Football is a game of action, which makes Ernesto Valverde an anomaly.
The old adage “When in doubt, do nothing” has a living, breathing manifestation in Valverde, a coach who ratcheted up the enmity that surrounds him to new levels when he said, after the draw at Valencia, that he didn’t know what to do. Boy, did THAT send the culerverse into a tizzy.
Many have said that the translation captured the words, but not the tone, which seems accurate. Valverde made changes, and things got worse, which probably served to vindicate his belt-and-suspenders worldview. The biggest problem with Valverde is that football is a game of action. We want our coaches to do something. Make personnel or tactical changes, do things that will adapt his circumstances to the stimulus of the match at hand.
None of us really knows Valverde, but it seems that his default setting is to not make changes that might mess something up. Against Valencia, his team wasn’t playing badly. The attack created a chance that Coutinho really should have converted, right before the Brazilian was subbed off for a player who made things worse.
We mistake inaction for indecision, conflate doing nothing with being clueless. But the very decision not to act is in fact an act. It could even be said to be a brave act, given the demands of football and the people who follow it.
Each of us has a job where we can do stuff. Mine is editing, where someone sends me a pile of words that they think is a story, and it’s my job to make it better. Sometimes that job is easy, because a story needs work. And how. Other times that job is easy, because a story needs nothing, or very little. One of the smartest editors I know told me, way back when, that the most confident editor knows when to say, “This is good. I can’t improve this.”
Journalism has what we call “feng shui” editors, who make the kinds of “six vs a half-dozen” kinds of changes that drive writers batty. “Why did you change that,” they ask, often getting a reputation for being difficult instead of being able to see through an editor’s busywork. Football doesn’t want its coaches to be able say, “This is fine.”
We’re in an era of the cult of coaching. Guardiola, Tuchel, Klopp, Sarri are names that people cite in Tweet after Tweet, blog post after blog post, innovators who manage to not only get the best from a team, but to do it in innovative ways. They are dynamic agents, who sometimes get a change wrong. They own it, learn from that mistake even as they might make it again, because they do stuff.
You also have coaches who are accountants, such as Valverde, who know the math and understand the equations. They look at what is going on, what they have, and ask what would be improved by making a change? If the answer is nothing, they do nothing. This is different from the dynamic agent, who never believes that things are fine, or going well, that they can always be made better.
The two very different types should never be mistaken for each other, which is a lot of the perception problem that Valverde is facing. If you look at, say, a piece of cake and choose not to eat it, you have made a choice. There are a raft of choices surrounding that cake. You might cut it into four slices and share with friends. You might eat it all yourself. You might add some ice cream and really have a party. You might take a bite, then leave some for later. All of these are actions, and the perception will depend on the worldview of the observer.
“Man, what willpower you have,” the person will a hearty appetitite will say as you push aside the cake. “That’s nice that you shared,” might say the person predisposed to being selfish. Action, even inaction, involves decision.
The biggest mistake that we make with Valverde is thinking of him as an active coach. He is very much a passive one, and that passivity is his strength to people who value that quality. Back when he was hired, recall the post here that said the board wanted an accountant. That is Valverde. It’s unfair to think of an accountant as an innovator. There is only one way to manage 2+2 when those are the only variables you have. 1+3 isn’t part of the frame, nor is 8-12. It’s a clear, simple solution. Accountants are considered boring because they do what they do. No muss, fuss or bother. And we like that. In accountants. Do you want a fast and loose guy doing your taxes? Hell no.
But in our football coaches, we want agents of action, men of change. What we forget is that we have nothing at stake. If we call for a formation change on social media, nobody is going to start a #kxevinout hashtag if it doesn’t work. We have no skin in the game. No job, no livelihood, no nothing. Just ego and bragging rights if our team wins. The mistake is to believe that people who choose inaction are fearful, or somehow timid. They can, and usually do, have every bit as much confidence in their decision as the agent of change.
The mind strains to think of a more misunderstood Barça coach than Valverde, and this piece won’t change that, because people think what they think. But until we try to understand how he is, what makes him tick, he won’t be able to do anything right.
There is a current clamor to use a B centerback to supplant a think CB corps. Why would a coach such as Valverde, or any coach, really, do that? A second-division player might be kicking ass in the second division, where players are slower, less skilled, less dangerous. A CB error in Segunda B might not result in a goal. In La Liga, a CB who errs is doomed. Why would Valverde take that risk, when that isn’t his personality? There are versatile first-teamers who have the versatility to play CB. That is what a coach such as Valverde would choose.
That choice, or any choice, isn’t wrong because it isn’t what we would have done. It just is.
When Valverde leaves this summer, no matter what he does, even if the team wins a treble this season, he will leave as a failure, just as Luis Enrique did, because no matter what results he gets, he won’t have done things the right way. The difference between what we want and what we get is tempered by perception, and reality. Understanding what we have is reality.
The problem with all of that is football is fantasy. That transfer will be The One, that substitution will come on and score the winning goal, because that’s how it is in our minds. Valverde saw how Valencia was defending, knew what he had on the banch and said, “Can’t see how this can can be better.” The changes that he made were late enough not to mess everything up, not to lose the draw that his team worked so hard for.
“Small club coach, went for the draw.” Everybody says that they want a coach to go for it, without fully understanding what that means. “Going for it” always has a positive outcome, which is why we like the active agents. They DO stuff. But often, doing nothing is just as complex, and just as fraught with danger. Understand what Valverde is, and that he will never be what so many want. Even if we don’t like it, we should strive to understand it.