“It isn’t about results.”
“We just want the team to be able to compete.”
“The team didn’t have an identity.”
“We don’t want the treble all the time. We just want a better team.”
In the wake of Pep Guardiola, being a Barça manager is one of the worst jobs in football because no matter what you do, it will be wrong. Tito Vilanova battled cancer, while remote coaching his team to a record points total in La Liga. He’s the guy who didn’t play Thiago Alcantara enough, forcing him to leave for Bayern Munich.
Tata Martino is the coach who took a physical and psychological wreck of a team, did pretty well given the circumstances (Vilanova, Abidal, Iniestas miscarriage, various injuries), but he is the guy who had barbecues and won no trophies.
Luis Enrique is the coach who won a treble, followed that with a double then a Copa, but won the treble the wrong way, didn’t play Barça football and rotated too much, so the team didn’t have continuity when it needed it. And the midfield.
Ernesto Valverde is the coach who is going to win a double, but who didn’t rotate enough, whose team didn’t have a style, and he didn’t get past the Champions League quarters.
It isn’t just about results, yet the Roma match has people calling for the sack. So what is it? The way the team played against Roma? Should we fire all the players, as well?
We want the team to be able to compete, a team that was in the running for another treble until an awful night in Rome, and will win the domestic double. What about that team isn’t competitive?
The team didn’t have an identity, even as tactics nerds points to innovations that Valverde made, including liberating Alba to become a decisive player, and using Rakitic to augment and protect Busquets, one of the most important players on the pitch for Barça. The team had an identity. It just wasn’t the one that people wanted it to have.
We don’t want the treble all the time, yet we want to see a coach who is going to do the domestic double gone. What do we want, then, and how do we go about it?
The summer in Barça social media was fascinating. Real Madrid had a smart transfer summer, adding to a Liga and Champions League-winning side in ways that would ensure a dynasty, and the best team football had seen since Guardiola’s marauding sprites. Barça? Thank God for Messi, but come on. They signed a kid, an untested right back and a has-been from China, who failed miserably at Spurs. And Neymar left. Barça would be lucky to finish second in Liga, particularly given that Atleti was loaded for bear, and was rumored to be getting Diego Costa back.
Atleti is 13 points behind Barça in its second-place perch in La Liga. Real Madrid is ages behind as Barça looks to clinch the league title with a win against Depor (the team that beat them after the PSG remuntada, an expensive egg laid against a minnow), and continue its quest to go unbeaten in the league.
How times change.
In hiring Valverde, the board brought in a coach who was what the club needed. It had too many key players who were on the wrong side of 30. Suarez, Messi, Pique, Iniesta, Rakitic are all there, and Busquets and Alba are 29. Seven of the gala XI are nearing that football age when players aren’t what they once were, quite visibly so. Dembele broke, and Liverpool held the line on Coutinho, so it’s worth looking at what Valverde had to call upon from the bench.
Paulinho: Come on, now.
Denis Suarez: Tentative, defensively a joke
Andre Gomes: An acknowledged flop
Paco Alcacer: Not Suarez
Dembele: Broken, then far from full fitness, also a defensive joke
Semedo: Not ready yet, but talented. Not going to change a match
Aleix Vidal: Another failure
Vermaelen: A serviceable sub CB
Valverde is, therefore, to be pilloried for not using more of players that supporters have deemed surplus to requirements and best, and wastes of money at worst. Whenever Gomes or Paulinho would come on, subbing from someone much more lauded, the scorn was evident, along with derisive laughter. Coutinho arrived in January along with Yerry Mina. The former was almost an instant help in Liga, but was Cup-tied. Mina is a young player for the future.
The XI played a lot because the XI had to play a lot. What made Guardiola’s teams work was that they were savage. It wasn’t just positional play, but unmatched aggression as everyone pressed. In the treble year, Henry and Eto’o ran like demons, chasing everything down with pressure that started from the keeper, who wasn’t allowed to play the pass he wanted to CBs, who were pressed by Messi, Eto’o and Henry, to midfielders who ran into the buzzsaw of Xavi, Iniesta and a pushed-up Pique and Puyol. There was no surviving that. In a game when there was defense, midfield and offense, Barça was a maelstrom that defended and attacked with eleven.
That was ages ago, in football years.
Valverde inherited a team that had clear deficiencies. It also had two players in Messi and Suarez, who weren’t really going to defend. So the press that began at the keeper during the glory years, didn’t start until midfield now. And if they broke that line, it was a breakout, a direct run at CBs and at least one out-of-position FB. Look at how easily teams could play crosses in from the wings against the Barça FBs, who were usually chasing the play as they scramble to get into position.
Like any coach with a brain, Valverde figured that if his team gave up goals, the absence of Neymar meant a few things, in addition to the yeoman work that the Brazilian did in helping to defend. Low blocks were going to be a problem because Suarez wouldn’t have a capable playmate. Dembele breaking also damaged that, things that would all make Barça susceptible to low blocks. So first job was to stop leaking goals. To help with this, midfield muscle was needed in Paulinho, a player who would rumble around, play wall passes to help retain possession and help with the press. Because the basic reality was that Busquets, facing wide-open spaces, wasn’t going to be able to be as effective as he was in the past.
Another way Valverde chose to combat this was a modified double pivot, as Rakitic became Busquets’ tactical bodyguard, freeing up and protecting so that Busquets didn’t have as much ground to cover, and could be more effective. Rakitic had a brilliant, but under the radar season in this role, even as he was being pilloried by many for not being the player he was at Sevilla, and not even the player that he was under Luis Enrique.
The Barça team was set up to allow Messi to be decisive rather than essential (even as he was). Alba’s attacks up the wing were buttressed by a solid defense from midfield back. The football was going to be less beautiful because it had to be. What coach in his right mind wouldn’t want his team to play like Barça did against Sevilla? But the season saw a steady diet of low blocks. On the rare occaison that an opponent was brave or crazy enough to play Barça open, we saw beautiful, flowing football of the type that people said that the team never played any more, and wouldn’t it be lovely if the team could play like that all the time, a perfect world where every opponent was compliant and willing to take a 2 or 3-goal hiding.
We wondered why Valverde didn’t rotate, even as we didn’t see the training sessions, where players earn their spots. Should the team have had better players and better options? Absolutely. Now let’s run out and find a viable sub for Iniesta, Messi, Pique or Busquets, position-defining players who come across once in a supporter’s lifetime. But Gomes should be good enough. He should be. He wasn’t. And that wasn’t Valverde’s fault. Denis Suarez should have been good enough, but wasn’t. Same with Alcacer. The only difference maker that Valverde had on the bench against Roma was Dembele, a player who was as defensively suspect as he was offensively capricious. Valverde’s sin was in having too much faith in some of the best players in the world, players who had brought the team to that moment, on the brink of a Champions League semi-final. That was his sin.
So let’s sack him. Who comes in, and what do they have to work with? They will have to manage the same summer fire sale that Valverde will have to manage, but the core of the team, the abovementioned septet, aren’t going anywhere — yet they will all be another year older. Valverde has committed to Carles Alena from the B team, who should be a dynamic, effective midfield addition. Arthur Melo will be coming in January (possibly in summer), but he will require some time before he becomes what people are anticipating that he will become. If the Griezmann rumor is true, that would be an exceptional addition, along with a fit, assimilated Dembele. That roster would be impressive, and would allow whoever the coach is a degree of flexibility in both attack and defense thanks to younger, more agile players. Rotation would become more viable.
How quickly would a new coach be able to hit the ground running, and what style would that new coach have. How would it work with an aged core? If that coach doesn’t get the results we demand and in the right way, do we sack him as well? Who next, and at what point does it stop?
This isn’t a defense of Valverde, but rather an attempt at understanding the peculiar set of circumstances with which he had to work from his seat in one of the worst jobs in top-level world football. Semantics are used to dance around the fact that people want him sacked on the basis of one match, this coach who figured out how to maximize the efforts and contributions of an aged core of veteran talent. Would the next coach be as effective? Would he want Messi or Suarez to run more, be a bigger part of a press? What if he, too, failed? And what about the sporting continuity that allows a team to develop into something?
Barça will, in a couple of years, have to rebuild. Valverde has done nothing to demonstrate that he is the coach for that rebuild. Valverde has also done nothing, given the strange alchemy of his season, to demonstrate that he deserves the sack for getting the most out of veterans and a cadre of bench players who are a massive step down from anyone in the XI. #valverdeout?