Managers and miracles, Valverde and Martino

Tata Martino won manager of the year in MLS, the American football top level pro leagues.

For snobs, that is like being elected Mayor of Simpleton (yes, gratuitous XTC reference), because most remember his time with Barcelona in a very particular way: pistachio polos, bar-b-qs and laxity. And no trophies. “People said” various things about his tenure with the club, but his ultimate damnation was no silver, something deemed unacceptable for a fanbase that needs silver, then reserves the right to assess the quality of that championship.

At Barcelona, the general consensus is that Martino stank. To high heaven. But a few of us fools dared to suggest that he didn’t do all that badly, given what he had to work with, something that many of the same fools say about Ernesto Valverde, whose last name is most often attached to a Twitter hashtag that concludes with “out.”

But the larger question is what do we expect from managers? At the core of things, we expect them to win. Trophies will define a manager, no matter what narratives anyone wraps around a tenure. Luis Enrique, no matter what will be attached to it in the future, won a treble, then a double in consecutive seasons. Martino won nothing. Valverde won a domestic double in his first season. But still, what do we really expect from managers? For one thing, we expect them to be miracle workers.

When a manager is fired, it is usually because that action is much easier than firing the squad. You hope that a new approach might make a difference, even as it usually doesn’t. Pity Thierry Henry in Monaco. Everyone knew what he was getting into, as did he. But still, there was the hope that somehow, there would be a miracle. There wasn’t, and won’t be, because talent is talent.

But there are a host of quite different managerial situations. When Zinedine Zidane took over Real Madrid, there was talent, but that talent needed something different from its manager, something that happened to be what Zidane provided. Voila. Champions League victories. Yes there was luck, and easy opponents at times, blablabla. But Zidane was one of those managerial changes that worked. As a smart man, Zidane also looked at what was about to happen at Real Madrid, and decided that last summer was the time to say goodbye, that nothing good could come of riding out what was going to be a complex situation. Was he smart? Time will tell, but his was a rare situation where a managerial change worked (sort of). Real Madrid got tonked in the league, after all.

Martino came to Barça as a caretaker until the real choice, Luis Enrique, was available. He took over a team that was, in reality, a mess. After four hard-driving years with Pep Guardiola, then a harrowing season of ultimate heartbreak under Tito Vilanova, Martino came in after Vilanova’s cancer battle required the beloved coach to step down. Vilanova was battling his illness during that season. Also in March, the Iniestas suffered a miscarriage, which was more heartbreak, and Eric Abidal was jettisoned during a cruel, tear-laden press event.

Welcome to Barcelona, Mr. Martino. Here is your team.

As a prelude to a promotion at my workplace, the company sent me to management training. On the first day, the first class we had was on How to Be A Manager. The instructor asked us, “What does it mean to be a good manager?” We all had answers: “Managing work to be most effective,” “Setting up good practices that produce the best work.” Every answer related to the work, which showed that we knew nothing at all about being managers. After letting us continue to dig ourselves a hole, the instructor said, “No. Being a manager is dealing with people and their problems.”

What he meant by that is if the people are happy, the work will be good. If the people are unhappy, it doesn’t matter what you do to manage the work. It won’t be good. In Martino’s season, there was much talk of softness, of easy trainings and team cookouts. And so many scoffed. Few asked, “What if what the team needed was cuddles instead of screaming? What if, in the mental and emotional state that it was in, a BBQ was the best thing, rather than more ‘Run you bastards, run!'” If a friend is suffering heartache, do you hug them, or scream at them? As a manager, Martino had to make a decision about the best way to deal with his people, and it seemed to be working. The team was on a record-setting pace until right before winter break, when it lost 1-0 to Athletic at San Mames.

That season was already defined by the Rayo Vallecano victory, a 0-4 beatdown in which Barça won, but (shudder) lost the possession stats. Hysteria ensued, and permeated the season, as everyone and their mamas said that the team had to get back to playing “Barcelona football, playing as we know how to play.” Xavi had a meeting with Martino, and the style returned. After winter break, the team suffered five draws and four losses, losing the title on the final day of the season via a draw with Atleti. And Martino left, deemed a failure.

In a quite good Guardian article from August on what Martino hath wrought in Atlanta, a quote stood out. Martino said that he found Atlanta “much easier to … concentrate on what I like and know, which is training my team. In my other jobs I wasted a lot of time on things which shouldn’t have taken up so much time.” Was this a reference to Barcelona and Argentina? Almost certainly. There, a manager isn’t managing the team alone. He’s managing expectation, narrative, the entorno. It’s a cauldron. Atlanta was, for Martino, pure coaching.

In another article on Atlanta and Martino from Fansided, Christopher Dodson writes that, “His willingness to change his tactics and formation completely was paramount to his team’s success. Tata is taking time with his ideas and developing the identity of the club. Over 72,000 strong wholeheartedly approve of Tata’s philosophy.”

Yes, Atlanta is drawing crowds of more than 70k for football in America, and had the highest average attendance in the league this season. Martino is a success. Is this because he could do what he does, or because Atlanta and the MLS are an easy catch for a manager? Perhaps his next job, the Mexico NT, will provide answers. But Martino might have been the clearest example of what people expect from a manager. Essentially, we want a team and its manager to provide affirmation. Do what we want the way that we want it, or everything sucks. Use that player the right way, play the right football according to what we want, or everything is wrong.

Valverde has problems. He has a slow midfield, neither of his fullbacks are very good defensively. Supporters still act like this is back in the day, when Messi was tracking back, Alves and Abidal were guard dogs, and everybody could run. But this is 2018. Sergi Roberto has to give every attacker space, because he’s slow. So every pass from his flank will find its way into the box. Alba defaults to not getting beat off the dribble, so he sits off the opponent, so passes from his flank find their way into the box. On counters, if Sergi Roberto is pushed up, his man is gone. A tired Rakitic and a forever slow Busquets can’t solve anything, so it’s a jailbreak that only two CBs must solve, including one of diminished physical capabilities in Gerard Pique.

Of course that defense is going to leak goals. Why is anyone shocked that it does? In attack, Valverde has another set of problems in that the most secure way for Barça to play is not the Cruijffian ideal of total football, because that football can’t be total on defense, as it was with Guardiola. Another conundrum.

Many noted that Barça was playing better when Messi was out. Well, yes, as weird that that seems. Because Suarez reverted to a classic 9, who roamed the entire front space, on offense and defense. No Messi meant that there was one more player to track back, to help defend. When Messi returned against Betis, Suarez returned to his gilded cage. No more taking the ball on the run in the center of the pitch, passing, taking on CBs outside the box. That is Messi’s area.

Malcom started against Betis as Coutinho is injured. The reaction of many was that this hampered Alba, rather than Malcom’s teammates made rather ineffective use of a serious weapon for Barça. His danger was clear in the first ten minutes, then he stopped getting the ball. There was also no bridge between the lines until Vidal entered the fray, so a tired, ineffective Arthur was plopping benign passes hither and yon. Combine this with slack, lazy efforts by too many players and Betis was always going to win. Any reasonable Liga side would have beaten Barça on that day.

To suggest that Valverde somehow failed raises a lot of questions, again about what we expect from a manager. There were even crazy Tweets such as, “This loss is all on Valverde.” Valverde is conservative, and slow to act. He tends to have players that he relies on, even when it’s clear those players need a rest. And he definitely isn’t the kind of manager to innovate his way out of a difficulty. He also has problems, and not only those enumerated above. Who subs for Busquets? It’s criminal that there is still not an effective sub for him. Who subs for Messi, even if Messi were to be rotated? Suarez? And don’t you dare say Munir.

This isn’t 2009 Barça, or even 2012 Barça. This is 2018 Barça, a team with many of the same starters that it had in 2009, and we expect those people to perform in the same manner, or (insert manager name)out. Until we accept the team that we have, until we understand the problems of managing people and problems a manager has to work with, how can we ever properly evaluate a manager or a team’s performance?

And then there’s Dembele, who is on the outs with everyone, from Catalan media to his national team coach to (allegedly) his club coach, even the club itself. The latest press outlet campaign is that Liverpool wants him for a January transfer. He’s late for training, and was late calling in sick. To certain media outlets and certain reporters, he deserves the guillotine, rather than an examination of what the problems might be, and what a manager can do to extract the best from him. Is Valverde that manager? Dunno. Is Deschamps that manager? Apparently not. So who is? Would Klopp have left him out for being late? Yep. Tuchel? Yep. We know because he has this season at PSG.

Managing people is hard. Finding the right approach to make Dembele understand what he needs to do, has to do if he wants to succeed at Barça is complex. We expect miracles. If it was just on-pitch performance, Dembele would have a lot more leeway. But it’s the off-pitch stuff that makes it easy for him to be a target. Do what you need to do. But it isn’t that simple, even as it seems that simple. As a manager, similar situations have arisen, and a solution needed to be found. One size fits all doesn’t work with humans, and on the part of supporters, it doesn’t work with managers.

Valverde isn’t Guardiola, or Luis Enrique, or Martino. He’s Ernesto Valverde, a flawed manager (they all are) wresting with a peculiar set of problems that so many fail to see, problems that can’t be solved with simple tactics. Whatever formation you have, his midfield is still slow, his fullbacks still flawed, his offense still with 2-3 players who aren’t going to track back effectively. When “total football” is impossible, what kind of football is? Last season brought one answer, that everybody hated because it wasn’t what they wanted to see. This season, a work in progress, is a different answer, but it still isn’t what everybody wants to see. There are a few things worth understanding, to move forward:

— It will never be 2009 again
— Old players are old players
— Managers aren’t miracle workers
— What we want to see doesn’t matter as much as what is, which will affect what we see

All the rest is narrative.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.