For almost a full week after El Clásico on Oct. 28, Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández fielded questions about midfielder Ilkay Gündogan’s comments following the 2-1 defeat to title rivals Real Madrid at the end of October.
Gündogan, who joined from Manchester City in the summer as a treble winner, had criticised Barça for showing a lack of “frustration, anger and emotion” after what was their first loss of the season. In a roundabout way, Xavi said he agreed with what his midfielder had said, but that didn’t stop the inquisition. Eventually, after a 1-0 win over Real Sociedad on Nov. 4 in which Xavi himself criticised his team’s display, the Barça boss had to ask the media to draw a line under Gündogan’s remarks.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Gündogan, 33, is not the first ex-City player to highlight perceived differences between what he was used to at his former club and what he found at Barcelona. Man City’s record goal scorer, Sergio Agüero, whose spell at Barça ended prematurely because of a heart condition in 2021, also noted a contrast in standards, albeit prior to the appointment of Xavi as manager.
“At City, we arrived an hour and a half before training and here, half an hour before,” he said. “I thought, well, I’ll come in at least an hour before and try and go to the gym or do some things, but nobody was there. It was all closed.”
As Barça endure their first truly difficult spell of the 2023-24 campaign, in which they’ve lost two of their past four games and are being criticised for performances even when winning, the attention to detail in all areas of the club is being scrutinised. After back-to-back group-stage exits in the Champions League, where can they improve if they are to be able to compete with Europe’s best teams once again?
In the days after El Clásico, Gündogan gave his answer to that question as part of a team meeting. The German international is looking to use his success and know-how from seven years with City — in which he won 14 trophies, including five Premier League titles and a Champions League crown — to take Barça back to the top.
Barça used to be the benchmark for many clubs in Europe and beyond, regardless of level. Teams wanted to recreate the Barça model and integrate the style of play that was the hallmark of their triumphs under Pep Guardiola, when they won three LaLiga titles and two Champions Leagues between 2008 and 2012.
City were at the forefront of clubs keen to replicate what had been done at Camp Nou, going so far as to bring in a host of former Barça employees to lead the change. In the years since, the English and European champions have done such a good job that the tables have now turned: Barça seem to want what City have. They’ve targeted many City players in recent years as they covet footballers influenced by Guardiola in the Premier League.
Midfielder Gündogan, full-back João Cancelo and forward Ferran Torres all joined from City. So too did central defender Eric García, who is on loan at Girona, the current LaLiga leaders and one of the many clubs that make up the City Football Group. Barça and Xavi’s desire to sign Bernardo Silva is also well-known, even if financial limits have made that an impossible deal to complete thus far. Meanwhile, nutritionist Sílvia Tremoleda has returned to Barcelona after working with Guardiola at City.
The migration of Catalans and/or former Barça employees to City and their significance in the club’s rise is no secret. The extent of it, though, may be less known.
CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain, both formerly of Barça, sit at the top of the tree. Omar Berrada spent seven years at Barça, and is now City’s chief football operations officer. Elsewhere, Jorge Chumillas (chief financial officer), Ana Gil (head of global marketing), Nuria Tarré (chief marketing officer) and Esteve Calzada (chief commercial officer) all hold lofty positions within the City Football Group.
There have also been collaborations with Barcelona-based company Mediapro to make City documentaries, while for years, the in-house commentary for City games was done at the broadcaster’s headquarters in Catalonia. There has also been work with the legal firm Roca i Junyent.
City players usually come to Barcelona when they need to undergo operations, with Ramon Cugat the club’s go-to surgeon and Edu Mauri officially part of the club’s medical staff, too. Deeper behind the scenes, there are Catalans and Spaniards working in various departments across the club.
Sources at City deny that the idea was to recreate the Barça model, saying it was about appointing the best people in their field to take both the club and the project forward on and off the pitch. Other sources suggest it was all about laying the foundations at the club so they could eventually hire Guardiola, who became City coach in 2016. Whichever origin story you believe, Guardiola’s staff — and the staff at City’s academy — is littered with specialists with Catalan or Barça connections, from Manuel Estiarte, a former water polo superstar who provides player support, and team liaison Daniel Codina through to coaches Carles Vicens, Lorenzo Buenaventura, Francesc Cos and beyond.
Whatever it was, it irked Barça at first. “There have been offensive approaches from City at all levels of the structure of the club, but no-one [else] wanted to go,” former Barça president Sandro Rosell complained in 2013.
“They wanted to fish here, but there were no fish left. I had hoped that he [Begiristain] would not use the information he gathered about Barcelona during his time here to help another club become bigger, but he seems to disagree with me.”
The biggest thing Soriano and Begiristain have brought to City is stability. Begiristain is considered the most important man at the club because of how he’s run the football side: he’s considered exceptional at knowing when to pull out of deals. City have fixed valuations for players they wish to sign, and they refuse to go beyond them — witness how they moved away from potential moves for Alexis Sánchez, Harry Maguire, Fred and Declan Rice in recent seasons. That contrasts with Barca: instead of setting limits in negotiations, Barça have arguably overspent in the past, paying transfer fees over €100m on each of Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann with varying levels of disappointment in return.
A source who was previously on the board of directors at Barça points out that the stability and the patience afforded at City would never be possible at Barça. In the time since Begiristain was appointed the director of football at the Premier League side in 2012, having held the role at Camp Nou from 2003-10, Barça have had seven people occupy the same or a similar position: Andoni Zubizarreta (who succeeded Begiristain), Robert Fernández, Eric Abidal, Ramón Planes, Mateu Alemany, Jordi Cruyff and the latest, Deco.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s change of president in 2021 and an increased manager turnover in recent years — Xavi is the club’s fourth manager since the start of 2020 — has made cohesive squad planning into a much trickier proposition.
Xavi and Deco are the current tandem in those roles. Both men insist they have a good working relationship, despite reports in the media suggesting otherwise when Deco was appointed this year, but they may need time working together on the squad to prosper. However, even Xavi, despite being a club legend who won LaLiga in his first full season in charge, has been subject to pressure on his job in recent weeks as performances have dipped.
“We are in the same direction, me, the CEO, the sporting director and the chairman,” Guardiola said about City’s success after their derby win over Manchester United on Oct. 29. “That is why I think the club is so stable.”
That stability led to the treble last season, including a first Champions League title, but despite the trophies, Guardiola says City’s biggest success is their consistency. Under the Catalan coach, they have always qualified for the Champions League when other big Premier League teams — United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal — have been in and out.
The demand for instant success — increasingly at City as well, but not so much in the early years of the project — renders that sort of stability and consistency almost impossible at Barça, though it also has much to do with the ownership of the two clubs. Barça are owned by their members, or socios, while City are owned by Sheikh Mansour, an Emirati royal, which creates vastly different financial parameters for how these clubs operate.
In the summer, City signed defender Josko Gvardiol for €90m, midfielders Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic for €60m and €25m respectively and winger Jérémy Doku for €60m. Barça, who wanted to strengthen in similar areas, signed defender Iñigo Martínez on a free transfer, midfielder Oriol Romeu for €3.5m and forward João Félix on loan, with the Portuguese international agreeing to drastically reduce his salary in order to force through the move.
Barça did manage to invest more last summer, spending around €150m on defender Jules Koundé, winger Raphinha and center-forward Robert Lewandowski, but those deals came at a bigger cost. They had to sell off chunks of the club — future television revenue and a percentage of Barça Studios — to be able to strengthen. Those asset sales had to be approved by the members, who also vote on a new president every four to six years — the period has been changed by different presidents — which feeds into the lack of stability.
There are caveats to mention when comparing the spending, such as the transfer fees City have commanded for outgoing players in the past few years, as well as the different economic rules in the Premier League and LaLiga. The Spanish league have imposed strict restrictions on Barça’s spending for breaching their cap. The regulations in England aren’t as strict, though there is a looming asterisk next to City’s name as they continue to be investigated by the Premier League for breaking financial rules across nine seasons. The case has returned to the news this week following Everton’s 10-point deduction.
“Manchester City are surprised by the issuing of these alleged breaches of the Premier League rules, particularly given the extensive engagement and vast amount of detailed materials that the EPL has been provided with,” City said in a statement previously.
“The club welcomes the review of this matter by an independent Commission, to impartially consider the comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position. As such we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”
Meanwhile, current Barça president Joan Laporta said in 2022 that the Blaugrana’s lack of stability and asset sales comes about because of the ownership models at clubs like City. “The state clubs are a problem because they provoke an instability of football in Europe,” he said. “I’m asking for rules that have to be more strict for these kinds of clubs because the resources they are using in football don’t come from the football industry.
“In our case, and most of the clubs in Europe, the resources that we are generating come from the industry of sports. These state clubs are not using the same tools in order to compete. It is complicated to compete with these clubs that have a lot of big players spread around the world. And when you go to the market to buy players, it’s difficult to compete.”
While there are nuances to the success of a team off the pitch, Gündogan and Agüero’s comments can be interpreted as a sign of dropping standards at Barça on the pitch. They talk about things that can be improved or controlled easily, in theory.
Xavi himself was surprised by the lack of order when he was appointed manager two years ago. He famously brought in a series of rules that enforced certain levels of professionalism and punctuality, ordered the players to eat together after training, introduced a new fines system and increased control of what activities players can and can’t do away from the pitch.
Along with changes at the squad level, it helped Barça win a first league title since 2019 last season. It’s a sign that not everything is bad at the club, but there is still the feeling that they are not performing as they should be.
Before the comeback win against Alaves last weekend, when Barça again flattered to deceive despite picking up three points and even conceded in the first minute, Xavi was asked if he was tough with the players or if he was a soft touch. “I give out lashings,” he joked. “No, if it’s a point of order, there’s no need to shout. If I have to, I shout, but I’m not a shouter. I’m a convincer. I’m a thinker.
“I wasn’t tough before, and I’m not soft now. That is not the reason why the team has not played well recently.”
One source points out that the explanation may be much simpler. It could just be that, while being given the base, the finances and the tools to succeed, City’s success is more than anything down to the brilliance of Guardiola as a coach. That will be tested in the post-Guardiola years in Manchester. City know finding a successor, possibly when his contract expires in 2025, is a huge task.
Another source adds that while Guardiola’s and Barça’s playing styles are seen as synonymous — both built on possession, positioning, pressing and, essentially, the goal of attractive attacking football — there is more freedom to deviate at City if necessary in order to adapt to certain demands of the modern game. Yet Xavi often speaks about the need for Barça to play a certain brand of football while winning.
“This is the most difficult club in the world,” he says. “We are obliged to win and play well,” the Barcelona coach said in a news conference in 2022. “This is Barca. A 1-0 in the 90th minute is not enough, we know this.
“For those that know the club, it’s about excellence in everything we do. That’s why this is the most difficult club in the world. There is no comparison. There is no other club in the world like this, [with that] demand to win playing well. It is very difficult.”
Speaking in September, he added: “There is not the same patience here as there is at Manchester City or other clubs, this is Barcelona. I am sure Pep knows that. You [the media] demand that I win. The level of demand, of stress, the need to win playing well is different here. This is a huge club and the demand is always to win.”
Where both clubs do excel, though, is at the academy level. In times of need during recent years, La Masia has provided Barça’s first team with several stars, as Alejandro Balde, Gavi, Fermín López and Lamine Yamal are all playing important roles this season. Ronald Araújo honed his defending with the B team. Nico González and Abde Ezzalzouli are among others to have chances after playing for the youth teams or the reserve team first in recent years, while the likes of Alejandro Grimaldo (Bayer Leverkusen), Xavi Simons (RB Leipzig) and Marc Cucurella (Chelsea) are prospering elsewhere in Europe.
There are plenty more on the horizon, too. Marc Guiu, 17, scored on his first-team debut last month and is one of eight Barça youngsters in the Spain squad presently at the U17 World Cup in Indonesia.
City have enjoyed similar productivity with the likes of Phil Foden, Rico Lewis and Cole Palmer, although the latter joined Chelsea earlier this year. In total, 27 players who have graduated from the club’s academy since Guardiola became manager in 2016 have been selected in their respective age-group squads for England’s fixtures during the current international break. Four are with the Three Lions at the U17 World Cup, where they could meet Spain in the final if both teams continue to progress.
Barça’s ingrained style of play and standards, which are still having the desired effect at youth level, have been mirrored at City. At the English club, they stress the significance of the philosophy and the standards running all the way through the club. They want to play the same attacking brand of football that Xavi talks of, and which he played so well under Guardiola at Barça. Everything is geared towards that — even the youngest age groups in the academy are being taught a style of football that you could link to Barça, Guardiola or Johan Cruyff before him. Sources say the staff from Catalonia, who have a tremendous work ethic, are a key part of that process.
It is at the first-team level, however, where Barça are looking for immediate answers. In the summer, they looked to City to find them, signing Gündogan and Cancelo in a bid to help evolve their playing style. However, there is no quick fix, and City’s steady progression is testament to that.
Even with all the advances behind the scenes, spending and the arrival of Guardiola, it took until 2023 — seven seasons into Guardiola’s tenure, and over a decade after Begiristain’s appointment — for them to get their hands on the Champions League trophy for the first time.
Xavi is in just his second full season as Barça coach. Deco only joined in the summer. Patience is required, but will they get it? Xavi is already under pressure despite beating Real Sociedad and Alaves, while games against Rayo Vallecano, Porto, Atlético Madrid and Girona in the coming weeks have taken on increased significance. As for Deco, he is operating from a position of austerity with Barça still working hard to improve their financial situation at the same time as renovating Camp Nou.
Just as Gündogan can help steer things on the pitch, City can vouch for the benefits of stability off it, but things are rarely that simple at Barça.
With additional reporting by Moises Llorens and Rob Dawson