Barcelona's relaunch counting on Xavi's financial gambles paying off

Coach has been backed with huge finances for new faces at Camp Nou

Barcelona's new striker Robert Lewandowski will need to be a success for coach Xavi. Reuters
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“Maybe the expectations are too great,” suggested the coach of Barcelona after a dispiriting first 90 minutes in what is billed as the grand relaunch of a troubled club.

Xavi had overseen the competitive debuts in Barca colours of Robert Lewandowski, serial Golden Boot, of Franck Kessie, freshly signed from Italian champions AC Milan, and the €60m Raphinha, who 24 hours earlier Xavi had likened to Rivaldo and Neymar.

Over 80,000 came to Camp Nou to see the new faces. They witnessed a 0-0 draw against Rayo Vallecano. “We need to get better and keep believing in the model,” insisted Xavi.

The model that has enabled Barcelona to commit more than €180m to new signings so far in this transfer window is radical. The club came into 2022 weighed down by debts in excess of €1 billion, and restricted by La Liga rules which impose strict limits on the balance of income to outgoings.

To bring in fresh players, Barcelona had to bring in fresh money. They have done so by selling off stakes in future commercial revenue, a large tranche of the €800m they raised in a very short time coming from granting 25 per cent of their broadcast-rights income to a US investment firm for the next quarter-century.

Some of that money bought Lewandowski, Raphinha, and pays Kessie’s salary, and that of re-signed Ousmane Dembele - his previous contract with the Barcelona he joined in 2017 expired at the end of June. The cash injection just about allowed them to be registered with La Liga, though the sums are still tight. Last week, there was still not enough space in the revised club budgets to register another new big-money recruit, defender Jules Kounde.

Barcelona ratings v Rayo Vallecano

Xavi has been assured Kounde will soon be available, perhaps as soon as this weekend’s trip to Real Sociedad, while he learns fast that his job entails monitoring not just fitness issues but looking, hour-by-hour, how the budget is balancing up. He hears awkward conversations among long-serving players who used to be his teammates, like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, about the pay reductions they have been pressured to take in order that Barca can be so aggressive in spending on new recruits.

In the nine months since Xavi, 42, was invited to leave Al Sadd in Qatar and take over at the club he used to captain, the choices in front of him have transformed. Rewind to Xavi’s first match as coach, a derby against Espanyol in November. Barca finished with a front quartet of Philippe Coutinho, Memphis Depay and the teenagers Ez Abde and Yusuf Demir closing out a 1-0 win.

Coutinho, the costliest signing in Barca history back in 2018, has since been sold, at a massive loss, to Aston Villa. Demir is back in his native Austria. Depay, last season’s top scorer for Barca, and Abde are being touted for sale.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong with coach Xavi. Reuters

Fast forward to the standout result of Xavi’s short tenure so far, a 4-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in March. It finished with Ferran Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Adama Traore across the three striking positions. The trio had all arrived in the January transfer window, space in the budget for Torres, payment of whose €60m transfer fee from Manchester City had been staggered long into the future, and Aubameyang, who cancelled his existing contract at Arsenal, eked out partly thanks to the loan of Coutinho to Villa. Traore, a graduate of Barcelona’s academy, was on loan from Wolves.

Traore has since returned to England. Aubameyang, who in a half-season matched Depay’s 13 goals in the whole of 2021/22, may soon follow him there, so busy have been the shifts in the hierarchy. Torres, like Aubameyang, sense that Xavi’s preferred front three now is Dembele, Lewandowski and Raphinha.

The high turnover sets particular challenges for Xavi. But no coach of his age or experience would not envy the resources granted to him. The level of spending puts a huge trust in a manager who has been in charge of Barcelona for just 38 games so far.

His triumph last season was to guide the team up from ninth in the table to runners-up - by 13 points - behind Real Madrid. Yet his ratio of wins-to-matches is still shy, at 52 per cent, of the overall records of his three predecessors, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, and Ronald Koeman.

“I accept the pressure,” said Xavi ahead of the tough-looking Real Sociedad fixture. Barca have broken the bank to equip him with a world-class squad. They need him to make the financial gambles pay off.

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Updated: August 19, 2022, 3:14 AM
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