Football Features

How Barcelona could line up under the favourites to replace Xavi

By Harry Edwards

Published: 21:58, 29 January 2024

In a shock to a lot of people, Xavi has confirmed his impending departure from Barcelona.

Maybe inspired by Jurgen Klopp’s decision to leave Liverpool, or as a culmination of his own thoughts and feelings, Xavi will step down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season. The Barcelona legend took charge in November 2021 and steadied the ship to lead them to a second-placed finish at the end of the campaign.

In his first full season in charge, Xavi outperformed expectations, and Barcelona finished 10 points clear at the top of La Liga, securing a first league title in four years amid financial troubles off the pitch. There were then certain expectations on Barcelona to at least push Real Madrid hard for the title this season, but the Blaugrana are currently 11 points off top spot after 21 games played — and sit fourth.

A 5-3 defeat to Villarreal at the weekend, in which Barcelona led 3-2 with just under 10 minutes left to play, proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I will leave Barcelona in June. We have reached a point of no return. It’s time for change. As a Culé, I think that it’s time to leave. I spoke with the board and the club today. I will leave on the 30th of June,” he said.

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“Everything will be calmer now, we can compete for the Champions League… at least with this decision you [the press] won’t kill me anymore. The club will improve with this decision.”

He added: “The feeling of being a Barca coach is unpleasant, it is cruel

“You feel that they disrespect you many times, that your work is not valued and it is a terrible drain on mental health and mood. I am a very positive guy but the energy is going down to the point that you say that it makes no sense to continue.

“It has happened to all the coaches who have passed by. We have to change the dynamics. It is impossible for there to be a Barca Ferguson, it is very difficult. We have to change directions and dynamics and now is the time. Unfair? I don’t know, I move from the heart and when nothing makes sense it is time to act and make decisions.”

Another big club entering the market for a manager, a number of names have been floated about as a potential replacement for Xavi, ranging from the interesting to the downright far-fetched.

With that in mind, how might Barcelona line up under some of the early favourites?

Next permanent Barcelona manager Sky Bet
Mikel Arteta 5/2
Rafael Marquez 4/1
Jurgen Klopp 6/1
Hansi Flick 7/1
Garcia Pimienta 8/1
Roberto De Zerbi 12/1
Thiago Motta 12/1
Jose Mourinho 16/1
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Mikel Arteta

One of the first names to be mentioned for the Barcelona job was Mikel Arteta. A former Barcelona player himself and a protege of Pep Guardiola, Arteta has been building a name for himself as a manager over the past few years at Arsenal, leading them from Europa League challengers to title contenders.

Some reports in Spain went so far as to say Arteta had told his entourage that he was open to leaving Arsenal at the end of the season. It’s fair to say, Arteta wasn’t happy with the rumours.

“No. That’s totally fake news,” he told reporters.

“I don’t know where it is coming from, it’s totally untrue and I’m very upset about it. I could not believe it. It has no sources. You have to be cautious when you write things in the way it was yesterday.”

But, should he change his mind as the season goes on, Mikel probably wouldn’t be too different from Xavi. Although he dips in to a 4-2-3-1 from time to time, Arteta’s main formation is the 4-3-3. Like Guardiola, Arteta likes to use a full-back inverting into midfield and might persuade the club to sign Joao Cancelo on a permanent move so he can operate that role. He also likes a hybrid role on the other side, with a centre-back capable of playing out wide, so Jules Kounde would be perfect too.

In midfield, Declan Rice is the holding man who also provides the transition between defence and attack. Oriol Romeu is currently in the holding role for Barcelona, but Arteta might prefer to put someone like Frenkie de Jong there. Pedri would be his Martin Odegaard, while Gavi completes the future of Barcelona’s midfield.

Up front there is the question of Robert Lewandowski, and his dwindling abilities as a leading striker. Arteta likes his striker to bring more than just goals — look at the overall impact Gabriel Jesus has on Arsenal’s front line, outside of scoring. Lewandowski can’t be that man, so Arteta might look to Vitor Roque who has already impressed in his brief time on the pitch for Barcelona. Arteta also likes his wingers playing on the wrong flank (a left-footer on the right, right-footer on the left), so Ferran Torres could stay on the left — or Ansu Fati –, while Lamine Yamal may be the best option on the right among the current squad.

Rafael Marquez

Another former Barcelona man, Rafael Marquez could follow more in Guardiola’s footsteps, as a promotion from within. The Mexican is currently in charge of Barca B, the reserve team of Barcelona, so has the club’s DNA within him.

As part of the club, Marquez tries to instil the Barcelona philosophy on Barca B, so would be a very straightforward swap for Xavi. While the 4-3-3 will be similar in shape to Arteta’s, Marquez will very much bring a similar style to Xavi, which would likely mean Lewandowski up front. He may also be more inclined to have Alejandro Balde on the left, pushing Kounde into the centre. There could also be a spot for Hector Fort, who was Marquez’s first-choice right-back this season before being promoted to the first team to fill injury issues.

He may also favour Ilkay Gundogan for a more experienced head in midfield to start off with, allowing more control alongside De Jong and Pedri. Again, Marquez favours wingers on the opposite flank, and he may look to give Ansu Fati a chance as a Barca product, alongside Yamal or Raphinha.

Jurgen Klopp

Jurgen Klopp seems like he’s going to take a break from football after he leaves Liverpool. But if he does see Barcelona as too good of an opportunity to turn down, we might see heavy metal football in La Liga. Although Klopp has also been known to play the 4-3-3, his system is definitely different and utilises goalscoring threats from out wide.

Like Arteta, this may actually lend to Roque starting ahead of Lewandowski through the middle, for the press and mobility. The question is, who would be Barcelona’s Mohamed Salah? It’s hard to pick a name out of the current Barcelona crop, and we’re not here to make fantasy transfers, but Ferran Torres does have 11 goals across all competitions for Barcelona. It’s not a direct replacement, but it’s a decent baseline. Vitor Roque may also be shifted out onto one of the wings, having started his career out wide with Cruzeiro.

At the back, there’s also the question of the Trent Alexander-Arnold role, a right-back who can push into midfield to help dictate the play. Short of playing an actual midfielder there, this is probably a role for Joao Cancelo if Barcelona decide to make his loan move permanent. In midfield, De Jong will always be the holding man, while Pedri provides the link with the attack and Gavi completes the workhorse trio.

Hansi Flick

For your fourth 4-3-3… We’re just kidding. Hansi Flick has been out of a job since leaving the Germany hot seat last year, and he’s a name currently being floated about to join Barcelona. Although he tried a back three at times, Flick was very faithful to a 4-2-3-1, which would be an interesting formation for Barcelona.

Although he preferred a slightly less orthodox striker at Germany, you’d have to back a Lewandowski throwback with Flick for their Bayern Munich days. There, Flick had Thomas Muller playing behind Lewandowski, and for Germany the No.10 was Jamal Musiala in the latter stages. When Xavi tried a 4-2-3-1 in the Spanish Supercopa, Pedri played the No.10 and he’s the best candidate in terms of providing a link between midfield and attack.

On the wings, Flick prefers players who can equally contribute to goals themselves as well as create, with a bit of directness. Raphinha and Torres might be the best options right now and, again, Flick likes wingers on their “wrong” foot, allowing for cut ins. Deeper in midfield, Flick knows Gundogan from his time as Germany manager and should partner him with De Jong for a stable pivot.

At right-back, Flick liked to use either Joshua Kimmich or a centre-back out of position, not really favouring orthodox full-backs — though this could also be due to the fact that Germany haven’t produced someone to rival Kimmich for a while. But if he still wants more than just a standard right-back, Kounde looks like the perfect option.


Jose Mourinho

The unthinkable. Jose Mourinho spent four years at Barcelona as a translator for Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal, learning the ropes under the pair. But in Spain, he will mostly be associated with Real Madrid and became public enemy number one for Barcelona fans (perhaps alongside Cristiano Ronaldo) for their rivalry during his stay at the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, what better way to squash the beef than to take over. Mourinho is now a free agent having been sacked Roma and is probably among the best managers currently out of work. Although he built his dynasties at Chelsea and Real Madrid with a back four, Mourinho’s past few jobs have seen him utilise a back three, and that could be what he’d bring to Barcelona.

At Roma, it was either a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, and given the players at his disposal it would likely be the latter for Barcelona. In a back three, Mourinho would have Kounde joined by Araujo and Christensen, with the latter playing through the middle as he did for Chelsea. The wing-backs are very much wing-backs, sticking wide, so Balde is a natural option on the left and Lamine Yamal could be a choice for the right — the one time Barcelona played a back three this season, he started as right-wing-back. In the middle, the obvious options are De Jong and Gundogan.

With the narrow 3-4-2-1, Pedri and Gavi would work as double No.10s, providing support for Lewandowski or Roque. It would likely be Lewandowski to start, but Roque will fight hard to make himself Mourinho’s number one choice. Stranger things have happened.