Having finally succumbed to Barcelona’s perennial courtship, ‘the Ant’ has landed. Named so due to his durability as a player, it is a quality that Ernesto Valverde, the new Blaugrana Coach, will need in spades as he embarks on his rebuilding job at the Camp Nou.
Whilst no doubt relieved that his in-tray has been lightened by Lionel Messi’s impending contract renewal, there are nonetheless many pressing issues for the 53-year old to tackle.
The first of these, and of the utmost significance to Los Culés followers, is his tactical blueprint. The rumblings of discontent about Luis Enrique’s playing style never really went away during his tenure. Valverde however, as a player under Johan Cruyff – albeit for only two years – absorbed the learnings of Barcelona’s late deity and is well placed to restore what many felt has been lost in recent seasons.
The former Olympiakos boss leans towards an attractive attacking 4-2-3-1 formation, employing high-pressing and use of the flanks to create space and openings. This was none more so evidenced than by perhaps the signature result of his Athletic Bilbao career, the 4-0 Supercopa first leg triumph over his new employer.
Two of the four goals resulted from suffocating pressing in the opposition half and the use of width to pull defenders wide, leaving his forwards – particularly the prolific Aritz Aduriz – free to poach in the middle.
The benefit of Valverde’s nomadic career to date is that he has managed players with different strengths, becoming something of a chameleon in his tactical methods so as to maximise their abilities.
At Bilbao, he often employed a direct style that made the most of Raúl García and Aduriz’s aerial prowess. At Olympiakos, he was known to drill his physical squad rigorously in set-pieces, knowing that efficiency in these situations increased the chances of picking up points in regularly tight matches. Whether he introduces similar concepts at the Nou Camp to go alongside the more classic “Barça way” remains to be seen.
His approach to youth development will also be fascinating to observe. One of the key criteria for the Blaugrana Socios in his appointment was his proven ability to successfully integrate players from academies into the first team. Whilst clearly the Basque-only policy at San Mamés made it non-negotiable to bring through youngsters, he developed talents such as Iñaki Williams and Yeray Álvarez – and is expected to do the same in his new role.
There has been a lot of anguish among the Los Culés faithful lately at the departure of some of La Masia’s highest-rated prospects, such as Jordi Mboula and Eric García, to Monaco and Manchester City respectively, and also the costly buy-backs the club has embarked on to recapture the players it developed.
The re-signing of Gerard Deulofeu was confirmed this week, and another former cantera graduate Héctor Bellerín may soon follow, according to reports in Catalan daily Sport this week. These deals could cost Barça more than €60m in transfer fees alone.
Valverde’s appointment should ensure a clearer pathway to the first team going forward, and that future stars are given more chances to establish themselves than was the case under Enrique, removing the likelihood of them looking for first team football elsewhere.
Outside of football, Valverde is a keen photographer. Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque writer, described his works as “seeming to always feature people who are alone”. Should he not be able to address the issues above, he could quickly start feeling that way himself.