“Welcome to FC Barcelona, Ernesto. Now win the Treble in your first season or you’re out. Oh, and one more thing - Neymar’s off to Paris. Best of luck!”
Last summer I did a quick poll of listeners to the La Liga Weekly podcast and Barcelona finished a distant second in their predictions. This was a squad that hadn’t been well-constructed, was over-reliant on one man and had just been stripped of a genuine star. If the Barca fans calling for Ernesto Valverde’s head are in a minority, they are a vocal one.
When he started the job, Barca had finished second in La Liga and won the Copa del Rey but been knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage after losing 3-0 in Italy. This time around they’re cantering to the title, they’re in the Copa del Rey final and lost the Champions League quarter-final after losing 3-0 in Italy, which may sound familiar. As bitter as the defeat at the Stadio Olimpico felt for Barca fans, this season’s achievements will surely outstrip those of Luis Enrique’s last campaign.
I concede that Real Madrid’s shocking domestic form contributed to the relative ease with which Valverde’s men have controlled La Liga but with seven games to play they are only 11 points behind last year’s tally. So Valverde surely can’t be sacked on statistics alone but in these days when we are supposed to judge on the process rather than the outcome has he come up short? Yes, a little.
The most common criticism has been of the style of play: after all, who wants a functional, efficient Barcelona? Atletico Madrid punch above their weight taking on the titans so we cut them slack when it comes to grinding out results but not Barca; I get it.
Valverde has also taken fair criticism for his tactical failure against Roma. He was too slow to react to the Italians’ aggression and positivity and seems to have been guilty (as many of us were) of dismissing a strong team especially given that the margin of victory in the first leg was inflated by two own goals. Actually, Barca may have been better off if Roma had taken another one of their chances at the Camp Nou.
I also wonder whether he regrets his lack of rotation in league games. Every lazy Premier League apologist is convinced the big Spanish clubs have it easy before Champions League matches with a fixture against Fuenlabrada under-16s but check out Liverpool’s line-up in the Merseyside derby on Saturday. Despite their 3-0 first leg lead over Manchester City; Jurgen Klopp was taking no chances with the Champions League. Gerard Pique has been limping through games and it seems like Thomas Vermaelen has been warming-up on the touchline for weeks. Valverde also has a Messi addiction; the great man is Barca’s most-used outfield player and surely an extra breather here and there would have left him sharper at this stage of the season. But this isn’t unique – in fact all of Valverde’s predecessors have been happy to go along with Messi’s desire to stay on the pitch as much as superhumanly possible.
So there you are: I’m not a Valverde ‘fan boy’ and he has made mistakes but much of this can be laid at the door of the club’s hierarchy and their stewardship of its resources. There was a great deal of mutinous talk about President Josep Maria Bartomeu and his crew before Valverde’s arrival; it is curious that the newer arrival is now taking more criticism. This is not a great Barcelona – it is a very good one with Messi and an ageing Andres Iniesta. This season’s big signings - Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele - promise to improve the squad but haven’t yet made a splash, and Barcelona, typically, overpaid for them. Winning La Liga is a good return for this squad this season, the double would be excellent and it is excessively harsh consider denying Valverde time to improve on his shortcomings and have a say in the strengthening of the playing resources.