Barcelona have no Messi and billion-dollar debt. Can Xavi and his young stars come to the rescue?
BARCELONA — There’s nothing nou about Camp Nou, Barcelona‘s iconic stadium. The red grandstand seats, meant to evoke the stripes on the Catalan flag, have faded to a flamingo pink. The concrete floors are mottled and scarred.
It’s a fitting symbol of the vertiginous decline of a great football club. Barcelona’s widely reported billion-Euro shortfall is only part of the problem, though it casts a shadow over everything else. When Real Betis arrived for a Saturday game in early December, Barcelona was mired in seventh place, lower than they have ended a LaLiga season since 1942. This was barely a month after Xavi Hernandez, a club legend who’d only ever managed in the Qatar Stars League, was hired to replace Ronald Koeman. Yet the Betis game was already being billed in the newspapers as a crucial test.
Xavi is Barcelona’s fourth manager — fifth, if you count an interim — in less than two years, distressing turnover for a club so impressed with its own continuity. And for the first time in nearly two decades, Lionel Messi isn’t around to salvage the wreckage. When even the 50% cut he’d agreed to couldn’t fit into Barcelona’s league-mandated wage bill, he ended up making $860,000 a week at Paris Saint-Germain. “We cannot ask the team to win big trophies now, because we are coming from very low,” said Albert Ferrer, a Barcelona loyalist who advanced through the youth system and then played more than 200 games with the first team from 1990 to 1998. “At this point, we have to go back to basics.”
Like the stadium, the roster needs a drastic overhaul. Fortunately, one is underway; a new generation is hidden in plain sight, among veterans who helped Barcelona win four of the past seven LaLiga titles but won’t be around the next time they win another.
At the forefront is Pedri, an 18-year-old midfielder with a DIY haircut that makes him look even younger. Last month, he was named world football’s Golden Boy, a designation awarded annually by an Italian newspaper to the best under-21 player in the world. (Previous winners include Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe and Messi himself.) Another midfielder, Gavi, 17, is starting — and sometimes starring — for Spain. (Nico, 19, is just waiting for the call.) Striker Ansu Fati, a product of the club’s much-hyped youth program known as Barcelona’s La Masia, scored four goals in seven games last year as a 17-year-old before tearing a meniscus in his knee.
There are more, though a casual Barcelona fan might not recognize some of the names. Abde Ezzalzouli has been featured lately on the right wing; he’s also not yet 20. Neither is striker Ilias Akhomach, nor defenders Eric Garcia and Alex Balde. Standout defender Ronald Araujo, summer arrival Ferran Jutgla and the Dutch-raised American Sergino Dest are just a tick or two older.
“These days, there are many talented young players all around football,” said veteran defender Dani Alves, 38. “But so many in one place? You just don’t find that anywhere.”
Alves has perspective. He has won more titles and trophies than anyone in the history of the sport — 42 of them, including multiple LaLigas, Club World Cups and Champions Leagues at Barcelona between 2008 and 2016. He was signed last month on a free transfer after spending the past two years at Sao Paulo in what had appeared to be a coda to his career. He can’t start playing until January’s transfer window, but he’s already an unofficial mentor for Barca’s teens, on the field and off it. He cautions that their maturation must occur organically, as Messi’s did. “A player who is 17 years old, you have to take care, take care, take care,” he said. “You can’t put too much pressure on him right away.”
That part, it turns out, is a problem. If they were any other club, Barcelona could ask for patience. For even the biggest of teams, rejuvenation can be a laborious process; consider that neither Manchester United, Arsenal, nor AC Milan have come close to winning a domestic title since 2013. But Barcelona’s ticket holders, who elect the club’s president, require constant validation.
“I could accept losing everything this year and enjoying watching the new team build up,” said David Caraben, a popular Catalan rock musician with lifelong connections to the club; his father worked on the financial side and was close friends with Johan Cruyff. “The trouble is,” Caraben adds, “nobody will let that happen.”
The requirements at Barcelona are not entirely rational: The team must play artfully and win a trophy of some kind every season. Former player and manager Pep Guardiola always maintained that doing the first led to the second, but that’s far more likely when you have the budget to construct a roster that fits with your philosophy. At the moment, Barcelona’s budget basically doesn’t exist. Still, the mandate won’t change. “There is no transition year allowed at Barcelona,” Araujo said. Just contemplating the idea seems to strike him as an affront. “You know what this club is,” he scolded. “It can’t be possible here.”
Nobody understands that more than Xavi, who first came to La Masia when he was 11. That might explain his reluctance to take on the challenge of managing Barcelona when he was asked last summer: How do you balance building a team with the need to win now?
Against Betis, Xavi gamely blended the young with the old. For about half of the first half, the result felt almost coherent. Then the wide wingers started to stray inside, the passing triangles collapsed and the pressing intensity waned. Ousmane Dembele came on like an angry bull and created chances, but Betis scored on a counter. Their players celebrated like they’d won the league. The 1-0 defeat left Barcelona an all-but-insurmountable 16 points behind Real Madrid and only 11 points clear of dropping into the second division, something that has never happened since LaLiga began in 1929. (After Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Sevilla, the gap was 15 points with 18 games remaining.)
Posing with the Golden Boy trophy during the pregame ceremony, Pedri wore jeans. He hurt his thigh in late September and hasn’t played since. Earlier in the week, he’d confided that he finds it almost unbearable to sit in the stands and watch his teammates play. As they shuffled listlessly toward the changing room after the game, the whistles from the pink seats made it clear he wasn’t the only one.
For all their talk of winning, Barcelona had never been Europe’s best team until 1992. That spring, Cruyff gathered his team in the changing room before the European Cup final against Sampdoria. He delivered what has become a famous speech. The last words he said before sending them out to a 1-0 victory were “Salir y disfrutar.” In English, we’d say: “Go out and enjoy yourselves.”
As motivational tactics go, it’s an unlikely one. But the late Cruyff, a former three-time Ballon d’Or winner back in the 1970s who then imposed himself on Barcelona as much as a coach as he did as a player, realized that the level of creativity around which his system was built required something close to joyfulness. “This is a game, isn’t it?” explained Ferrer, who was in the changing room that day. Ferrer said that when he played under Cruyff, he would wake up each day eager to get to training. “Every single day,” he said. “Because it was fun. And because it was fun, we learned.”
This concept has become so basic to Barcelona that it’s instilled in the mind of every player who passes through. “When you play for the academy teams, it’s something that you hear over and over. ‘We are Barca, and we have our way,'” Nico said.
When newcomers arrive, those taught at La Masia make it their business to indoctrinate them; in Pedri’s case, it was Messi who took him aside and reminded him that an anxious player can’t be a creative one. “Have fun and play the way you know how,” Messi told him. It was advice that puzzled Pedri at first. Have fun? “If it was anyone else, I probably would have ignored it,” he said. “But it was Leo. So I listened.”
Pedri was just 16 when he debuted in the Segunda Division for Las Palmas in 2019. A month later, he signed with Barcelona, effective the following June. When the time came for him to leave, his coach said that within 10 years, he would be one of the best players in Europe.
In reality, it took about 10 weeks. Koeman dismissed plans to loan him back to Las Palmas or send him anywhere else. Instead, Pedri played in Barcelona’s opening game last September, and nearly every one after that. Even with Messi and Antoine Griezmann in the team, Pedri became one of its centerpieces. He brought the nexus of Barcelona’s hub-and-spoke attack back to the central midfield for the first time since Xavi’s departure five years earlier.
Instead of defenders linking directly to the wings, they sent the ball into the heart of the field, to be distributed from there. “The midfield is the engine, isn’t it?” Ferrer said. “For us, when we are playing the way we should, it is the most important part of the game.”
Remarkably, Pedri was learning the system on the run. He hadn’t spent a day at La Masia, though in stylistic terms he’d been a Barcelona player waiting to happen. Installed in a similar possession game at Las Palmas, he played like he had all the time in the world to figure out what should happen next. “It’s his tranquility,” Ansu Fati said. “He reads each moment and knows exactly what to do with the ball, no matter whether he’s beside the keeper or up front.”
By May, Pedri had appeared in 50 games for Barcelona. He was enjoying himself. Then he played all six games for Spain in the Euros, sitting out only one minute along the way. After that, instead of taking time to pause, he accepted an invitation to play for Spain’s Olympic team in Tokyo. The major topic of conversation in Spain last summer was predicting when, exactly, Pedri would break down. When it happened in September, during his 79th game over a span of a year and two weeks, only one person was surprised.
Even now, into his third month of recuperation, he remains unrepentant. “People say that I played too many games,” Pedri said. “I don’t think it was too many. I like to play football. I’m glad I played in all of those games. The truth is, injuries happen. Now I just have to rest and recover.”
Xavi can’t get him back fast enough. As delightful as Gavi is at 17, charging forward like Xavi’s former midfield partner Andres Iniesta, and as physically dominant as Nico has shown himself at the back of the triangle, they can’t generate the electricity like Pedri does. Having grown up captivated by Xavi, he spent last season getting compared to him. Now he’s getting coached by the man himself. He’s eager to start impressing.
But at whose expense? The team sheet has room for only so many midfielders; incumbents Frenkie de Jong, Sergi Busquets and Philippe Coutinho must also be appeased, especially since the first two are earning more than anyone else at the club, while the third is the most expensive signing in its history. That, too, is part of the complexity of playing at Barcelona.
Pedri gets it.
“I don’t have a right to a place in the team,” he said. “I will have to earn it when I return.” The fact is, though, that Barcelona is stalled without him. Since his injury, the club has scored slightly more than a goal a game.
Pedri’s contract with Barcelona was supposed to run for four years, through 2023. Its terms were as modest as the $5.8 million fee the club had paid for him. A few weeks ago, he agreed to an extension with the release clause of $1 billion euros — more of a statement than a strategy. That’s about the entire valuation of the average Premier League team, for example. Still, the figure wasn’t entirely aspirational. It meant that anyone signing him would have to pay off just about Barcelona’s entire debt.
Have fun. Xavi was still at La Masia when Cruyff left Barcelona in 1996, but he absorbed the lesson by osmosis. Among his first changes after taking over the team was to recreate those workouts that Ferrer remembers. Each training session includes two or three little competitions, different ones every day. The losers run through a tunnel of teammates and get playfully slapped, or they perform pushups to good-natured jeers. Alves approves. “From the outside, I could see that the club had lost the style and the philosophy that made it unique,” he said. “We have to bring it back.”
Alves was there for Guardiola’s four seasons as manager, from 2008 to 2012, in what he refers to as “Barcelona 2.0,” the second iteration after Cruyff’s original. After some false starts with successors who tried other systems, Xavi has returned to create version 3.0.
“Some of the great players that Barca had in the past didn’t succeed because they didn’t understand the special way we have to do things,” Alves said. “Xavi understands. He knows that this special way is bigger than any players or coaches.”
One recent morning, the players warmed up with a drill that consisted of jumping in the air, touching hands with a partner, running around a post, dropping to the ground for two pushups and finally leaping over a short hurdle. It was fun because the players hadn’t encountered it before. They had to listen closely and follow the instructions exactly, which put them in learning mode. After that, they moved to finishing, which has been the club’s biggest problem this season.
Having scored four goals against Real Sociedad in a season opener that looks remarkable in retrospect, the club managed just 19 more in LaLiga through the Betis game on Dec. 4 and two over six games in their disastrous Champions League group phase. As Xavi looked on from a distance, the wingers and fullbacks sent a succession of crosses toward the middle, where the strikers would head them home. Each time a ball hit the back of the net, the whole team roared.
Attending his first training session of the Xavi regime, Ferrer looked on with approval.
“I was seeing things that I haven’t seen for a long time,” he said. “Being positioned cleverly for the last pass, and then the cross. You see what Xavi is doing? He’s taking important parts of the game and adding it to our philosophy.”
Whether it will work with the talent he has available is an unanswered question. With Messi and Griezmann gone, Barcelona had to replace 58 of their 85 goals last season. The striker signed as a replacement, Sergio Aguero, made all of five appearances for the club. Last week, an irregular heartbeat forced him to retire from football.
Barcelona has always had a “goleador” up front as a brutish counterpart to the artists in midfield and on the wing, a Hristo Stoichkov or Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Samuel Eto’o or Luis Suarez who took all the fine work happening behind him and converted it into something that showed up on the scoreboard. Everyone is well aware that in order for them to add reinforcements, a buyer first must be found for some of the expensive spare parts, or perhaps even starting goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. No teams have stepped forward so far, though that hasn’t stopped the Spanish papers from pounding the drums: for Chelsea‘s disaffected Timo Werner, for Manchester City‘s Ferran Torres, for Real Sociedad and Belgium‘s Adnan Januzaj, and from the bargain bin, Basel’s under-the-radar Arthur Cabral.
But minutes given to new arrivals would mean fewer for the teens, and while they appreciate all they can learn from the established stars, at this point it’s hard for them not to feel that their time has come. “My peers and I all feel comfortable playing together,” Nico said. “We’ve been friends for years. It’s much easier for us to all come to the first team together. If you’re trying to do it one at a time, that’s a lot more complicated.”
In a 2-2 draw at Osasuna the week after the Betis loss, both Nico and Abde scored their first goals for Barcelona. A week later, when Barcelona rallied to beat Elche 3-2 after squandering a 2-0 lead, Gavi scored. Then he set up Nico for the winning goal. On the sideline, Pedri looked glummer than ever that he wasn’t part of it.
Sandwiched between Betis and Osasuna, Barcelona traveled to Munich for their most important confrontation of the season. Bayern had already won the Champions League group and had little motivation to compete. Barcelona had so many reasons that nobody could agree which was most important. Was it Xavi’s urgent need to make a statement? Avoiding the embarrassment of a group stage elimination, which hadn’t happened in this century? Or, more pragmatically, staying alive in the tournament to earn money that could reduce the debt?
Under Koeman, the team trained at home and traveled to games as late as possible. Whether he perceived actual benefits or simply wanted to change the routine, Xavi scheduled travel for Tuesday morning. He presided over a training session in Munich that afternoon.
Curiously, his attacking plan prioritized not Memphis Depay or Gavi, but Dembele, who hadn’t scored a goal all season. It didn’t matter. Instead of proving how far the team had come, the game laid bare how far they had to go, with the 3-0 embarrassment somehow seeming worse than the 8-2 loss to Bayern in August, 2020. “I’m pissed off because Barcelona doesn’t deserve this,” Xavi says — and one has to assume he meant the city, because his team clearly did. By losing, Barcelona fell out of the Champions League before the knockout round for the first time in nearly 20 years. When they will return is anyone’s guess.
It’s official by now that Barcelona won’t be the best team in Europe this season, and it is all but mathematically certain that they won’t be the best in Spain — not with a 16-point gap with Real Madrid to make up and six other teams in between. That gives Xavi the space to nurture his young players and begin to phase out the older ones. “The new stage begins,” he pronounced in Munich after the game. “And this has to be the inflection point.”
With that, too, he focused his sights on Barcelona’s annual ritual of chasing their obligatory trophy. Fittingly for the team he has inherited, it will be in the Europa League.
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