Ernesto Valverde will be leaving as manager of FC Barcelona. It’s all over but the shouting and press releases. And despite the insistence of the heartless, he is being hard done by. The right decision didn’t have to be so ugly, and the only reason people are lauding it, are saying “Que sera,” is because of how they think of the man to whom it is happening. But the same secrecy that is shrouding his replacement as my fingers flit over the keyboard, could have shrouded the search for his replacement. It didn’t have to be so public, so mean and heartless.
The larger questions here are why now, and whether Valverde will, over the days, weeks, months and even years, regret not having done things differently, not having gone on his own path, not having put his foot down in a way that got him exactly what he wanted so that if he failed, it was on his own terms.
Though we don’t know exactly what transpired, it’s easy to read between the lines when stories come out such as his desire for Dani Parejo, that didn’t happen and Malcom, an airport hijacking that Valverde didn’t want. The club has made a great many transfers, and you’d be hard pressed to know what Valverde really wanted or desired, and not only because of the calm, sanguine comportment that was his perpetual mien. No matter who came or went, the spine of the team didn’t change. Frenkie De Jong has been the only transfer who has become a part of Valverde’s XI. All of the others, whether promoted or acquired, were treated with suspicion. Firpo, Todibo have shown sparks, but don’t get much a chance. Carles Alenya was banished after a poor half against Athletic Club, but seems to have found his mojo via loan to Betis.
A team takes on the face of its manager. Luis Enrique’s Barça was a bellicose, hard-charging group, like the man who ran them. Guardiola’s teams were sharp, intense and academic, executing almost flawlessly, like the man who was in their charge. In considering the kind of manager that a team such as Barça needs, in keeping with the idea that a team does become its manager, what effect would a calm, dour man have, who seems tacticurn even at his most gregarious.
People have often said of Valverde’s teams that they lacked spine, lacked a certain mental toughness that gets great teams over difficult moments, that we saw that weakness in Rome, in Anfield and most recently in Saudi Arabia. It might be further surmised that mental weakness is behind the team’s slack performances away from home, that they are more accountants on a weekend lark than marauding Visigoths looking to make the women and children cry.
Most recently it has been said that he has lost the locker room, even as you wonder if he ever had it, if he wasn’t brought in to coach the club because it would be easy for the veterans, easy for him to keep playing the names that the supporters loved and the board cherished, easy to make decisions that didn’t damage the brand. You wonder if he goes home at night, plays Football Manager with a wild-ass team and bonkers tactics, because he can, because there’s no risk. Does he wonder whether he should have started Paulinho instead of Iniesta in Rome? Does he wonder whether he should have started Malcom at Anfield, whether he should have been more bold, whether he should have taken steps to calm an upset Jordi Alba.
You always wonder about the things you should have done, when you can’t do them any longer. It’s human nature.
Ernesto Valverde is by all accounts a good man, a dignified man who tried his best. He won consecutive Liga titles, but that wasn’t enough. It might have been enough for the board, had they not been worried about a succession plan, about greasing the skids for Josep Bartomeu’s hand-picked surrogate, about fears of another ignominious Champions League exit. They sought his successor in a vile, classless, public way that didn’t have to be. They were insufferably chickenshit, choosing to renew him when he should have been gone in the summer. They let him do damage to the team such as sending Alenya to Betis and Todibo to Schalke, players who might have helped, especially now that Suarez is out for the remainder of the season. Every possible thing wrong that they could have done they did, because they don’t seem to know how to manage anything except money, the piles of money necessary to fuel a club such as FC Barcelona.
But it doesn’t just take money, it also takes humanity, the kind of humanity that should have been able to manage this transition better. You’re firing a manager who has won consecutive league titles, walked the most difficult Champions League group and has his team atop the league this season, if only by goal differential. And he’s fired. The last mid-season firing by Barça was Louis Van Gaal, but he was 20 points adrift of the top of the table. This is different. This is craven men looking for a sacrificial lamb, reading the room of mean-spirited social media bullies who absolve the culpable, play favorites and run around like torch-carrying, paranoid villagers looking for monsters.
To a fanbase, Valverde was a “monster,” a “terrorist,” a man sucking the joy out of watching football, etc, etc. It’s all hyperbolic nonsense. He was a flawed man who made crappy decisions, who had to manage a team ill-equipped to play the kind of football the baying hordes want to see. He’s also an easy scapegoat. If the formula that a manager is reponsible for 30 percent of a team’s success or failure, what of the other 70 percent? What of the players who weren’t prepared for a quickly taken corner, who couldn’t and didn’t defend properly when they should have, who flinched when they should have stood up, stood strong, should have listened to a wee genius who, at Rome at halftime, warned they would go out if they continued to play like they were.
Coaches are fired because it’s easier to fire one than 22, easier to look at a situation for what you want to see, rather than what it is. Valverde’s successor will be inheriting a shitshow of poor planning. One CB is old, one has tissue paper knees, one isn’t up to the job that he has. One crucial piece of the attack is now out for the season. There are old players limited in their capabilities but without proper replacements, a team that hasn’t had any tactical planning whatsoever, just buying expensive players because they’re talented, rather than how they might fit the needs of the team. A lazy, craven board is sniffing the air, nose turned up like a fearful dog and throwing the easiest person under the bus.
Valverde out? People got their wish. We all did. Everybody who wanted him gone, wanted it for different reasons, but we all wanted it. Why now still is the question. So that he won’t be able to do any more damage? It’s already done. And I suspect we are all going to be disappointed at what comes next, because reality isn’t a thing that is dealt with via wishing and hoping. Thsoe of us who wanted him gone because of team planning for the future, young players who need integration, aren’t going to see that happen. People who want pretty, JdP football aren’t going to see that happen. Nobody is going to see anything that they wished for happen, except that Ernesto Valverde will no longer be running the team.
But if things don’t go right then, who is next? The bus will keep running, looking for victims. Who’s next? Ernesto Valverde was a difficult man to know, a difficult man to like. But it would be churlish to sit and crow, to bellow “Good riddance” because the situation is vastly more complex than that. But who has time for nuance, for complexity when simplicity is so seductive. It’s the right decision at the wrong time in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. What’s next? Who the hell knows.