FC Barcelona look for change in Ernesto Valverde
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Four managers have come and gone at Barcelona since 2008—only two lasted more than a year. Tito Vilanova’s tenure (2012-13) was cruelly cut short by cancer, and Gerardo Martino failed to win a major trophy in his only year (2013-14) in charge. But the two who lasted left their tactical footprints behind; so much so that it’s safe to divide the past decade at Barcelona into the Pep Guardiola (2008-12) era and the Luis Enrique (2014-17) era.
With Enrique announcing his exit after a not-so-consistent 2016-17 season, saying he is “exhausted”, it is time for another manager, another era, and maybe a return to roots for the team .
Despite the abundant talent Barcelona possess, it’s not going to be an easy ride for the new manager, Ernesto Valverde, who will take charge from next season, starting in a couple of months.
Vilanova, Guardiola’s right-hand man, continued with his mentor’s philosophy and Martino wasn’t around long enough to experiment. But Enrique’s arrival saw a different type of Barcelona. Gone was the inclination to pass the ball rather than shoot, or choke the opponent by maintaining possession through short passes in the midfield, or the urge to always work the ball out of danger.
These tactics were replaced by audacious efforts, swift attacking and no-nonsense defending. It led to a fearsome free-scoring side, with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar roaring out of the blocks, tearing into defences and piling up goals.
In Enrique’s three seasons in charge, Barcelona scored 346 goals in 114 La Liga matches alone. The Spaniard won the La Liga, the Copa del Rey, Uefa Champions League, Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup, all in his first season (2014-15). It was delirious success—and Enrique had matched the set of trophies Guardiola had in his first campaign (2008-09). There was no way of bettering this; his challenge was to hold on to the success.
The fairy-tale beginning didn’t quite unravel, but cracks did begin to show in Enrique’s third season.
The immense creative freedom that he allowed his team led to a lack of control—something Barcelona were obsessive about under Guardiola. Barcelona played a total of 22,782 passes in La Liga in 2016-17, down from 23,408 in 2015-16, and 25,020 passes in 2014-15. Average possession came down to 56% in the three seasons under Enrique, from 60.5% in the two preceding seasons.
Barcelona were brilliant to watch in the last season that ended earlier this month, but they were vulnerable as well. In the Champions League, they lost 3-1 to Manchester City, 4-0 to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and 3-0 to Juventus—humiliating, uncharacteristic losses.
In La Liga 2016-17, they were in the top position only in the opening week. Real Madrid won that marathon eventually and despite some unbelievable comebacks in crucial matches, it was not enough for Enrique to retain his position.
The team looked exposed and over-reliant on individual brilliance and the transfer policy was bad—André Gomes, Paco Alcácer looked out of sorts and Dani Alves should never have been allowed to join Juventus, the team that defeated Barcelona in the round of eight and eventually reached the Champions League final.
Rifts developed—senior players Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets openly admitted that it wasn’t the “attitude” of players but “football and tactics” that cost them games. There was no Plan B and Enrique had steered the club too close to pragmatism—players being allowed to react to a certain situation the way they deemed fit—and counter-attack. Their best players over the years—Iniesta, Busquets, Gerard Pique, Messi, Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Javier Mascherano—are all nearing or are over 30. An overhaul is imminent.
At Barcelona, invincibility matters as much as the art of winning. Under Enrique, they had lost that invincibility and the canvas seemed faded as well. He had to go.
The Valverde era
Valverde must have crossed paths with Guardiola in his playing career. Like Guardiola, he played under Johan Cruyff for the Catalans (1988-90). He has worked wonders with Athletic Bilbao in two spells (2003-05 and 2013-17), overachieving with a side which is only allowed to sign Basque-based and youth academy players and taking them to Europe multiple times, never finishing lower than eighth in La Liga.
Before his second spell at Athletic, he famously said that “sequels are never good, apart from Godfather II”. But the sequel delivered Athletic’s first trophy in 31 years when they beat Enrique’s Barcelona 4-0 in the Supercopa de España in 2015.
In a 15-year-long managerial career, Valverde managed to take Espanyol to the Uefa Cup final in 2007 and won three Greek league titles with Olympiakos. He also led crisis-torn Valencia from 12th to fifth place in La Liga in a span of five months in 2012-13.
Valverde’s sides press hard, are defensively organized and attack with flourish. Athletic had let in 65 goals in La Liga in 2012-13. On Valverde’s return, that number went down to 39 in the 2013-14 season.
He has openly stated that he wants to restore tiki-taka, the short passing and moving the ball forward technique that Barcelona championed at Camp Nou. “I know the style because I played here. My goal is always to deepen the style, to revisit it once again,” he has been quoted as saying after the announcement of his hiring.
At Athletic, Valverde showed he knows how to bring out the best in players from a small pool of talent. At Barcelona, with the freedom to sign whom he wants to, and with players like Messi, Neymar and Suarez, it is anybody’s guess where he can take the team to.
Valverde’s nickname is “Txingurri”, or “the Ant”. It’s said ants can lift up to 5,000 times their weight—certainly, Valverde will need to do as much.
Pulasta Dhar is an I-League commentator and news editor (sport) at ScoopWhoop.