Xavi Hernándes Creus, better known to the footballing world as just Xavi, played 767 games for Barcelona between 1998 and 2015. He scored 85 goals in all competitions, provided 117 assists in La Liga, won 25 trophies (including 8 La Ligas and 4 Champions Leagues). When he departed the club, he did so as one of the greatest midfielders to have ever played the game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer played 366 games for Manchester United between 1996 and 2007, scored 126 goals in all competitions and won 12 major honours (including 6 Premier Leagues and one Champions League). Between 2011 and 2015, Andrea Pirlo won seven major honours with Juventus, including four consecutive Serie A titles. Xavi, Solskjaer and Pirlo are all club legends. But does that make them good managers of their home clubs?
As Barcelona are poised to bring in Xavi to save his former club from what is turning out to be a horrific season, it’s instructive to see how Solskjaer and Pirlo have fared in coaching the clubs where they achieved so much as players. Pirlo was a first-time manager when he bcame Juventus manager in 2020. He lasted one season, won the Supercoppa Italia, helped the club qualify for the Champions League and was an underwhelming presence at the dugout. Juventus, to their credit, relieved Pirlo of his duties as soon as the club’s extremely successful former coach Massimiliano Allegri became available.
Manchester United, on the other hand, have stuck with Solskjaer for nearly three years now, after first appointing him as a caretaker manager following the sacking of Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer was brought in to lift the mood around the club, which he did, and to offer a nostalgia-infused tribute act to the Alex Ferguson era, which he continues to do. Under him, United have kept ticking along, winning nothing, convincing no one, winning enough matches on the strength of an expensively assembled squad to stay in the top 4. Solskjaer’s performance says more about the skewed nature of modern football finance than his ability as a manager. United may have missed a trick by not learning from their Premier League counterparts.
At their lowest point in the modern era, Liverpool opted for the hard-pressing, quick moving tactics of Brendan Rodgers, and, in 2015, upgraded massively by appointing Jürgen Klopp. Club legend Kenny Dalglish did manage the club and steered it at a difficult time in 2011 and 2012, but owners Fenway Sports Group didn’t give in to nostalgia and keep him on as a permanent manager. Chelsea, not constrained by anything as old fashioned as ‘club identity’ simply kept appointing the best coaches and buying the best players for continued success. The average lifespan of a coach at Chelsea is around 2 and a half years, but since 2004, when Roman Abramovich bought the club, Chelsea have won 20 trophies, including five Premier Leagues and two Champions Leagues.
Once Xavi arrives at Barcelona, he too may lift the mood around the club, like Solskjaer, and give fans a sense of hope. He may also win trophies and turn Barcelona back into an all-conquering power. But, so far, his only coaching experience comes from leading Al Sadd, a club in the Qatar Star League. We shouldn’t be holding our breaths because recent history has shown that turning to the ‘old boys’ club’ is no recipe for success.