Opinion: Barcelona and the Ernesto Valverde conundrum
Ernesto Valverde's new contract at Barcelona has been extended for another year and it has raised many eyebrows. Despite a double in his first season, Valverde is not a fan favorite. His pragmatic brand of football has many detractors. Valverde remains a conundrum.
A detached personality, Valverde is portrayed as the polar opposite of Barca legend Pep Guardiola. In this article, we look at possible reasons for this portrayal, a look back and a look forward. Is Valverde the right man to lead Barcelona into their next golden period?
Luis Enrique’s departure from Barcelona was an underwhelming one. He announced it abruptly after a 6-1 thrashing of Sporting Gijon, his hometown club in 2017. This marked the end to his exhilarating stint as the manager of Barcelona.
He won nine trophies during his three years at Barcelona, including the treble during his first season. Enrique was criticized by many for being a subservient manager, acquiescing to players’ demand, after a prickly start in his first season. However, in hindsight, like many, Enrique is now looked back more fondly, after a successful career as a player and as a manager for Blaugrana.
Enrique’s exit was not entirely unexpected. He announced his departure in March, and the board, as per reports, assembled a list of candidates. Amongst those were Jorge Sampaoli, Ronald Koeman, Ernesto Valverde, and Eusebio Sacristan. Sampaoli decided to manage the Argentine national team. By a process of elimination, Valverde was selected to become the next manager of Barcelona.
WHO IS VALVERDE?
Nicknamed “Txingurri”, The Ant, by Javier Clemente, Valverde was a hardworking, if limited, forward. During his playing career, he played for Espanyol, spent a season at Barcelona, and then spent the majority of his career at Athletic Bilbao. In his 170 league games for the Basque club, he scored 44 goals.
As a manager, it is his stint at Bilbao, again, for which he is well known. He spent 4 years during his second spell at the club, from 2013 to 2017. He was the catalyst for Bilbao’s first trophy in 31 years - the Supercopa de Espana - as they beat Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate. He also had stints at Villarreal, Valencia, Espanyol, and Olympiacos, winning the Greek league thrice during his time with the latter.
Valverde’s Barcelona career began tumultuously. Neymar decided to depart for Paris Saint-Germain for a world record fee. His replacement, Ousmane Dembele, was injured when he arrived. He would go on to be a hit and miss during his first season.
Valverde’s appointment in itself was a source of disappointment for many. He was seen as too safe a choice. The chorus was unanimous. He was seen as too pragmatic, a manager whose philosophy was compared to that of Jose Mourinho. Arguments were made for the appointment for Thomas Tuchel. However, Valverde’s experience made him stand out.
He won the double during his first season. Apart from Dembele, Barcelona signed long term target Phillipe Coutinho from Liverpool for a club record fee in January. This was Barcelona’s answer to Neymar’s departure.
Despite having won the double, Valverde’s future was under scrutiny. The exit from the Champions League quarterfinals, to Roma, was the root of the problem. Despite winning the first leg 4-1, Barcelona somehow contrived to lose 3-0 away, thus being knocked out. Valverde’s tactics were criticized. Ultimately, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu had to confirm that Valverde would be the manager come next season.
Claude Puel and Ernesto Valverde are inherently similar in many ways. The former was sacked from Leicester City recently. Leicester wasn’t really underperforming, and their transfers had been quietly outstanding. However, fans never truly warmed to the Frenchman. He was dull and lacked charisma. Many wondered whether his playing style was an extension of his personality. His media briefings were functional.
Valverde, too, is not an expressive man. He kneels, and he frowns, but he does exude passion. That is not to say he is not passionate. However, his supposed calmness is often interpreted as a man who does not care. Valverde’s quietness has often resonated like a scream of agony. For a club entrenched in philosophies of exuberant men like Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, Valverde’s cool demeanor has often been irritating.
Valverde's tactics are passive. His reluctance to adapt to the 4-3-3, the formation most fans identify with, has been infuriating. In his first season, he tinkered with the 4-4-2. This wasn't met very well.
This season, there have been alterations. He has tried the 4-3-3, but the results haven't been spectacular. No matter the formation, two factors remain constant. Barcelona find a way to win, and "Messidependencia" is at its peak.
Valverde has too often been guilty of parking the bus. For a man who is termed conservative, even his defense has looked ropey this season. There have been comparisons made with a certain Jose Mourinho. Seeing Barca play, it is not hard to see why.
Barcelona is well on their way to winning the league this season. However, questions remain as to how much of that success can be attributed to Valverde. Lionel Messi has often single-handedly pulled the team out of precarious positions. Barcelona’s pragmatic way has not been received well. Coutinho’s form has taken a sharp downturn, while Malcom’s controversial transfer is yet to pay dividends.
The defense has not looked solid, and there are visible chinks in Barcelona’s armor. The Madrid clubs’ abysmal form has helped their cause as well. Barcelona are the leading horse in a one-horse race.
THE NEW CONTRACT
Valverde has just signed a new contract. This has been vociferously met with disdain from many of the Barca faithful. Many are tired of his playing philosophy. His contract has been extended for another year, with an option for another.
One complaint has been his reluctance to play youngsters, especially young Cules, like Riqui Puig and Carles Alena. With the arrival of Frenkie de Jong, questions remain over whether Valverde is the right man to develop these youngsters.
Apart from this, his inability to get the best out of Coutinho and Malcom has been a problem. Both cost a combined fee of nearly £143 million. The fact that Barcelona have been Messi dependant at many stages during this season highlights this.
Real Betis’ head coach Quique Setien has been linked with the Barcelona job many times. His side beat Barcelona this season, encouraging his cause. His Betis team play an exciting brand of football. Setien also espouses youth development. The likes of Dani Ceballos, Fabian Ruiz, and Giovani lo Celso have all developed nicely under Setien.
Ajax’s Erik ten Hag is also an intriguing option. His Ajax team beat Real Madrid comprehensively this season in the Champions League, knocking them out. Frenkie de Jong has already agreed on a move to the Nou Camp. ten Hag’s appointment could see Matthijs de Ligt, the other big Ajax prospect move to Barcelona as well.
Valverde’s stint at Barcelona has not gone according to plan. Barcelona fans insist on playing a particular way, something Valverde has not been able to conform to. He is, by no means, a bad coach. However, Barcelona is a different cup of tea altogether. There is a reason why two of the most successful managers in Barcelona’s recent history cited “tiredness” as a reason for stepping down.
Ernesto Valverde would be better off leaving Barcelona this summer.