When Xavi was brought in to manage Barcelona, the club was in freefall after the rocky tenure of Ronald Koeman, the last coach of the Josep Bartomeu era.
There was financial precarity off the field, and a fatalistic culture on it. This is the environment that Xavi walked into.
And yet, under the leadership of president Joan Laporta, and director of football Mateu Alemany, there was an intent to support the Barca legend, to turn around the club quickly, and get it back to its winning ways.
In January of 2022, Ferran Torres became Xavi’s first target with a price tag of 55 million euros.
From the beginning, however, the Spaniard took a backseat to the resurgent Ousmane Dembele, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was brought in on a short-term loan.
Since then, Ferran has consistently lacked for confidence in front of goal, in spite of his ability to find good spaces around the area.
The following summer, Raphinha was the marquee signing during Xavi’s first summer in charge, coming in at a cost of 65 million euros.
Like Ferran, the Brazilian had his moments, but didn’t come close to the player who was one of the best in the Premier League, under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa, and later as he saved Leeds United from relegation under Jesse Marsch.
The reasons for their struggles are different.
Ferran, frankly, was probably just overrated. Never proving himself to Pep Guardiola, while showing glimpses of his potential for the Spanish national team. It’s strange that Xavi evaluated him so highly, even paying a premium for his services.
Raphinha was a proven talent. But unlike Ferran, who is versatile and can adapt from system to system, while playing a variety of positions, Raphinha excelled as a one-man show in Bielsa’s brand of direct, high-tempo, attacking football.
No matter what Xavi does next, it will likely feel like fitting square pegs into round holes.
And yet, with a season-defining stretch of games coming up, the manager would be smart to give a vote of confidence to his veteran players.
Coming out of the international break, that could mean giving the nod to a front three of Ferran Torres, Robert Lewandowski, and Raphinha.
Ironically, these are the front three who were brought in as the chosen ones to run the attack in Xavi’s system.
These days, few fans would be excited to see this tandem called upon when the lineup is announced.
And yet, if Barcelona is going to have success this season, this trio needs to step up and start to hit their stride.
This could be the last chance these players get if they want to have a career at Barca beyond this season. It’s time to sink or swim. If they can’t contribute at the required elite level now, then time has passed them by.
The alternative on the right side would be to rely on Lamine Yamal. To me, this wouldn’t help the development of the 16-year-old, and could quickly backfire on the team’s success in the short term as well.
Raphinha is the best option at this position. He can score goals, put in service, and has the experience of playing in big games, and knows how to deal with pressure. That is, if he can keep his cool, and stay on the field.
On the left side, it’s either Ferran or Joao Felix. The argument here is that Felix’s form has dropped, and he likely won’t be at Barcelona beyond the season.
Ferran was an investment, and even though he has underperformed, there’s more upside in being patient with him, so he can grow his confidence. Also, Felix and Alejandro Balde have yet to play well together on the left side. It’s worth seeing whether Balde and Ferran are a better combination.
Finally, although Ferran and Raphinha are streaky on offense, they both contribute a lot defensively.
To win close games, Barcelona may want to run back the formula of being a defense first team from a year ago.
Throw in a backline of Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, and Andreas Christensen, while rotating in Joao Cancelo depending on the opponent, and Barcelona may have a winning formula that could lead them to silverware in La Liga if it can be sustained.
Ferran and Raphinha don’t exactly deserve the opportunity on merit. But they may be the best of the bad options available to Xavi.
The alternative would be to return to the four midfielder lineup. Having Frenkie de Jong, Pedri, Gavi, and Ilkay Gundogan sounds appealing. But from a tactical point of view, it hasn’t made Barcelona look any more dominant in possession, or dangerous in front of goal when tried.
But for Xavi’s sake, he needs “his” players to step up for him.
Ferran and Raphinha on paper have the experience, know the positions, and can contribute on both sides of the ball.
Let this be their coming out party, or their last hurrah.
It starts with the manager putting his faith in them again.
Xavi’s reputation is on the line as much as theirs.2023-11-19T16:18:35Z dg43tfdfdgfd