A MATCH MADE IN HELL: BREAKING DOWN VALVERDE AND BARCELONA’S UGLY DIVORCE
When you think about Football Club Barcelona, you think about one of the most intimidating opponents in world football. Ernesto Valverde took over as head coach of the Catalans at the start of the 2017/18 season; the Basque coach had a pretty decent first season, winning the Copa del Rey and the La Liga by 14 points. At the start of Valverde’s reign, nobody expected the club to lit up proceedings considering the rift between the club management and the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.
While the Spaniard’s side did win the league title in the two seasons he was at the helm, his reign will always be remembered as a ‘successful failure’ due to a multitude of factors that led to his eventual exit.
A lack of vision for the young blood
Valverde’s Blaugrana side had massively halted the growth and development of the youth from the La Masia academy, including some newly signed Barça B players. This lack of optimization of the youth stems from the previous topic of poor rotation and as a result, several youth prospects had criticized Valverde’s usage of the club’s future superstars. Among the critics was notably Barça B coach, Garcia Pimienta who stated that if players like Carles Aleñá, Riqui Puig and Carles Pérez won’t be given sufficient playing time, they shouldn’t be promoted or should be sent out on loan to help them to continue their progression.
Aleñá was loaned out to Spanish rivals, Real Betis in the January transfer window, after only playing 6 games in the first 4 months of the season. Valverde claimed that the loan deal was finalized behind his back. The silky starlet, post his move to the Seville-based club had a different side to the story.
“Valverde knew I wanted to leave. I had told him personally in December”.
Furthermore, Barcelona under Valverde had sold a total of 14 youth players who were ready to join Barça B or the first team due to overcrowding the aforementioned youth setup that occurred as a result of little to no promotions to the first-team setup.
The former Bilbao boss’ Barça side had often been criticised for being a ‘boring team’. Now, a boring team isn’t necessarily a bad team; some of the best teams in history haven’t been particularly easy on the eye. Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid in their pomp have showcased themselves to be an impenetrable force over the years and are the prime example of such labels. Valverde’s Barcelona on the other hand had always smelled of mediocrity, with spurs of individual brilliance helping them win games. On paper, with the help of statistics, Valverde’s side seems like a very smooth and offensive side, but the numbers are extremely skewed due to the sheer excellence of Lionel Messi. Since the 2017/18 season, the Argentine captain has been directly involved in 48% percent of Barcelona’s goals in the league which paints the over-reliant picture on one man’s brilliance that it’s supposed to.
Keeping with the trend of relying on individual heroics, Marc-André ter Stegen has bailed Barcelona out of some pretty tight corners often, making incredible saves game after game. The German goalkeeper outdid his xGC (Expected Goals Conceded) in 2017/18 in La Liga by almost 5. In layman terms, he saved Barcelona from conceding 5 definite goals across the whole season.
Beyond the facts and figures, this group of players rarely exhibited the urgency to press in midfield, often failing to close down counter-attacks which is perhaps more of a red flag than most as it signals to the lack of trust and drive that the group have towards the coach’s vision.
Valverde often played players out of position to ensure the implementation of the 4-4-2, but his lack of trust in wingers like Malcom, Ousmane Dembélé and Carles Pérez which meant he resorted to playing midfielders out of position. Players like Paulinho, Arturo Vidal and Sergi Roberto were deployed out wide while also trying to ensure that they can offer the missing stability in the middle of the park simultaneously.
Valverde also attempted playing Phillipe Coutinho in the left-winger role, pinned him out to the wings which never really suited his more centrally-aligned style of play. This eventually led to the Brazilian international being sent out on loan to Bayern Munich, only 1 and a half years after making his record move to the Blaugrana outfit.
Far from being a leader of men
It was very well known to the media and the fans that the Basque-coach had absolutely no control over his senior players. The prime example would be Gerard Piqué, who through his company Kosmos Tennis, took over the Davis Cup with a $3 billion revamp of the tournament. During the 2019 Davis Cup, the legendary defender had asked the coach for permission to travel to Madrid a day before a league game against Leganes and despite not getting Ernesto’s permission, Piqué made the trip and was subsequently dropped from the line-up.
Other such instances included the likes of Suárez and Messi, reporting a week late to pre-season after vacationing in the Bahamas as well as the Croat, Ivan Rakitić taking a day off from training a day before F Barcelona’s trip to the Estadio Vicente Calderón in 2017, to celebrate his brother in-law’s birthday in Seville.
A serious lack of physical and mental preparation
Under Valverde, labels such as lazy and lacklustre have been used to sum up what has been an extremely disappointing era for Barcelona. This stems from the fact that the Spanish gaffer rarely focused on the physical side of things from the start of pre-season. Valverde himself shockingly told Spanish magazine, SPORT that he “doesn’t pay much importance to the physical preparation of his squad”, also shedding light on how the fitness aspect of the squad doesn’t play much of a part in the preparation process. This could possibly what always happened to Barcelona’s form in the latter parts of the season, especially in the Champions League.
In the current season, Barcelona has suffered its worst injury crisis since 2013/14 with an astonishing 16 non-impact injuries in less than the first 5 months of the season blighting the Catalans.
In addition to the injuries, FC Barcelona also had the worst distance covered in the league to show for in 2017/18 and 2018/19, bar Eibar. The most distance covered every 90 minutes, for the Catalans was by Nélson Semedo, who was rarely utilized at right-back as he was resigned to being a backup for either Sergi Roberto or Jordi Alba.
Adding to the lack of physical preparation, FC Barcelona also seemed to lack the mental preparation going into the big games. Now, every coach has a different way of setting up his troops up, going into the final stages and without mincing any matters, it was just that Valverde’s tactics failed tremendously.
In the 2017/18 Champions League, Barcelona’s collapse away from home against an inspired Roma side seemed a one-off that could happen to the best of teams. What happened at Anfield though, was just simply unforgivable.
In the recent Barcelona-centric TV series, Matchday, the behind-the-scenes footage was revealed of the club. One of the episodes showed Jordi Alba crying at Anfield at half-time, even when the Catalans had a two-goal lead which showed that the players hadn’t really shaken off the demons that had taken over them in Rome a year ago.
While this was not Valverde’s job, every top coach has to know how his players react to a host of different in-game situations. In the second half, Alba’s mistake cost Barcelona the second goal and that was the start of Liverpool’s comeback.
The similar mental fragility also cost Barcelona the Copa del Rey, as they lost the final to Valencia CF when the underdogs scored two quick goals in the first half hour of the game.
With Quique Setién entering the Catalan shores, expectations remain high as the Camp Nou faithful hope to see their club recover from the regime of Ernesto Valverde who was simply never meant to bring back the glory days in a relationship that is as chalk and cheese as it could possibly get from its very outset.