Who should replace Xavi as Barcelona manager? Hansi Flick or Rafael Marquez?


Barcelona’s perpetual saga has a new chapter.

A month after Xavi announced he would be staying at the club for a further year — having previously declared in January that he would leave his post this summer — it now looks likely that he will be fired.

So, despite the chaotic financial situation that continues to hinder the club, Barcelona might well soon be appointing  a new manager — but who could that be?

From afar, many might consider Barcelona’s 2023-24 campaign to be a disappointment after their title win last year, but the latest iteration crafted in Xavi’s image are still a very good side.

Looking at Barcelona’s playstyle wheel, which outlines how each team looks to play compared with Europe’s top seven leagues, we can compare the sides who profile most similarly to Xavi’s approach.

For a dominant, possession-based side like Barcelona, it is little surprise to see Europe’s elite among the shortlist of similar teams, but it is lost on no one that the top two doppelgangers are Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Luis Enrique’s Paris Saint-Germain.

You might remember who they played for — and managed — in their past lives…

A number of elite clubs are looking for a new manager this summer, but the shortlist for suitable candidates is actually rather, well… short.

With Thomas Tuchel reiterating that he won’t be Bayern Munich head coach next season, Barcelona would be wise to have the German’s phone number on speed dial having already shown his coaching quality in Germany, England and France. Despite a disappointing season relative to Bayern’s standards, the underlying numbers from Tuchel’s side show how dominant they have still been in both boxes.

Barcelona’s financial state means that their purse strings are tighter than ever, making an approach for Tuchel unlikely in reality. Given such financial limitations, Hansi Flick has emerged as one of the leading contenders to take the role at Barcelona, having also been in line to return to Bayern to replace the outgoing Tuchel.

Flick’s reputation was arguably at its highest during his time in Bavaria, joining initially as an assistant in July 2019 before replacing Nico Kovac by November of that year. By the end of the season, Bayern had won a continental treble for just the second time in their history, beating PSG in the Champions League final.

Flick followed up a historic campaign with another Bundesliga victory in his only full season at the helm in 2020-21.

For a club as dominant as Bayern, their stylistic metrics outline a bulldozing side who will likely flatten anyone who dares to stop them. A tally of 99 goals scored in the Bundesliga was their second highest return since the turn of the century, behind only the previous season’s 100 goals — the summer that Flick arrived.

Across Europe’s top seven leagues, only Ajax averaged higher than Bayern’s two non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes (Chance creation, 98 out of 99), with Flick’s side likely to suffocate the opposition with territorial dominance (Field tilt, 95 out of 99).

The leading goalscorer? Robert Lewandowski, who — despite not hitting the same heights at Barcelona — would be a familiar face to welcome Flick to Catalonia if he were to sign on the dotted line.

Operating in a 4-2-3-1 formation in possession, Flick would often ask his full-backs, Alphonso Davies and Benjamin Pavard, to stay high and wide to deliver crosses to the dominant Lewandowski — supported by the width and trickery of Serge Gnabry, Kingsley Coman and Leroy Sane (Central progression, 45 out of 99).

Bayern’s 24.4 crosses per 90 in 2020-21 were the highest of any Bundesliga side, underpinning their focus on width and delivery into the box.

Crossing has been an increasingly accepted action in Barcelona in recent years — Xavi has allowed more attacks to come from wide areas, utilising the pace of Raphinha and the prodigious talent of Lamine Yamal.

It is worth noting that Flick’s 2020-21 Bayern did not have the most watertight defence in Europe. In fact, it wasn’t even the meanest defence in the league, with Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig all boasting a better rate than Bayern’s 1.1 non-penalty expected goals conceded per 90.

Flick won honours in his time as Bayern’s manager (Annegret Hilse/Pool via Getty Images)

Flick did leave Bavaria on a high but having been Joachim Low’s assistant from 2006 to 2014, it was the 59-year-old’s return as Germany’s national team manager in 2021 that saw his stock plummet — especially after their embarrassing group stage elimination from the 2022 World Cup.

Irrespective of formation or football philosophy, Flick has shown he possesses the crucial experience of managing an elite side capable of steering an institution as much as a squad of players. While he might not impose a dogmatic style on the pitch, he could be the man to steady a ship that is not just rocking at the moment, but is foundering in a heavy, self-inflicted storm.

A standout candidate from within is Rafael Marquez, current manager of Barcelona Atletic, the club’s reserve team which largely consists of academy graduates who compete in the Spanish third tier.

The 45-year-old ticks a lot of boxes; a man with legendary status at the club who commands respect from the sidelines. He won four La Liga titles with Barcelona, became the first Mexican to win the Champions League, and is one of a select group of players to represent his country at five consecutive World Cup Finals.

In his two seasons as Atletic coach, Marquez has cultivated a distinctly familiar style of play, helping promising young players Pau Cubarsi and Marc Guiu through the ranks and into the first team, while Ilias Akhomach and Chadi Riad are now making their mark at Villarreal and Real Betis respectively. Promising right-back Hector Fort has also blossomed under his stewardship, registering his second La Liga assist at Almeria last week.

Atletic’s 4-3-3 attacking shape is straight from the Barcelona playbook, looking to dominate the ball in advanced areas with a midfield pivot in Marc Casado or Marc Bernal, flanked by two midfielders who are confident in tight spaces and able to weave through challenges and into attacking areas.

Rafael Marquez has performed well as Barcelona Atletic’s manager (Luis de la Mata/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Wingers and full-backs also maintain an important relationship — one pulls out to the flank, the other attacks the inside channel, as Lionel Messi and Dani Alves once did — while those on the opposite side look to hold the width to stretch the opposition defence. From there, talented interiors look to ghost into the spaces and pull apart opposition structures with clever movement and quick combination play.

Unsurprisingly, Atletic have dominated the possession standings, averaging 505 passes per game — over 50 more than any side in the division — while his young side were only beaten to the title this season by a resurgent Deportivo de La Coruna. The progression has been clear, and has not gone unnoticed by the board.

From the start, Marquez has had his eye on the first-team job, telling the media that he will keep “preparing himself in case the moment comes”. Former team-mate Gerard Pique argued that Marquez is “more than ready” for the job — for his “attitude, knowledge of the game and experience”, while the Mexican publicly supported club president Joan Laporta during his election campaign, and is close to sporting director Deco.

Given his relative lack of experience, hiring Marquez would not be without risk, but would make clear financial and tactical sense if the decision-makers think that he is ready. It worked with Guardiola, after all.

 (Top photo: Alex Caparros/Swen Pfortner/picture alliance/Getty Images)

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