Are Ernesto Valverde's tactics pragmatic or disruptive to Barcelona's philosophy?
Fans of the beautiful game of football, for the better part its history, have been united by an unmatched passion for the game and that one club that they believe represents everything they hold dear. But what happens when their team's signature style transforms into an abomination of its core principles?
The last few decades reveal another factor that unites football fans across the world: hypocrisy.
Every football fan is hypocritical, albeit to a varying degree. Will a Red Devil, who was first enthralled by Sir Alex's thunderous 4-2-4 formations of 2009, abandon his club because of Mourinho's rather dour, but effective team of the present? Very few fans will call for his removal in the unlikely event that Manchester United wins the Premier League this season.
Cules are no exception. Ernesto Valverde has led Barcelona to their best start to a season in years, in a league that has become increasingly difficult since the turn of the decade. The only other European team with a similar start - Pep Guardiola's Manchester City - has garnered praise from fans and pundits alike, and are even being hailed - rather prematurely - as one of the best Premier League teams in the history of the tournament.
This raises one striking question: how warranted is the criticism of Ernesto Valverde?
Displeasure at the Camp Nou?
Valverde has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the Barca fanbase, simply by moulding the team to his own strengths. One quick look at Valverde's previous team yields a crucial piece of information - he is the ultimate pragmatist.
A comparison to Jose Mourinho would be unfair to both managers, but they do share the uncanny ability to create styles of play that are tailor-made to handle specific oppositions. And so far, with Barcelona, it seems to have worked. With 9 wins out of 10 and a hard-earned draw against a resilient Atletico away from home.
Barcelona are clearly the favorites to win the La Liga at the moment.
Valverde's approach, however, has compromised Barcelona's unique style of play to a significant extent. His predecessors, including the rather polarising Luis Enrique, also infused their own vision into Pep Guardiola's fabled tiki-taka, but never deviated from the club's tried and tested 4-3-3.
To that end, Valverde has ventured into unexplored territory by tinkering with formations and has frequently used the 4-4-2 approach in the league this season. While some fans find the change refreshing and exciting, others consider it to be a definite sign of abandonment of the club's cherished philosophy.
Another aspect of Valverde's approach that has attracted severe criticism is his conservative squad selection.
Denis Suarez has shown a great deal of potential this season and has visibly changed matches for his team. One would expect a young player of such caliber not to be overlooked for Andre Gomes, who has constantly been played out of position this season.
Sergi Roberto has improved by leaps and bounds and deserves a place in the midfield ahead of a misfiring Ivan Rakitic, but is being made to hold the fort at right back, ahead of an impressive Nelson Semedo. The gambles have paid off so far, but one could very well argue that Valverde is building a house of cards.
Upgrade over Luis Enrique
Nonetheless, there are definite signs that indicate otherwise. The principal difference between the current side and Luis Enrique's team of 2016-17 is a resilience that has been hard to come by at the Camp Nou for years.
Barcelona have conceded only 4 goals in 13 matches this season and have registered comebacks against Atletico Madrid and Getafe to preserve their unbeaten record.
Valverde has again ventured into the unknown by prioritizing defense over attack, and the approach has yielded excellent results so far, with Samuel Umtiti and Ter Stegen consistently putting in match-winning shifts.
An aspect of the Guardiola era that has been overlooked time and again is a nearly impenetrable defense, with captain Carles Puyol at its helm. The greatest teams in history - Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan being the best example - were built from the back, and while premature comparisons at this stage are ludicrous at best, Valverde seems to be on the right track from a defensive point of view.
The other unlikely sign of improvement under Valverde is Barcelona's ability to win difficult matches in spite of shambolic performances from some of its best players. Luis Suarez has been nearly unrecognizable this season, and Ivan Rakitic has been unable to shrug off a steady decline in form.
With Suarez scheduled for a brief hiatus in November and Ousmane Dembele slated to make an impending return, Barcelona could regain the attacking ferocity that makes them a dominant force across Europe.
The defensive stability and resilience have, at certain times, come at the cost of attacking intensity, as evidenced in the first half against Las Palmas and the second half against Bilbao this season.
The decision to play three box-to-box midfielders in Paulinho, Gomes and Rakitic against Bilbao added a surprising amount of defensive tenacity and aerial capability to the team but compromised their effectiveness in the final third, with most of the attacks unsurprisingly flowing through the talismanic Lionel Messi.
Barcelona’s xG (expected goals) statistics, however, have shown marked improvement over the past month and are definite causes for optimism.
Much alike to most other managers in today's sporting bubble of high expectations, Valverde will continue to draw criticism from multiple corners. The difference between Barcelona and their arch-rivals, Real Madrid, at the moment, is the Blaugrana's ability to salvage victories from severely underwhelming performances.
The next two months will serve as the ultimate litmus test to Valverde's first year, with difficult fixtures against Sevilla and Valencia, and an interesting Classico between two superpowers currently unable to perform at their known best. Will Barcelona achieve the heights their fans perennially expect them to reach? Only time will tell.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the views of Sportskeeda.
Stats updated up to 02/11/2017