Valverde needs a mature Messi in his Barcelona revolution
The new La Liga season kicked-off this weekend as Barcelona returned to the Camp Nou to claim a comfortable 2-0 victory over Real Betis. The scoreline did not come as a surprise, but it was the performance from a squad dented by enforced absences that offered a glimpse into the future of the side under the management of Ernesto Valverde.
The Spanish Super Cup defeat to rivals Real Madrid brought great concern to those with a vested interest in the fortunes of Blaugrana, but while that particular challenge was too much too soon for Valverde, the manner of the defeat ensured his players would have little argument in agreeing to the tactical changes introduced.
Injuries to the influential duo of Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez meant that personnel changes would also be made, and the outcome suggests that things will be very different in Catalonia this season. New signing Nelson Samedo made an immediate impression, and the Portuguese international has plenty to offer in defence and attack with his power and pace.
Gerard Deulofeu and Paco Alcacer both remain a work in progress, with their positions in the front three drawing the inevitable and unfair comparisons with the injured Suarez and the departing Neymar. However, there is a noticeable maturity developing in the game of Sergi Roberto, and the midfield combination of Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets offers quality and experience.
Inevitably, Lionel Messi remains pivotal to the success of the side, and as Real Betis doubled-up on the diminutive genius, so his strike partners were presented with the space to create. Messi may not have had Suarez and Neymar to link-up with him on Sunday, and their replacements failed to provide the service on which he thrives, but there was an appreciation of the situation in his approach despite this clear frustration.
The failings of former manager Luis Enrique will be highlighted throughout this campaign. Enrique regularly cut a frustrated and despondent figure on the sidelines, and he relied on the attacking return of Messi, Suarez and Neymar to paper over the cracks in his side. More often than not, the front three did hide the problems that existed within the team, but Valverde is addressing matters at source.
Rivals Real Madrid have reached another level under the leadership of Zinedine Zidane in recent seasons, and their success in winning and then retaining the UEFA Champions League trophy has not been through letting their formidable front three hide their problems. Zidane has fine-tuned all areas of his squad and the results are clear to see.
For Valverde, this is the project that now faces him at Barcelona. Enrique's final year was a year wasted in ensuring that Barcelona keep up with the La Liga champions, and the issues surrounding the side were not sufficiently addressed. There wasn't a massive change in the tactical approach of Barcelona on Sunday, but the energy levels were much higher, and with more players playing further up the field, there were plenty more attacking options in the final third.
Lionel Messi failed to put his name on the score sheet, but rattled the post on a number of occasions as he desperately tried to open his La Liga account for the season. But these are changing times at Barcelona, and Messi was purposely used in a deeper role, with Valverde targetting his creativity and ability to supply over his goalscoring prowess when service for him would inevitably be in shorter supply.
The future of Philippe Coutinho remains headline news as Barcelona's increasing offers for the services of the Brazilian forward are repeatedly refused by Liverpool. There is a place for him in this Barcelona side, as Alcacer and Deulofeu are not at a level considered acceptable for the Catalan crowd.
Without the injured Luis Suarez and a suitable replacement for Neymar, Messi will be asked to take on even more responsibility for supporting those around him. It will be frustrating for Messi at this stage of his career, but it is a role he should embrace for the greater good of the side, but only strengthening the attacking options in the team will appease him in the long-term.
Ernesto Valverde is a manager clearly changing Barcelona for the better, but it is a long-term project that has been all the more difficult following a year of neglect. He has experienced players in the likes of Busquets and Javier Mascherano that he can depend upon, and the commitment shown by the side on Sunday suggests that the players have already brought into his ideas and philosophy.
However, Valverde will be ultimately judged on how his side compare to Real Madrid, both domestically and in the Champions League. The Spanish Super Cup emphasised how short Barcelona are from competing with Zidane's impressive outfit, and the fans acceptance of being second in the short-term may be the biggest challenge for Valverde to overcome.