Assessing Ernesto Valverde's time at Barcelona so far (Part I)
FC Barcelona in this season 2017-18
Last season's turmoil
Last season's campaign was tumultuous for Barca, only claiming the Spanish cup (Copa Del Rey), and losing the league crown to eternal rivals Real Madrid. Moreover, they were eliminated from the Champions League by Juventus on the road to the finals.
The erstwhile manager of the club, Luis Enrique left amidst crisis and supporters feared that the trophy laden period of the club might come to an abrupt halt. The board of the club was also shaken as club president, Joseph Maria Bartomeu was not a popular figure anymore amongst the Barca faithful, and many expressed their dissatisfaction towards him.
A new manager was subsequently appointed. A former Barcelona player, Ernesto Valverde was placed at the helm. Last season, he managed Athletic Bilbao and had fairly good results with them.
Some fans were skeptical, as managing Barcelona is a whole different ball game. The new coach had a lot of work to do, integrate his philosophy, get accustomed to and earn the faith and respect of the players.
The first big test was the Spanish Super cup against Real Madrid but the biggest setback was yet to come, as PSG paid the release clause of Neymar; €222m and the club were reluctantly obliged to let him go to Paris.
This created a huge ruckus as the fearsome trident of MSN (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) which had scored so many goals was broken up.
Barcelona was forced back to the drawing board to plug the hole that was created due to the departure of Neymar, and so came the summer signings of Nelson Semedo, Paulinho, Gerard Deulofeu and Ousmane Dembele.
Impact on team
The new coach had a massive task on his hands as the season rolled in with the Spanish Super cup first leg at the Nou Camp. The team had a shaky start and didn't have the poise and authority which was required and were defeated convincingly by a 1-3 scoreline. The following week, at the Madrid return leg, Real defeated Barcelona 2-0 and won the title by a 5-1 aggregate score.
The team was devastated as they couldn't cope with the intensity of their rivals and looked pale in comparison. Fans were becoming restless as they couldn't digest this defeat and demanded good results.
The league started within a short while and the team started playing better with a new formation, 4-4-2 deviating from the 4-4-3. The defense looked composed and compact, and Messi has again been at his sublime best, scoring goals and providing assists.
After the first 10 matches, Barcelona had 28 points, securing the top spot and providing a good platform for the rest of their campaign.
Smiles were coming back, and Valverde was being hailed as a savior. He was gaining the confidence of the fans and the players which enabled him to integrate his philosophy. The main difference from the season was that Barcelona has been less vulnerable to fast-paced counter attacks from the opposition.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic were playing a double pivot role that prevented the team from being outnumbered in defense. And the team was playing again from the midfield rather than previous seasons where only the front three was thrusting forward.
The biggest advantage of this strategy shift was that the team was again dominating opposition in midfield. Valverde's strategy was clear, he divided the 90mins as 2 different games with the same opposition.
He fielded his first eleven in the first half and dominated possession, then in the 2nd half, the team shifted gears and looked far more threatening. His success mantra was his immaculate game reading and his phenomenal substitutions, he changes the game with his bench.
It is just unbelievable that this season Barca have scored more than 50 goals in the 2nd half and conceded only 8 or so. They have only lost a single 2nd half, to local rivals Espanyol in the Copa Del Rey.
His tactics showing results
The surprise package was Paulinho, as he has played from box to box and keeps scoring important goals. Rakitic has also been phenomenal this season aswell, playing the deep lying role beside Busquets to perfection.
Barcelona bolstered the squad in January with Philippe Coutinho and Yerry Mina, as Mascherano and Deulofeu departed. In the Spanish cup, the team defeated a formidable Celta Vigo side en-route the semifinals to face Valencia.
Beyond the winter break, the team has been driving forward and has reached the finals of the cup, and is still undefeated in the league with 62 points. They are due to face Chelsea in the second leg of their UCL last 16 tie, having drawn the first leg in London and Valverde will be banking on his team to get over this hurdle. This season has been overwhelming so far, as the team have brushed off a shakey start and are on course to claim a treble.