being as close to Xavi as his colleague, during the last months of his tenure, they had worked together in planning for the future.
When Alemany departed in August and Deco stepped up as the main leader in the sporting direction department, it left the latter and Laporta as the two most active voices in shaping the squad.
Xavi has publicly stated his relationship with former team-mate Deco is perfectly fine, but last summer’s transfer activity simply reveals how his position has been weakened.
The biggest investment Barca made during the off-season was in 18-year-old Brazilian striker Vitor Roque, for whom the club paid €30million (£25.5m; $32.5m), plus a potential €31m more in add-ons. Roque has played 86 minutes in five matches since arriving this winter, not starting a single game. In the manager’s eyes, he has been behind 18-year-old La Masia graduate Marc Guiu in the pecking order.
Xavi’s biggest priority last summer was the addition of a new holding midfielder to replace club legend Sergio Busquets, who left to join Inter Miami. While the manager put the names of Martin Zubimendi, Joshua Kimmich or Marcelo Brozovic as his three priorities, Barcelona were only able to bring in Oriol Romeu, whose impact has been disappointing, to say the least.
Further evidence of Xavi’s waning power within the club came in the build-up to the final game of the Champions League group stage this season, away at Royal Antwerp, which they lost 3-2. With Barcelona practically qualified, the club’s board interfered in the manager’s squad selection, pushing him to make all the team’s top guns travel instead of giving them a rest, as had been his intention.
All this does not exempt Xavi from a share of responsibility over what has undoubtedly been a disappointing follow-up campaign to the success of 2022-23. In terms of recruitment, he has still been a part of the club and has sanctioned the moves that have taken place. He could, and perhaps should, have raised his voice as soon as his authority began to come under threat. When you spot problems inside the club but do not stand in their way in some manner, you might as well be considered part of it.
It should also be noted that Xavi was heavily backed in the market during Barca’s infamous ‘summer of levers’, when, back in 2022, the club made a series of future asset sales to finance a transformative spend in the transfer market.
None of those signings (Ferran Torres, Andreas Christensen, Franck Kessie, Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde) can be, right now, deemed as a successful deal.
All of them have been heavily exposed and contrasted by the brilliance of several emerging La Masia talents, with 16-year-old Lamine Yamal (who made his debut aged 15 last season) the biggest attacking threat for the club in recent weeks. Pau Cubarsi has just turned 17 and has impressed more at centre-back in two games than Christensen or Kounde have all season.
A few months into the 2023-24 campaign, coaching staff sources complained about last summer’s signings and assessed their attacking line as being far from the best in the country, but there’s a brutal reality in Xavi’s tenure: he’s been unable to make the team progress despite having been financially supported with transfers.
“He has not shown his players that he has the tactical level to be considered a top-level coach,” said a source close to one of the current Barcelona players. The fact Xavi’s only managerial experience before landing at Camp Nou was in Qatar also played a part in their assessment.
However, Xavi’s trust in the youngsters from La Masia can’t go unnoticed. Fermin Lopez, Yamal, Cubarsi and Hector Fort are all names that many now believe are capable of playing at the club for years. With other managers, they might have struggled to find a pathway to the first team.
Lamine Yamal: Barcelona’s teenage superstar ‘who can define an era’
But equally, Barca’s manager has also had to deal with the deterioration of the dressing room’s harmony under his watch, with several examples already reported by The Athletic recently.
Before the start of the season, Kounde told Xavi he didn’t enjoy being played as a right-back and that he would prefer to be used in his natural central defensive position. This saw club captain Araujo being relocated as a right-back more regularly, but he has ended up complaining about this, too. Christensen has become disgruntled over consistently being the first player to be dropped when everyone in defence is fit despite never complaining and performing well last term.
There’s also the case of Lewandowski, arguably the club’s key senior player, who has seen his position at the club, and relationship with the manager, change significantly throughout the past year.
The 35-year-old has devolved from a dressing room role model to an expendable asset in the eyes of the coaching staff. According to sources close to the player’s camp, the striker’s dip in form since the World Cup break for Qatar 2022 owes more to a change in system that didn’t benefit him, although they admit he’s been far from his best. Lewandowski himself spoke to The Athletic about such concerns during Barca’s pre-season tour of the United States.
Robert Lewandowski exclusive interview: ‘Barcelona is still the place to be’
In many ways, much of this is all part of the normal running of an elite football club. Nobody can expect top athletes to be happy when things aren’t going the way they planned and some of the examples mentioned above are now thought to have been dealt with. Others have not been tackled in time.
There is still a part of the dressing room that truly believes in the manager, especially players who broke into the first team thanks to him or ones who were given a second chance.
Some 20 minutes after Xavi revealed his decision on Saturday night, Gavi posted a picture with the manager on social media with a caption that read: “Always backing you, boss.” Local radio station Cadena SER Barcelona reported that, on Sunday morning, club captain Sergi Roberto told Xavi in front of the whole dressing room that he’d support him if changed his mind and decided to stay.
The bottom line, though, is that Xavi himself does not believe he can turn the situation around.
Xavi said he could not understand why his team lost in the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao. He also believed they deserved to win against Villarreal and especially against Girona in December’s La Liga meeting — a defeat that badly damaged him in the eyes of Barca’s hierarchy.
There was also a sense that Xavi failed in attempts to improve the narrative with his words in press conferences. He went from protecting players to then calling them out by admitting they were not following what he practised in training. He also described attitude problems after struggling to beat bottom-side Almeria at the end of December and promised fans his team would never replicate that. Three weeks later, Barca were being outplayed and outrun by Real Madrid in Saudi Arabia.
So, what now?
There is still the possibility of Xavi not lasting the rest of the season if he does not manage to reverse the team’s dynamic in the four months remaining. The board has taken the decision to wait and see. Club sources told The Athletic that the manager has already written off any salary related to next season.
Barcelona’s board are already looking for a new manager. During his campaign for the Barcelona presidential elections back in 2021, Laporta said his preference was to bring in a German coach at a time when Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann were at their peak.
However, there are sections of the board that are very hesitant to bring in a coach who does not speak Spanish as they believe it would make the situation more difficult. They want to see how the players react; if they fight to climb the table and go as far as possible in the Champions League.
Xavi tried everything and nothing worked. Sacrificing himself was his last desperate move; one to ease the pressure around the players and protect his legacy at the club.
At the same time, it pushes Joan Laporta and his board to spot further problems inside Barcelona and decide who has to lead the club’s new project for the foreseeable future.
(Top photo: Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)