A Purist or a Pragmatist: What does FC Barcelona need right now?
At the start of May, 2019, FC Barcelona trumped Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou in the 1st leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final tie. The victory against the Reds, in addition to their unassailable lead in the La Liga and place in the Copa Del Rey final, enabled the Barcelona faithful to dream of a third treble in the space of a decade.
Yet, in a matter of weeks, the Blaugrana’s season has unravelled rather spectacularly with the fingers of accusation again pointing towards an apparent stage-fright. A deficiency that plagued the Barcelona of old but had eluded the Spanish outfit ever since Johan Cruyff and later, when Pep Guardiola revolutionised the football they played.
Thus, the position of Ernesto Valverde, the current manager, is certainly under a cloud and those who believe otherwise might be failing to look at the bigger picture. After all, the Spaniard’s Barcelona has romped to the league title twice only to flounder infamously when push has come to shove in crunch knock-out games.
Though the players and the club have publicly come out in support of the beleaguered manager, how long can the Camp Nou faithful look the other way when their team is not just getting defeated in the biggest of games, but rather humiliated?
Secondly, if they indeed decide to shake things up at the top, what prospective course of action do they follow? Does another Valverde-esque pragmatic manager lie in wait or would they want to shift to a ‘system manager’?
The answer to the above conundrum is extremely difficult to arrive at. Yet, considering the way Barcelona has functioned during its highest troughs, one feels they might be better off going down the latter path.
Back in 2008, the Blaugrana made the bold call of handing Pep Guardiola the reins of the senior side, just a year after he started off at the club’s B side. The move worked wonders as the Spaniard brought his own ideas of footballing domination and merged it with Cruyff’s ideals to serve the ‘tiki-taka’ to the world.
Once he was done at Barcelona, the club decided to tread on a similar route and appointed Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s trusted lieutenant, as the manager. Though the former battled his fair share of personal medical issues, he ensured the Camp Nou outfit didn’t move away from the identity they’d carved over the past few years.
However, the next manager to ascend the throne adopted a slightly different approach and that signalled the intention of the club to prioritise immediate success over the long-term direction they deployed earlier.
Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino was a capable manager in his own right but he always fell into the category of managers who favoured calculation over creativity, a method completely different to that employed by Pep and Tito. Unsurprisingly, with the flair players at his disposal, the Argentine could deliver just a solitary trophy.
Luis Enrique, another former Barcelona player was the next in line for the job and he gave a pretty good account of himself. Though he didn’t focus on possession as much as Guardiola, his ideals of moving the ball quickly and playing an expansive brand of football remained the same.
Thus, he scaled many a peak as the manager of the Blaugrana which included a historic treble in his debut season.
Once he was let go off, Barcelona decided to replace him with Valverde, a manager who hadn’t set the world ablaze with his offensive displays but represented a safe and sound option.
The Spaniard’s first season wasn’t an overwhelming success, keeping in mind that fateful night in Rome. However, a domestic double in 2017-18 was also not something to be scoffed at.
Though the positive results kept trotting up, the odd calamity away from home, especially against a big team on the grand stage, always seemed more than just a possibility.
A primary reason for the above was Valverde’s reluctance to adhere to the Barcelona principles and instead try to mix caution with aggression. While the same is certainly not a recipe for disaster, the kind of players the club signs and nurtures demands the more offensive approach.
Moreover, the counter-punching strategy rid the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho from weaving their magic. The Brazilian, in particular has paid for the lack of freedom accorded to him by the Spaniard.
Apart from the trio, Ousmane Dembele, has struggled with a combination of injuries and poor form whereas Arthur Melo has tailed off after a promising start. As for Malcom, the winger just hasn’t been trusted by Valverde and inevitably, his confidence has taken a steep plunge.
Thus, indicating that the Spaniard might not be developing young talent as Barcelona would like while the trophies they crave are also not stacking up in the cabinet.
Yet, it would be wrong to blame Valverde completely as he can’t change the style of football he has employed overnight. Even if Barcelona give him the boot in the near future, he could be successful elsewhere, even at ‘big’ clubs where his said pragmatism might be a little more valued. Teams like Juventus, Chelsea or Atletico Madrid quickly spring to mind.
But, at a club like the Blaugrana, just winning isn’t enough. And that is what has led to Valverde’s position being under such scrutiny.
At Barcelona, winning and winning with panache is the norm and a failure to do so eventually leads to moans and groans from the Camp Nou terrace. Guardiola and Enrique did so and they rightly etched their names into folklore.
The club is expected to undergo a massive overhaul in the summer with several exciting prospects being linked already. Yet, the players Barcelona consider to be possessing the club’s DNA might just not fit the style Valverde professes.
The above would then lead to a discrepancy where either the club isn’t happy with the footballers brought on board or the manager doesn’t fancy the new signings.
Thus, in order to avoid such a situation, Barcelona need to make a decisive call. If they wish to back Valverde to the hilt, the club needs to deal with the sight of them playing a slightly more defensive style of football.
Yet, if they want to re-live that thrill a minute, edge of the seat brand of football, the Spaniard might have to be replaced with someone more inclined to recreate that kind of football.
After all, one can’t just absolve one’s identity and try to be someone else. And unfortunately for Valverde, his philosophy and that of Barcelona seems to be at crossroads at the moment.