Xavi is going to win La Liga - but the Barcelona boss isn't a top-class coach yet

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Xavi Hernandez
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Although Xavi's Barcelona have the La Liga title wrapped up, there are some long-term concerns about the manager's tactical nous.

Xavi has been full of excuses after Barcelona's rare losses.

First, it was injuries. Then, it was the refereeing. After, he took aim at the quality of the pitch.

And then, last Sunday, he claimed that it was simply too sunny for his team.

That's not to mention his Europa League complaints last year about too many away fans contributing to three goals conceded in a defeat to Frankfurt at Camp Nou.

These are all standard gripes for managers these days. But as the weeks have gone on, Xavi has been an increasingly antsy character.

And for good reason. Although his Barca team have all but wrapped up La Liga, they have stuttered of late. The side that built up a 12-point lead in La Liga is starting to crack. They have gone three games without scoring and were hammered 4-0 by Real Madrid at home two weeks ago. The performances, meanwhile, haven't been good for some time; the Blaugrana's last truly convincing win came in early March.

Barcelona have achieved a lot in the 18 months since club legend Xavi took over. After stuttering at the end of the last campaign, the Blaugrana have collected two pieces of silverware this year - including likely an elusive La Liga title they have failed to lift for an unthinkable three years. His tenure so far can be considered an immense success.

But for all of their improvements, Barcelona aren't the finished article, and Xavi isn't a top-class coach yet. And his weaknesses, his distinct lack of that intangible Barcelona aura, are starting to show.

  1. No fear factor

    No fear factor

    Xavi's iteration of Barca are different to the great sides of old. His team are tough to beat. They kill the tempo of games rather than enhance it, stifling opponents before attacking them. They don't make for good viewing most of the time. They are excellent defensively, having only conceded nine goals in the league all season. Wins are squeaked out, not dramatically attained.

    But his team aren't ruthless and unforgiving like Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid side. They're not mean or irritating. Rather, they are marked by a boring efficiency.

    This is not to say that Xavi is a bad manager. After all, it is impossible to fake your way through a 38-game season. Tactics have to be established, tweaked and perfected. Players have to be managed, supported and motivated. Xavi, quite simply, has found a formula that has carried his side to a La Liga win.

    Still, there is an aura missing from this Barcelona side. While they have been dominant at the back - and have only lost twice in La Liga - they don't have the winner's conviction that great teams possess, the controlled arrogance that breeds a lasting winning culture. There is an unquantifiable softness to the Blaugrana, the sense that they can be attacked.

    Guardiola's Manchester City, for example, are so tactically complete that wins feel inevitable. Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid, meanwhile, flow so reliably on the counter-attack that they never seem rattled. Even Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool's intensity when his team is charged up can strike fear into opponents.

    Barcelona, though, don't quite have that confidence, or signature style. Perhaps Xavi is banking on the arrival of Lionel Messi to fully develop his side into a tactically coherent model. He has, reportedly, long coveted the player, and already has a plan for him. Perhaps that will see this team develop something fearsome. Until then, his exact system, and the swagger that comes with it, is yet to be found.

  2. A reliance on individual talent
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    A reliance on individual talent

    Perhaps Xavi's best achievement at the helm of Barcelona so far is his ability to get the best out of Ousmane Dembele. The winger was injury-stricken for almost three years and sorely lacking in form. But Xavi constantly backed the winger to be a game-changer - an assertion that left many puzzled.

    And Xavi has been proven right. Dembele's development has been crucial to the success of the side. When the winger is isolated on the right, he can be near-unstoppable. His 13 assists last year and further five this year, as well as his La Liga-leading chance creation chops, have made him a cornerstone of Xavi's Barca.

    The same goes for Lewandowski. In the first half of the season, Xavi ensured that the Polish striker was always in the box, ready to get on the end of crosses or squeeze into the tiny spaces in which he thrives. As a result, he tore up the league with 18 goals before Christmas.

    But injuries have struck, laying bare Barcelona's reliance on individuals. Dembele, out with a hamstring problem, has been replaced by Raphinha. Xavi has refused to adjust, handing the less-technical Raphinha the same creative responsibilities - a role the Brazilian simply hasn't been able to settle into. As a result, Barcelona have generated fewer chances, and Lewandowski has seen his goalscoring production decrease.

    Similarly, the absence of Pedri from centre midfield has been offset by the aging Sergi Roberto, who simply lacks the youngster's quality in the final third. It is, indeed, hard to criticise Xavi for the quality of his players' muscular systems. But adjustments on the fly are necessary, especially given the Blaugrana's admittedly thin squad.

  3. The weight of the badge
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    The weight of the badge

    It is a mistake of Barcelona as an institution that they rely heavily on the past. This central notion of being "Mes que un club" has clouded their judgment in recent years. And it might just lead to another potentially questionable, slightly self-indulgent move in the re-signing of Lionel Messi.

    That adulation of the Barcelona of old - Johan Cruyff, Guardiola and Messi are still fixtures in the club lexicon - has bred an expectation of a certain playing style. Barca sides are supposed to be the best teams to watch in Europe. Winning alone is not enough.

    It's perhaps an unfair mandate, especially for a young manager who is still growing. But it's that tagline, the signature belief, that has helped Barca cultivate some legendary managers. Cruyff, for example, created one of the best sides in the world in the early 1990s with his 4-3-3 playing "dream team." Guardiola loosely rehashed it with immense success in the late 2000s.

    Even Luis Enrique, for a period, was a world-class coach, designing a direct system that got the most out of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to win consecutive La Liga titles and claim a treble in 2015.

    Xavi, though, is conservative. For the most part, he plays it safe. There are few innovations about this Barca side. Jules Kounde's move to right-back is interesting but hardly bold. Benching Jordi Alba was perhaps controversial but made sense due to the full-back's aging legs. Even his modified centre-midfield system is clever without being too expressive. Playing within the margins has worked, yet it doesn't inspire confidence.

  4. A lack of European success
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    A lack of European success

    After Barcelona were bounced from the Europa League by Manchester United in February, Spanish newspaper Sport glumly dubbed the loss "another nightmare for the collection."

    It was a fair assessment, given the array of European failures that have marked Barcelona's recent history. Liverpool at Anfield. Roma in Madrid. Frankfurt at Camp Nou.

    Xavi himself has lamented his lack of European success at the club, even admitting that he hated hearing the Champions League anthem after his side was knocked out of the competition.

    But despite openly understanding the mandate of European success that comes with the job, Xavi has done little to change Barca's fortunes in the competition. Their continental record makes for grim reading this year. Barcelona won two of their six group games, were battered 3-0 by Bayern Munich at Camp Nou and found themselves out of the group stage before the final matchday.

    The Europa League was equally unkind. Barcelona were drawn against an in-form Manchester United side, and after battling their way to an enthralling 2-2 draw in the first leg, were handily beaten at Old Trafford to end their European campaign before March.

    Eighteen months into the job, the manager has only won one of his last 10 games in the continent's top-five leagues. He has lost to Bayern Munich twice, Frankfurt and Manchester United.

    These are all quality sides, and Xavi faced most of them in inopportune moments. Still, the top team in La Liga shouldn't be losing such contests. The best teams, led by the best managers, show up against the most formidable opposition.

  5. What's the future?
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    What's the future?

    This campaign has not been a failure, though. Far from it.

    A La Liga trophy is a phenomenal achievement considering the dire state of matters in the final days of Ronald Koeman's tenure. Meanwhile, a Spanish Super Cup win, over Real Madrid no less, can also be turned to for optimism.

    But there is a lack of clarity as to what happens next. Barcelona look set to be financially hamstrung this summer, with no obvious avenue for squad improvement. They will have trouble registering current players to new contracts before they can even think about new signings.

    There is also the incessant Messi rumour, a potential arrival that has become an expectation, if not demand, of the next era of Xavi's tenure.

    Whether Messi returning to his former club makes Xavi a better manager, though, is up for debate. Certainly, the coach could design a system to get the most out of the World Cup winner. But that would often mean sacrificing the interests of the other 10 players on the pitch. There's a winning formula to be found there, but a signature style doesn't necessarily come with it.

    And if Barcelona's finances continue to flounder and Xavi is left with the same squad, it will be a true test of his managerial mettle. With the teams around them only likely to improve, Xavi will have to do the same. A very good manager will have to figure out how to become an elite one.