Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Barcelona coaching candidates: Rafa Marquez, Thiago Motta, Michel and who else could replace Xavi

In less than a 24-hour span, two of the top managerial jobs in soccer have opened as Xavi Hernandez announced that he’ll step down as Barcelona manager as of June 30. This comes on the heels of Jurgen Klopp also stepping down as Liverpool manager at the end of the Premier League season. While these two top jobs are open, the candidates for them are quite different as Barcelona are not only a slightly less appealing destination but also need a manager who can oversee a bit of a rebuild unlike a Liverpool side that is already set up to win. 

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After burning through a club legend in Xavi less than a season after he lifted the La Liga title, it’s critical that the next hire is the right one. A Barcelona season isn’t a success without silverware and there is also the event of moving back into the Camp Nou in November once the construction project on Barcelona’s historic stadium is completed.

Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho are managers on the market who have won their fair share of silverware but neither are managers who can see Barcelona through this period of turmoil. Conte is a demanding manager who needs to be in total sync with the board and also prefers to spend a significant amount of money on aging players to help a team win now. 

While that’s one way to operate, it’s not the careful stewardship of bringing youth along that is valued by Barcelona and that’s before even imaging the sparring matches that Joan Laporta and Conte would get in over potential transfers if the Italian was put in charge. After Xavi already wasn’t backed as much as he needed to be, it would only be a matter of time before a public disagreement caused a distraction.

When it comes to Mourinho, there’s a slight issue to deal with. Only two managers ever have overseen both Barcelona and Real Madrid during their careers,  Enrique Fernandez and Radomir Antic. Each of those was in a very different time of soccer and it doesn’t feel like the solution to stability at Barcelona is to bring in a manager who won nearly everything that there is to win with Real Madrid. But after getting into why a few of the most accomplished free agent managers won’t work in charge of Barcelona, let’s look at who should be on Barcelona’s shortlist.

The favorite: Thiago Motta

Currently in charge of Bologna in Serie A, the former Barcelona midfielder has the club in striking distance of a European spot through careful tactics where sometimes just a goal is enough. The individual brilliance of Joshua Zirkzee has helped Motta push the team to new heights but Motta’s pragmatism is what gets the young Dutchman in the best position to succeed. Imagine those tactical wrinkles while having Raphinha and Joao Felix at his disposal and Motta could revitalize Barcelona or crash and burn.

The biggest concern with an appointment of Motta is that although he understands the Barcelona ethos, would the pressure of managing a club like Barcelona be too much for him? Motta’s previous stops at Genoa and Spezia weren’t exactly stellar and with the eyes of the world on you, a rough patch at Barcelona can sink a manager. Xavi at times struggled to cope with some of those public pressures but managing them and protecting players from them is part of the job that a manager usually doesn’t experience until they’ve either gone on a European run or been thrust into the hot seat at a big club for the first time.

The hard-to-get option: Andoni Iraola

After performing exceptional work with Rayo Vallecano, Iraola got the Premier League call to join Bournemouth. Early on, it seemed like he was struggling to adjust to England but quickly, he has found his footing and has the Cherries playing exciting soccer fueled by smart signings. The improvement of players like Dominic Solanke under Iraola has also been a bright spot and it doesn’t matter the stature of the opposition — he has had the Cherries well prepared to take on the challenge.

The wrinkle is that Iraola has only been with Bournemouth since the summer so depending on his contract with them, it would likely require Barcelona to pay a buyout if this is a direction that they’d want to go. For a club that is trying to curb spending, that may not be the easiest sell as Bournemouth won’t want to lose their man this quickly. 

A potential option: Michel

At Girona, Michel is getting peak performance out of players who many have never heard of before their arrival and while the defense may be too open at times, when you score as many goals as Girona, that’s just fine. A good example of Michel’s tactics working is the performance of Artem Dovbyk. The Ukrainian is dominant in the air and is joint top of the La Liga golden boot race after seamlessly transitioning into the team from Dinipro-1. The aggression that Girona play with would be welcome at Barcelona where at times this season the soccer has gotten stale. Also being a member of the City Football Group system, Michel has had more exposure than most managers in a similar position to him. Girona blitzed Barca 4-2 back in Dec.

The inhouse guy: Rafa Marquez

Currently managing Barcelona B, one of the easiest things that Barcelona can do is elevate Marquez’s role. Having played alongside Xavi along with managing in the club system, Marquez is familiar with sporting director Deco and Laporta which would allow for a smooth working relationship. But similarly to appointing Xavi, almost everything about the soccer side would be unknown. The advantage of Barcelona playing so many teenagers right now is that they’ve come through Marquez’s system but that doesn’t show that he can manage at the top. It would be quite a risky decision.

Other options: Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta, Marcelo Gallardo

Las Palmas are one of the best stories in La Liga this season and Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta has been central to it. Like others on this list, he’s someone who doesn’t have big club experience but if you’re picking up on a trend, it will be hard for Barcelona to court a manager with that experience in their current situation. The Las Palmas defense has been stout but that is more due to exceptional performances from goalkeeper Alvaro Valles. His 12.12 goals prevented is the top number in La Liga by eight goals which would say that the 19 goals conceded by the ninth-place club is far from sustainable long term so moving elsewhere, he may need Valles to follow.

In the case of Gallardo, he has a weird managerial situation. The 48-year-old nurtured some of the top talents in the world with River Plate in Argentina such as Enzo Fernandez and Julian Alvarez but when he stepped down from managing the club in December of 2022, it seemed like Gallardo would be destined for a top job or had something lined up which didn’t happen. He then spent almost a year out before succeeding Nuno Espirito Santo at Al-Ittihad where he has managed nine games. If a club wanted to get him away from the Saudi Pro League, it could be possible.

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