Valverde, romance and the audacity of hope

There are two ways to build and manage a team, really. You can have a team, or a group of players working toward a great player. It’s the Bayern model, a nice, tight sine wave of talent, or the current Barcelona model where they set it up for Messi, who does what he does.

In the fantastic post-Liverpool recap from Billy Haisley, an essential read, he suggests that it was everyone’s fault and nobody’s fault, that the best team won even if the best collection of players didn’t.

In the post-match meltdown in the culerverse, the race to ladle all of the blame onto the back of Valverde has been swift, unrelenting, and misguided.

It isn’t that there weren’t complexities with the way Valverde set up his team, and his starting XI. The way he managed the match was also a crapshow of contemplative inaction. The dilemma is that as in Rome — despite assertions of having learned — the outcome, the whole awful thing, could never have gone any other way because it’s just how Valverde is.

One of the best, more succinct things that summed up feelings for many came via a Tweet from Cynicule, a longtime observer:

Oddly enough I’m not very upset. Today feels like when you go on holiday on your family’s old clunker of a car and you know it’s not going to get you all the way, so when the engine catches fire you just shrug and grab the extinguisher you already had at hand.

Back in October, a Valverde assessment here tackled what seems, to we supporters, to be a fundamental inability in that man to make the needed changes. Thing is, Valverde knows exactly the changes to make. His record of making the correct subs to change a match is extraordinary.

The problem is time. At Anfield Barcelona played a first half that was, if not anywhere near its sparkling best, good enough to ensure advancing. All they had to do was not give up three goals in 45 minutes, a task not outside the realm for a team with its defensive record.

Then everybody seemed to get stupid at a pace that looked like the Millennium Falcon going into Hyperspace.

The Valverde way of processing information is slow, too slow for a match that went off the rails as quickly as the one did at Anfield. But the biggest dilemma of the Valverde view of things is that it is suffused with romance, faith and an unshakable confidence that good players are going to do good things. That further, if they have done good things before, they are more likely to do them again, and therefore trustworthy. He’s like your Mom.

We wondered why he started Coutinho, but that happened for the same reason he doesn’t sub or rotate Suarez. What if? How many matches have we screamed at our screens for Valverde to shoot Suarez from a cannon, something, ANYTHING to get him off the pitch. Then he scores a golazo, or a key goal.

Many coaches have a belief in the talents of a player, but Valverde is next level. When many supporters look at Coutinho, they see a broken man who is done in Barcelona. Maybe, just maybe, what Valverde sees is that player who smoked in a golazo against Manchester United, and what if you take him off right before he does that very thing again? Or what if … you start him and he does it?

It’s weird to think of a coach as a romantic in that way. Even harder is to try to understand it without excusing or justifying it. As he said after the match, it is what it is. But what it is is a confounding thing that nonetheless explains so much about his approach. Hope. It isn’t that he runs a one-man team, but rather that he runs a collection of quality individuals who, if everything goes right enough, can somehow combine to make something awesome. It’s the Infinite Monkey theory come to life. Valverde believes that if they type long enough, out will come a great novel.

Sometimes, it’s the belief that kills you.

Sergi Roberto has been a big-match player for Valverde. Did it matter that the matchups didn’t favor him, that he was still reeling from being a turnstile at the Camp Nou? No. He has done it before, and will do it again. Whether blind loyalty or hyper conservative is up each of us to interpret, and this is just a theory, but one that seems to be borne out by his action or in most cases, seeming inaction.

He didn’t start Iniesta in Rome because he expected him to be blown around by the Roma press. He started Iniesta because he had been a big-match player, a legend who turned himself inside out for the club he loved. Surely he had a few more minutes of brilliance in him. Semedo made more sense than Sergi Roberto against Liverpool but come on. It’s Sergi Freakin’ Roberto, slayer of Real Madrid, who put the knife into the greatest comeback in Barcelona history. What has Semedo ever done?

The challenge for us is in trying to understand how Valverde is, and how we need to react to it. If you are screaming that he needs to fired because of the Liverpool result, particularly after Roma, and many of us did, let’s reconsider. There are a number of other reasons to not want him to continue.

But this is a coach who won the domestic double last season and is on tap to do it again. Atop that is a board that is pragmatic and rather tentative, never mind the question of whether there is a better coach out there than Valverde based on the potential roster for next season, which is still going to be stuffed with veteran players in the 30+ brigade.

Valverde was the perfect coach for this team, last year and this, despite the disasters, despite the chaos and Mount Bottle. He structured it in a way that maximized its best player, steered it through Champions League play right up to Anfield unbeaten. He rotated more, was part of a team that made smart signings in the summer. He did so much right, and learned.

The larger question is what is a board that is more concerned with presenting a placid face to potential moneybags sponsors going to do with that coach? Can you really, justifiably fire a coach with domestic doubles in consecutive seasons? Should you? It’s a sound ask that none of us knows the answer to, even as we all called for Valverde’s head after the match.

What are the sins of Valverde? Like it or not, they can be boiled down to two matches, one in Rome, the other in Liverpool. Both those matches exposed the dark side of his limitations in a way that was fatal for his team. Twice. What does that coach say when he sits down with a board who has sniffed the air of the culerverse and would like his head on a platter? People can talk all they want about “the football beauty,” but we want him fired from a cannon because he lost. Is there anyone out there who thinks had they played beautifully and still lost, we’d feel any different?

What will happen behind closed doors in boardrooms and locker rooms? Does he say, “I have learned from last season to this one, and can learn some more?” That he did the best he could with a bunch of old dudes? Will there be excuses? Recriminations? Blaming players?

I have already made the argument that Valverde is the wrong person to run the team next season, based on the numbers of young players who will need support and grooming. He’s an innovative as clip-on suspenders, and has the bravery of a startled bunny. Start there, rather than Anfield or Rome. It’s fine to want him gone but not as an overreaction to the wheels falling off for a group that is used to driving fast. We get to freak out in the immediate stress of heartbreak, but what now? What next?

After the match, in the heat of things, I said that Valverde should resign, via SMS if necessary, that the trust relationship had been damaged between him and his team. But who knows? None of us do. Maybe they looked at everything, relived it, understood their roles in the drama and are ready to move on with the coach that by all accounts, they like and respect.

What should we do, as supporters? What we always do. The match was on Tuesday, and social media is just seeing glimpses of players on Friday. They felt it, and will feel it for a while. Getafe is next in an already-won La Liga, then the Copa final. We’re angry, Hurt. Disappointed. Furious. It’s impossible to be calm, and many will assume that this is a defense of Valverde because of those emotions. It isn’t. But it is an effort to try to understand, because until we do and even if we do, it’s going to be hard to move on. But the process has to start somewhere.

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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.