Football News

How Xavi’s Barcelona start compares to Zinedine Zidane’s first 25 games in charge of Real Madrid

By Ruairidh Barlow

Xavi Barcelona manager record v Zidane record

Published: 11:19, 19 March 2022

As El Clásico draws nearer, Spanish football’s recurring hour of truth, Xavi Hernández’s Barcelona have been gaining velocity.

The Xavi bus — ‘La Xavineta’, as it is known in Spain — is reaching capacity as admirers queue to hop aboard. The clash against Real Madrid will be Xavi’s 25th game in charge, but how does he compare against his former midfield foe and latterly brilliant manager, Zinedine Zidane?

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Why Xavi and Zidane were appointed

Real Madrid

Of course, none of this analysis holds even the most minuscule droplet of water without context. Real Madrid ‘welcomed’ Rafa Benítez to the club in 2015 as Florentino Peréz sought to impose discipline after the overly-relaxed Carlo Ancelotti. Wry smiles all around.

Which is exactly what Benítez did. Only it turned out the instruction-heavy Benítez was too much of a stickler. Most famously of all, a bemused Luka Modric was advised that he should prioritise his instep more than using the outside of his brilliant feet. In early January 2016, he was sacked with Real Madrid in third place, five points behind Barcelona having lost won 11, drawn four and lost three in the league.

Barcelona

For once, Barcelona fully deserved the apocalyptic headlines fired out by the printing press for months on end. With Camp Nou crumbling and the club in financial ruin, returning president Joan Laporta trusted Ronald Koeman to wrestle with a desperate situation for the second season in a row.

Except in said second season, he had neither time nor Lionel Messi to fix it. What looked grim quickly became morbid. When Laporta finally sacked Koeman, Barcelona were in ninth place, counting just four wins among their six draws and three defeats. Twelve points separated them from Real Madrid at the summit.

  • READ MORE: Watch Real Madrid v Barcelona online with El Clasico live streaming

What changes did each El Clasico manager make?

Zidane’s “simple addition” earned Real Madrid Champions League success

Zinedine Zidane’s changes were far less radical than one would expect. It’s true that this was a dissatisfied team before the Frenchman, but it was not totally dysfunctional. It was less than two summers removed from a Champions League victory. To an extent, he simply placed players in their preferred position and allowed them enough slack to solve problems themselves, without overbearing intervention.

In his third match, Real Madrid drew 1-1 with Real Betis. They blew several teams away but a second 1-1 against Malaga was followed by a 1-0 defeat to Atlético Madrid on the 27th of February. Doubts were aired across the Mediterranean radio waves; Los Blancos had mostly come undone against higher quality opposition that season. Yet after less than two months in the job, Zidane’s Real Madrid would go on to win every single league match until the end of the season. For every goal they conceded (eight in total), they scored 4.85.

This was thrilling and yet tinged by a futility, in the knowledge that Barcelona would win the title. Even if the gap was reduced to a single point. Where Real Madrid could be judged was in Europe. Zidane managed his team with this in mind, ensuring Real Madrid added sufficient steel behind the force of nature that was their front line. That steel was a young Brazilian, who had spent last season on loan at Porto as he struggled to meet the standards in Madrid. Zidane went against the grain by starting Casemiro ahead of Isco, James Rodríguez and Mateo Kovacic, where previous managers hadn’t been bold enough to drop them.

That simple addition was the winning recipe for the Champions League. They dispatched Roma (4-0), then adorned the Madrid mythology by coming back to beat Wolfsburg 3-2 on aggregate via a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. Against Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City, Real Madrid battled to a 1-0 victory, without Cristiano in the first leg and Karim Benzema in the second.

Zidane’s first 25 games run up until the final league matchday, but they would subsequently defeat Atlético Madrid on penalties in the Champions League final. The lack of a radical system or style and the simplicity of his management are narratives that have dogged Zidane ever since. Playing football is simple, but the hardest thing to do is play simple football, said whom? Ironically enough, legendary Barcelona player and coach Johan Cruyff.

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Barcelona

Xavi arrived at Barcelona’s lowest point since 2003, when he himself was 23 and on the pitch. His task this season was gargantuan. It was not just a case of improving a struggling squad; he is attempting to address years of declining standards.

A derby win over Espanyol set things in motion in his opening match, but a draw and two defeats in the next four were enough to send Barcelona crashing out of the Champions League. Any illusions Xavi had about the job at hand would have been quickly obliterated.

Haemorrhaging injuries, Xavi’s Barcelona muddled their way through December and showed glimpses of improvement. On the second of January, Barcelona started with a frontline of Ferran Jutglá, Luuk de Jong and Ilias Akhomach. They weren’t fantastic but they played with a plan and with intent. Despite 14 absences, they survived a late onslaught to secure three points. There was grit and character in that win.

Losing to Real Madrid in extra time in the Spanish Supercup 10 days later was a blow. Yet for once, they finally looked as if they had faced Real Madrid without the nagging inferiority complex that had persisted in their five straight defeats previously. Most of Xavi’s work has been about rewiring the hard-drive of his players. With the January signings of Adama Traoré, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Dani Alves and Ferran Torres, Barcelona gained pace, power and most importantly, goals.

In February, that showed. For the first time since Luis Enrique left, Barcelona played with a verve and tempo that had become alien. Big wins against Atlético Madrid, Napoli and Athletic Club saw the shackles tossed aside as they averaged 3.33 goals per league game.

Width is back in fashion and Xavi’s principles are sharpening into focus on the pitch; the team moves to the same beat. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, the club, like the Xavineta, is moving forward.


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‘The most difficult job of any El Clásico manager in the 21st century’

The canyon-sized chasm between the situation in which Xavi and Zidane assumed their positions makes comparison difficult. Two weeks before Benítez was sacked, Real Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano 10-2. Barcelona jettisoned a three-goal lead to Celta Vigo two weeks before Xavi managed his first match.

In his first quarter-century of games, Zidane delivered thrilling football, an 80% win rate and a Champions League final. It is unquestionably a larger achievement. Yet undoubtedly within the realms of possibility; they were favourites in every match with the exception of Barcelona.

In Xavi’s case, he has arguably had the most difficult job of any El Clásico manager in the 21st century. After four months in charge the boy from Terrassa hasn’t won any trophies, of course, but he does have Barcelona veering back on course after so many years adrift.

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