Xavi Hernandez has masterminded a quite extraordinary turnaround at Barcelona, helping several key players improve along the way.
When the legendary former captain returned to Barcelona in November 2021, the club looked a shambles. They were languishing in midtable and the prospect of even qualifying for the top four looked in doubt.
But they shot up the table following his appointment, eventually finishing second, while they’ve continued to build in his first full season at the helm, topping the table midway through the 2022-23 campaign.
Big-money signings like Robert Lewandowski and Jules Kounde have undoubtedly helped, but his coaching ability is clear to see in some of the inherited players he’s improved and developed.
Here are seven Barcelona players that have improved since Xavi took charge.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Returning with a suspiciously thick head of hair (summer holiday in Turkey, was it?), Ter Stegen is seemingly the Samson of football.
The goalkeeper’s ability should never have been in doubt, given he won the Champions League during his debut season and was outstanding as Barcelona won four La Liga titles in his first six years with the club.
But he certainly endured a decline in form over the last few years. Now he’s back to his very best – undoubtedly one of Barcelona’s best and most important players this season, having kept 13 clean sheets in 17 appearances.
“We are seeing the best Marc-Andre ter Stegen in a long time,” Xavi told reporters following Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Getafe.
“In one-on-ones, he was spectacular, he is a leader for the group, a valuable player — it is important the goalkeeper saves you points.”
— Viaplay Sports UK (@ViaplaySportsUK) January 23, 2023
Brought back to his native Catalonia from Manchester in the summer of 2021, there was hope that Garcia could follow in the footsteps of the legendary Gerard Pique and hit the ground running at his boyhood club.
But the 22-year-old struggled immensely during his debut season and never quite convinced in his early international appearances for Spain.
Year two has been far from perfect – he didn’t convince as Barcelona crashed out of the Champions League – but he’s proven he can be a competent squad player.
No centre-back has played La Liga more minutes for the club this season. Garcia has contributed to the stellar defensive record of just six goals conceded in 17 outings.
Garcia probably doesn’t get into Barcelona’s XI but he’s shown he can be a useful squad player and the young defender certainly thinks highly of his coach’s ability.
“Xavi is a mixture of Guardiola and Luis Enrique. In the end, the idea of the game that the three have is practically identical,” Garcia told TV3 back in October.
Strong words. Xavi will certainly hope he can emulate the two great managers and one day deliver another treble for Barcelona.
With links to the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea going back to 2020, it’s long been known that Barcelona prospect Balde is one to watch.
All that hype predated his senior debut. It’s only under Xavi that the teenage left-back has broken through and shown he’s capable of nailing down a first-team spot, displacing veteran Jordi Alba and summer signing Marcos Alonso in Barcelona’s best XI this season.
Balde’s excellent form even saw him earn a late call-up for Spain’s World Cup, and he made his La Roja debut as a substitute for Alba in the 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica.
The Uruguayan looked a decent prospect under Koeman but he’s developed into one of the finest centre-backs in Europe under Xavi.
The coach has worked specifically on improving Araujo’s ability in playing out from the back, which has reaped great rewards.
“Ronald Araujo is the player who has improved the most since our arrival at Barcelona. He’s improving a lot with the ball,” Xavi told reporters after a win over Elche last March.
“He is daring, and today he had the freedom to go out with the ball. He was directing and organizing the play, and even played as a midfielder at times.
“In terms of defensive ability, we all know that Araujo is one of the best in the world.”
A month later Araujo was rewarded with a new contract that runs to 2026. He’s undoubtedly one of the bedrocks of the project Xavi is building at the Camp Nou.
Suárez 🗣️: I am very proud that Araújo has reached such a high level throughout the season with Barcelona, I trust him, I remember that when he was 20 he didn't let Messi pass in training, that boy is a wall. 🙌🇺🇾 pic.twitter.com/ax0KyLwxkl
— 𝐀𝐥𝐞𝐱 🇲🇽🇦🇷 (@Araujo4ii) January 11, 2023
Frenkie de Jong
Switching between the two clubs defined by the legacy of Johan Cruyff – Ajax to Barcelona – De Jong was supposed to be a perfect fit when he arrived back in 2019.
He’s certainly not been a flop, but there were awkward questions of how he fit into midfield alongside longstanding lynchpin Sergio Busquets, while his first three years at the club coincided with Barcelona’s longest run without the La Liga title since the pre-Messi era.
It was a slow start to the 2022-23 campaign for De Jong, who was often left out of Xavi’s starting line-ups while those transfer links to Manchester United raged on, but he’s grown into a key role under Xavi and is arguably enjoying his best season yet.
Whether he’s deputising for Busquets or playing alongside the veteran captain, De Jong has been a key cog of Barcelona’s title charge this season.
The La Masia graduate became Barcelona’s fourth-youngest debutant back in August 2021, three months before the arrival of Xavi, so it’s difficult to know how much credit to give the manager in the teenager’s development.
Gavi’s talent is unquestionable, leading to Spain boss Luis Enrique talking up before he’d even really broken through, so we can assume he’d look like a special player ever if it were Sam Allardyce in the Camp Nou dugout.
But whatever the case, Gavi has enjoyed a stratospheric rise during Xavi’s time as manager, culminating in a show-stealing performance with a goal and two assists in Barca’s 3-1 Supercopa victory over Real Madrid. Special talent.
There were ups and downs in the latter half of the 2021-22 campaign, Xavi’s first six months in the job, but the most striking impact was the form of Dembele.
The French winger’s first few years at Barcelona were a frustrating battle to live up to a ridiculous price tag, but he – finally, consistently – turned into the world-beater he always looked so capable of being.
No player in La Liga registered more assists last season, and only Lionel Messi and Kevin De Bruyne registered more across Europe’s top five leagues in 2022.
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