At the start of the season, Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez sat his players down and told them they had to win the LaLiga title.
“With this squad, the league cannot escape us,” he said in August, as revealed in a recent documentary. “We have to blow this league away, blow it away. Every game is a f—ing war; we have to give everything. We are privileged to be at Barca. We have to die on the pitch. With this squad, we have to win trophies, above all the league … are you ready to be a family?”
On Sunday, Barca wrapped up their first league title since 2019 with a 4-2 win away at local rivals Espanyol. It is the 27th time the Catalan club have won the Spanish league but the first under Xavi, the former midfielder and club legend who returned as coach 18 months ago when the team were ninth in the table, having won just four of their opening 12 matches.
Barca won 10 league titles during the time Lionel Messi was at the club from 2004 to 2021, but the frequency of their success during those years diluted the value given to domestic dominance, with the Champions League seen as the ultimate prize. Messi himself even warned that, one day, supporters would realise how hard it was to win league title after league title.
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Now a sense of value in LaLiga has been restored, after three barren years in which Barca won just a single Copa del Rey. Fans poured to the streets after the win over Espanyol, heading to Canaletes at the top of La Rambla, the spot in the city centre where supporters traditionally celebrate trophies. They were there until long past 2 a.m., setting off flares, climbing lamp posts and singing songs, with the roads around closed to traffic. Others headed to the training ground to greet the players returning from RCDE Stadium, where they had been chased off the pitch by angry home fans for their celebrations in the centre circle. The players greeted them from a balcony — a scene not witnessed before, and a sign of the communion between the squad and the fan base — before heading off to a beachside nightclub.
Behind those celebrations is Xavi, who became the fifth person to win the title with Barca as a player and a coach, joining Josep Samitier, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. The former midfielder’s status as a club legend has brought calm when other coaches might have been swallowed by the storms that often surround Barca.
That’s not to say there have not been hurdles, though. There was a rush to register the new signings ahead of the start of the season as the club battled to comply with LaLiga’s finance rules. To do so, they had to sell off club assets and a percentage of future earnings from television rights. The board deemed not doing so to be a bigger risk as Barca would be in danger of falling further behind Real Madrid and Europe’s biggest teams.
There have been other off-pitch distractions. Xavi, given the number of news conferences he must attend before and after matches, has become the de facto spokesperson for any questions related to payments totalling over €7m made to the former vice president of the refereeing association. The case is the subject of corruption charges in Spain. UEFA is also carrying out its own investigation. Barca deny any attempts to fix matches and say they were sourcing technical reports on refereeing.
In the midst of all that, Xavi has remodelled the defence, brought through youngsters, found new leaders and managed a generational change at the same time as taking the league title ahead of European champions Madrid.
This is how he transformed Barca into LaLiga champions and where they go from here.
The most consistent team usually wins LaLiga, and Barca have been that, largely thanks to their defensive numbers. After 34 games, they have conceded 13 goals — only two at Spotify Camp Nou — and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has kept 25 clean sheets. The league record is 26, set by Deportivo La Coruna’s Francisco Liano in 1993-94, which could yet be broken by Ter Stegen with four games to be played. Those shutouts have provided the platform for 11 1-0 wins in the top flight this season.
Ter Stegen had been the subject of criticism last season as Barca conceded 38 goals in their 38 league games, but Xavi never had any doubts. The coach describes the Germany international as the “best possible goalkeeper” for Barcelona’s style of play. It is not his shot stopping that marks him out in that sense but his distribution and ability to play out from the back. He has attempted 1,138 passes this season, the 58th-highest total of any player in LaLiga and the most for a goalkeeper. Real Sociedad’s Alex Remiro is next, ranking 73rd, but his 1,064 passes come with a 69% success rate; Ter Stegen’s efficiency is 83%.
A new-look back four has come of age in front of Ter Stegen. Andreas Christensen has been an astute signing on a free transfer from Chelsea. The Denmark international has formed a fine partnership with Ronald Araujo, whom many at the club consider to be the best centre-back in the world. Flanking them, 19-year-old Alejandro Balde has burst onto the scene to replace Jordi Alba at left-back, while Jules Kounde, a €55m summer signing from Sevilla, has done well as a reluctant right-back. The most exciting thing for Barca is that Christensen, at 27, is the oldest member of that backline.
Some of the stats around this season are slightly deceiving, though. Barca’s 13 goals conceded is 14 fewer than Atletico Madrid, the league’s next meanest defence, but xGA (expected goals against) suggests the real picture is a little closer. Barca’s xGA is 28.86, revealing that Ter Stegen and last-ditch blocks have saved them in a way that is not sustainable — at least not to this season’s level — on a regular basis.
European struggles, conceding four in two games against Manchester United, three at home to Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, tally with that theory. Barca also leaked four against Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal defeat. Some of those games involved makeshift defences — against Inter, for example, their defence was Sergi Roberto, Eric Garcia, Gerard Pique and Marcos Alonso — but the general picture is positive.
Barca players run for safety as Espanyol fans chase them after title win
Espanyol fans angry with Barcelona players celebrating the LaLiga title on their pitch storm the field and chase them into the tunnel.
Key players and new leaders
When Barca last won the league in 2019, Messi, Pique, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez were still among the important figures at the club. While some of that old guard still remain in the form of Sergio Busquets and Alba (although Busquets will depart in the summer), this year’s title feels like the first for a new generation.
For midfielders Frenkie de Jong (26), Pedri (20) and Gavi (18) — all increasingly vital to Xavi’s style of play — it is their first league title with the club. That is true for Kounde, Araujo, Christensen and Balde, too, as well as forwards Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati. Some of them are signings Xavi expressly asked for; others are youngsters he has helped progress, although his predecessor Ronald Koeman also deserves some credit for turning to the likes of Pedri and Gavi during a period of financial austerity at the club.
Many at the club insist one of most pleasing aspects of the league triumph has been seeing the young players grow. Araujo, 24, is a natural leader, and sources have told ESPN that the Uruguayan takes young players under his wing when they are promoted to train with the first team. It was also Araujo who led the players to safety at Espanyol on Sunday as the angry home fans came onto the pitch.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when stadiums were empty, his voice was always the one that rang loudest across the pitch. Pedri leads in a different way, with the ball at his feet, and Lewandowski has led by example. The club value his professionalism, and sources said that his commitment to training, and his desire to always better himself despite all he has won, has rubbed off on some of the younger players. His goals have also helped. Barca’s title might have been built on clean sheets, but Lewandowski’s tally of 21 goals, the most in LaLiga, has been key.
The importance of Xavi
When Mateu Alemany, Barca’s soon-to-depart director of football, flew to Qatar to persuade Xavi to take the job in 2021, he told him: “Your appointment is a unanimous decision, which is very rare in the world of football.” That is important at a club like Barca. Sources said, for example, that Koeman’s position became untenable, on top of poor results, because of the division he created among fans and the media. It was acknowledged that Barca needed someone who could not only improve results but also buy them time and keep supporters on board if results didn’t improve immediately.
This is a club still rebuilding after years of financial mismanagement. President Joan Laporta said they were in an intensive care unit when he was elected in March 2021. Still, even Xavi has felt the criticism at times. Winning 1-0 has seen his team dubbed boring, with claims that they have turned their back on their DNA of quick passing and attacking football.
Even before Sunday’s win at Espanyol, he was reprimanded by some for giving his players five days off before the match. “That actually motivated us even more,” Xavi said after clinching the title. “There is always criticism at this club. I know exactly how it works.”
Xavi has also been able to manage a delicate generational change. Many wondered whether his friendships with former teammates would be a problem, but it has not proved so. He told 36-year-old defender Pique last summer that he would not get many minutes. Pique challenged him, saying he would prove him wrong, but by November had retired.
Alba, 34, has been pushed to a backup role, with teenager Balde playing on merit. A weaker coach without Xavi’s reputation and standing at Barcelona might have run into problems making those calls, as Pique and Alba are big characters.
Xavi also brought back Dr. Ricard Pruna to head up the medical team after a spate of injuries in previous years. He also restored rules and fines for punctuality, something he was surprised to see had disappeared in his six years away from the club. And he set the team weekly challenges: an extra day off for a clean sheet or a meal on him if they win by two or more goals.
There have been storms to weather. De Jong’s and Ousmane Dembele‘s futures have created moments of tension at times — more at a board of directors and agent level — and those have been overcome. Alemany told Dembele to find a new club last January as talks over a new deal stalled. Fans booed the France winger as a result. But Xavi stuck to his guns, insisting he wanted him to stay because “in his position he can be one of the best in the world.” Dembele is now a fans’ favourite and a vital outlet on the right wing.
Barca, meanwhile, pushed De Jong towards Manchester United in search of a payday. The Netherlands midfielder insisted he wanted to stay, later even saying the board’s behaviour had upset him, but Xavi has helped him channel that frustration into having arguably his best season for the club since joining for €75m from Ajax in 2019.
The Negreira case, relating to the payments Barca made to Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, the former vice president of the refereeing committee, has also threatened to derail Barca’s season at times, but the focus internally, sources said, has never wavered.
“We have to blow this league away” was the message from Xavi before and throughout the season. On Sunday, after doing that, he afforded a smile: “Winning the title with four games left shows we have been much stronger than the rest [of the teams]. Much stronger.”
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What comes next?
With LaLiga wrapped up early, Barca have been able to turn their attention to planning for next season. Even though Xavi insists he has only been focused on the title, sources told ESPN that he is “obsessed” with further improving the team this summer.
European shortcomings, in the Champions League and the Europa League, exposed weaknesses in the squad, as did a lack of creativity at certain moments during the campaign. Therefore, sources said, another frantic summer is expected at Camp Nou after €150m of spending last season following the triggering of the various “financial levers.”
Xavi is particularly keen to add more innovation in the final third, which is why they have made approaches to sign Messi and Man City’s Ilkay Gundogan, who are available as free agents in the summer. February’s loss of Pedri through injury for two months really knocked Barca’s quality with the ball. The fact it coincided with winger Dembele being injured again did not help, either.
At the base of the midfield, there will also be change, albeit enforced. Busquets has announced he will leave when his contract expires in June, ending an 18-year career with the club. Xavi’s preferred target is Real Sociedad’s Martin Zubimendi, but there are financial restrictions given he has a €60m release clause, in addition to an ongoing internal debate over whether Wolves’ Ruben Neves or Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat would be better suited.
A left winger, a backup striker and a right-back are also on Barca’s wish list, while sources have told ESPN that Athletic Club centre-back Inigo Martinez will arrive on a free transfer to add depth in defence. Any business will be conditioned by departures, though, with Barca having to operate within LaLiga’s salary cap and ensure they have made €150m of savings before any new contracts (including those of Gavi and Araujo) can be inscribed.
That is why LaLiga president Javier Tebas has said it will be difficult for them to make new signings this summer. They can spend only 40% of any savings they make or transfer fees they raise until they are back within their spending limit. For the current season, that limit was over €600m, but it will fall to around €400m-€450m next season. Spending, which includes wages and amortisation payments on transfers, is currently over €600m annually.
There are also different interests at play internally. Alemany will leave his role as sporting director for Aston Villa but has pledged to carry out the necessary work in the summer transfer window, with Deco lined up as his replacement. Sporting director Jordi Cruyff’s future is also uncertain, while Laporta and Xavi both naturally want their say in recruitment.
The same was all true last summer, of course, but Barca found a way to do business and are ending the season as LaLiga champions having already won the Spanish Supercopa, beating Madrid in the final. The next step might not prove as easy. In part because the next demand is to take strides forward in the Champions League but also because this season’s success will raise the bar.