Football Features

What Xavi’s medical staff overhaul may mean for ‘player power’ at Barcelona

By Dr Rajpal Brar

Published: 17:38, 4 December 2021 | Updated: 16:08, 15 September 2022

New Barcelona manager Xavi faces the difficult and complex task of resurrecting a historic club that has been in a downward spiral over the past few season.

The low point came this past summer when Lionel Messi was forced to leave due to financial difficulties. Part of that resurrection for Barça and Xavi has been seen in an overhaul of the club’s medical staff. Is this the turning point for the club’s health and fitness?

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In recent years, FC Barcelona’s medical staff has come under increasing scrutiny for a number of reasons:

  • The number of injuries and games missed. Just this season alone, there have been injuries to youngsters Ansu Fati, Eric Garcia, Nico Gonzales, Sergino Dest, and Pedri along with Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto and Martin Braithwaite all missing time. The latter two have extended timelines due to serious injuries (a rectus femoris strain that now requires surgery for Roberto and a knee problem for Braithwaite).
  • The high profile injuries. When key or well-known players miss time, there’s naturally an increased focus on the medical and training staff. For Barcelona, cornerstone building blocks the likes of Ansu Fati, Pedri, and Ousmane Dembele have all missed significant time. Frenkie de Jong suffered a hamstring injury. Stalwart defender Gerard Pique has also missed time with multiple knee and soft tissue injuries. This brings with it a greater microscope on the medical decision-makers.
  • Extended delays and relapses with players. Most notably, Ansu Fati missed nearly all of last year after an extended saga (that I’ve detailed throughout both on Squawka and on my YouTube channel) following surgery to repair his knee meniscus that didn’t take which led to the use of biologics to expedite recovery and finally opting to trim out the damaged piece of meniscus. Ousmane Dembele has suffered 5+ hamstring injuries since coming to Barcelona. Pedri returned from a thigh injury and quickly relapsed the next game. Same for Pique after coming back from an adductor (groin) injury. 

In each case, it’s hard to determine whether the blame should fall on the medical and training staff. For example – Ansu Fati’s original surgery doesn’t come with a guarantee of recovery and when you look at the medical process and decision-making, it checks out. However, when a player of his status does go through that saga and then comes back to pick up a soft tissue injury (although that’s always a risk after an extended layoff), it raises the temperature.

Further, in the case of Ousmane Dembele, there’s been multiple reports that the player has been inconsistent with his commitment off the pitch. Reports that were indirectly echoed by both Dembele’s agent — who moved to Barcelona to oversee the player’s habits — and Xavi who spoke about Ousmane needing to focus on his habits as well.

Lastly — and this shocked me the most — there recently came well-sourced reports that Barcelona’s medical and training staffs didn’t have the final word when it came to returning to play decisions. The player’s desire to play was given increasing weight and that may have been why Pique and Pedri suffered relapses of their injuries in their first games back after returning from soft tissue injuries and why Frenkie de Jong played through a minor hamstring strain only to see him subbed off in the second half.

Regardless of the context and who is to blame or not blame — this is a question I get asked constantly about high profile medical staffs who are suffering injuries (for example Real Madrid and even Liverpool) and the answer is that it’s very difficult to discern because we’re at a massive absence of information — there were inklings prior to Xavi’s arrival that he was looking to overhaul the club’s medical staff and was, according to Catalunya radio, tired of the relapses and misdiagnoses.

Those inklings have become realities as Xavi has implemented the following changes:

  • Head physiotherapist Juanjo Brau, head of physical preparation Joan Ramon Tarrago, and fitness trainer Albert Roca were all let go. The new lead physio is Carlos Nogueira who worked with Xavi at Al-Sadd and another new face is former physical trainer Edu Pons who left when Ronald Koeman was hired
  • Perhaps most strikingly, the head of the medical staff Ramon Canal has been let go and will be replaced by Dr. Ricard Pruna who left the club in 2020; a move that Xavi referred to as a “big mistake”.
  • Multiple rule changes and/or stricter enforcement with players having to arrive 90 minutes prior to Barcelona’s 11am practices, lunch at the training ground with all meals and drinks under the direct supervision of the club’s nutritionists, a midnight curfew in the 48 hours preceding any matches, and monitoring of travel and off-field habits. If these stipulations are not met, there are fines for the players (and coaching staff who also have rules) that become increasingly punitive for repeat violators.

The new rules and regulations will certainly make an impact because controlling key habits and items such as sleep and nutrition are crucial building blocks of health and fitness but when it comes to the impact of medical and training staff, that can certainly take more time to discern because those variables tend to be much more nuanced.

That being said, there are two good early indicators. Firstly, it’s been reported that the return to play decision-making power has been removed from players and coaches for the most part with Xavi leaving those decisions to the experts in charge of it.

Further, there looks to be an increased emphasis on medium and long-term player health compared to short-term results as evidenced by Pedri’s return from injury being delayed into 2022 to give him sufficient time to recover rather than attempting to come back, potentially relapsing, and having it spill over into the majority of the second half.

These are good early indicators and it certainly seems that Xavi is bringing a progressive, modern approach to football both on and off the pitch – something the club has sorely needed for years now but only time will tell how much it impacts the club’s health and fitness records.

One thing I will stress is patience. These changes – especially when it comes to training protocols and allowing players bodies to mentally and physically adapt to new regimes and approaches – can take time, multiple seasons at that, so trust the process and stay patient.

Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT, (@3cbperformance) is a physiotherapist, movement expert, fitness trainer, sports scientist and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA and online based physiotherapy and athletic performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more).