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man on mission Barcelona and Xavi showing United how to rebuild a superclub – you just need to pick the right 'Man'


Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez during his sides 4-0 away win over Real Madrid. Photo: PA/Reuters

Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez during his sides 4-0 away win over Real Madrid. Photo: PA/Reuters

Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez during his sides 4-0 away win over Real Madrid. Photo: PA/Reuters

In a parallel universe Paul Scholes is the Manchester United manager who was brought in last November when another legendary former player was sacked. He has just taken his side to the Etihad Stadium and humiliated Premier League leaders Manchester City 4-0.

The star of the show was Paul Pogba, despite the fact that he is out of contract in the summer and has wanted to leave. United have moved up to third in the table and fears of not qualifying for the Champions League are receding.

In the stands is Owen Hargreaves, who is United’s new technical director and has overseen a few shrewd signings in the January transfer window – including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the striker forced out by Arsenal and who scored twice against City – to help turn around the team’s fortunes.

The celebrations in the tunnel afterwards are wild, with Harry Maguire hugging Scholes and the revitalised defender later declaring on Twitter: “We are back”.

Far-fetched fantasy? For Scholes, taking over from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, read Xavi Hernandez, who succeeded Ronald Koeman at Barcelona. Both are club icons; both were brilliant, technically-gifted midfielders. For Pogba, read another unsettled France international, Ousmane Dembele; for Maguire, read Gerard Pique; and for Hargreaves, read Jordi Cruyff, another former player who is Barcelona’s new technical secretary.

Cruyff works closely with sporting director Mateu Alemany and was involved in some key signings, including Adama Traore, on loan from Wolves, and Aubameyang.

In coaching terms, Scholes, whose managerial experience extends to a brief spell at his beloved Oldham Athletic and some games at Salford City, who he co-owns, is clearly not Xavi, although the latter’s own previous record amounts to two years in the Qatar Stars League. But it is an interesting premise. United may point out they have already tried this route with Solskjaer, but he was always the wrong man.

There has been so much understandable talk of United needing a wholesale rebuild and of the club being rotten, and that is quite possibly all true. There have been so many mistakes made, so much money wasted and so many poor appointments that it is reasonable to conclude it is a long way back for them to compete with City, Liverpool and Chelsea.

A new manager will not change that. Or could he?

Barcelona also made big, expensive mistakes and appointments and are in a gigantic financial mess (unlike United). They were similarly riven by complacency, a blind belief that they could buy themselves out of trouble, and have been harking back to the good old days for the past few seasons.

But Barcelona are also showing that getting the right coach and making a few good signings to augment what is already there can be transformative. There is no quick fix, but being smart can certainly accelerate the process and restore belief and draw the toxins from a broken dressing room.

Arguably it is easier in Spain right now given that Real Madrid, despite being top of the table, are far from convincing. They are not as good as the Premier League’s top three, so much so that there is a question mark over the future of coach Carlo Ancelotti. There is an over-reliance on Karim Benzema and an angst-driven desperation to sign Kylian Mbappe.

It is also unclear how firm the foundations of Barcelona’s revival are. The financial problems that forced the departure of Lionel Messi are still there and quite where they have got the money to make some of their signings, not least Ferran Torres from City for an initial €55million, is intriguing.

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They have fine young midfielders in Pedri, Gavi, Nico and Frenkie de Jong but it was not long ago that United’s cadre of emerging talent was also being hailed. So the parallels – largely – do hold.

It is obviously premature to hail Xavi as the saviour. The work he has done even has echoes of Solskjaer’s first few months: bringing back the fun, relieving the pressure and educating the players on what the club stand for. So it may not last. They may, as with Solskjaer, be revelling in the release after the unhappiness of working under Koeman (a bit like following Jose Mourinho at United).

But for the time being it seems Barca have lucked out with Xavi, who was passed over last summer after club president Joan Laporta decided he was too inexperienced.

Now the hard part. Who could be United’s Xavi? It does not have to be a former player but it must be someone who can have a revelatory effect and has the charisma, as well as the ability, to deliver it.

United have spent more than £1 billion since Alex Ferguson retired – and for what? It is now five years without a trophy and even when they won under Mourinho it felt soulless and unsustainable. It may still take a wider “reset”, it may take years for them to get back, it may take them down the road Arsenal are following with Mikel Arteta to do so, and all of that is sound reasoning.

But Xavi is showing that it can be done quicker. Whether he maintains it, no one knows, but the signs are encouraging. Barca fans are falling back in love with the football their team are playing and the reshaping, so far, of a squad deemed beyond redemption and singled out for ridicule not long ago.

United can identify with that – how they would love to enjoy that Xavi bounce.

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