Xavi is back. With him as coach, Barcelona want to revive a great era. Thanks to his technique and overview, he was a world-class footballer who played strategically and with the team in mind. He supported his teammates as a play-off station, he set the scene for them precisely, he always found solutions. It seemed impossible to separate him from the ball, even when he was surrounded.

In Xavi’s heyday, Spain were practically unbeatable, becoming European champions, world champions, European champions in successive tournaments. In the Euro finals, in 2008 and 2012, he assisted four goals. For a period he dominated the Champions League with Barcelona – winning the title twice and reaching the semi-finals in four other years. “It was the best team we have ever faced,” said Manchester United’s coach Alex Ferguson years after losing the 2011 final, when tiki-taka was at its peak.

In midfield, Xavi complemented Andrés Iniesta ideally. Xavi was the metronome, Iniesta the ball carrier. The two had a similar division of labour to Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who with Real Madrid replaced Barcelona as the benchmark of club football. Xavi also shares with Kroos the high quality of his long passes.

Xavi was a perfect fit for Barcelona’s philosophy. Under Pep Guardiola’s direction, Xavi, Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Lionel Messi, the best footballers in the world at the time, internalised his idealism that everyone can do everything. Together they raised the balance between attack and defence to a new level. Body size was not decisive, not even in attack and defence.

At that time, I could have moved to Barcelona. It would have been a great experience to be on the pitch with these greats. I look back with a tear in my eye, but also with a smile. As a Munich kid, I really wanted to win the Champions League with my club FC Bayern. I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t been there for the victory at Wembley in 2013. At that time, Barcelona was a role model for the whole world in another respect: the club had Unicef as its shirt sponsor.

Xavi with the European Cup after Barcelona’s 2015 triumph.
Xavi with the European Cup after Barcelona’s 2015 triumph. Photograph: Reuters Staff/Reuters

Times have changed. Coaches have lost some of their influence and players are even more decisive for the results. The last time Barcelona won the Champions League was in 2015. Since then, they have not been in the final, and instead are remembered for big defeats: 2-8 against Bayern Munich, 0-4 in Liverpool, 0-3 in Rome, 1-4 against Paris, most recently 0-3 in Lisbon. That is the downside of this football, which demands the best technique and a high level of intelligence from everyone but where physicality is not a priority. It sometimes backfires.

Barça’s appeal has diminished, the dominant style with possession of 70% and more has been called into question. Already in 2010 and 2012, Internazionale and Chelsea barricaded the goal and eliminated Barcelona in the semi-finals. Today, they all have the “everyone behind the ball” principle down pat. Against a team defending in their own penalty box, technical solutions are less likely to help. Instead, the attacking team are reliant on their physique, such as for set pieces (height) or counterattacks (speed).

So football has become faster, more robust, more physical. Even Guardiola has adapted in Manchester, his finely tuned game is still easily recognisable, but he lets play more defensively. The present knows new protagonists on the pitch: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Paul Pogba, Vinícius Júnior, Alphonso Davies or Erling Haaland – athletes who resemble Usain Bolt more than the 1.70m-tall Xavi.

Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies (left) and Erling Haaland of Borussia Dortmund, in action here in May 2020, exemplify a faster, more robust, more physical modern football.
Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies (left) and Erling Haaland of Borussia Dortmund, in action here in May 2020, exemplify a faster, more robust, more physical modern football. Photograph: Federico Gambarini/EPA

And Messi plays in Paris. There is, in fact, new economic competition. In 2011, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the clubs with the highest turnover in the world, were followed at a distance by Manchester United (€365m), Bayern (€320m), Arsenal and Chelsea (both €250). Today, large investments are being made at many locations. In Europe, there are about 10 clubs with an annual turnover of about half a billion euros. Meanwhile, about twice as many clubs compete for the best players. Many clubs are in the hands of very rich owners, now including Newcastle United.

The dynamic that the market has ignited also affects coaches, who are also hired like stars. Once Arsène Wenger, Ferguson or Johan Cruyff became institutions in their clubs because of their philosophy. In the Bundesliga, Christian Streich will soon celebrate his 10th anniversary as head coach of Freiburg. Who still knows Guy Roux, who coached Auxerre from 1964 to 2000? Auxerre and Freiburg are niches where the quirky Roux and Streich were highly respected.

Even Jürgen Klopp took four years to win titles with Liverpool. Coaches being given time is now the exception. At Barcelona, Xavi’s two immediate predecessors lasted less than two years combined. Most of the 10 or so top coaches such as Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Antonio Conte or Carlo Ancelotti rotate every two to three seasons at the financially maximised clubs in London, Madrid and Paris. For them, it is more important to create a good atmosphere and to be accepted by the stars.

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

Zinédine Zidane, who won the Champions League three times in a row with Real Madrid from 2016 to 2018, says about himself: “Tactically, I’m not the best coach.” He led his team through aura. This is now the decisive factor, not the long-term development of a playing idea; Liverpool even rely on artificial intelligence for squad planning.

Xavi has the necessary charisma. There are few who have lived up to the Barcelona ideal as he has, who embody the great times so credibly. Now he is supposed to reproduce them under different circumstances. That will be a difficult undertaking.

Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.