Why unloved Valverde could leave Barcelona at the end of the season
Posted On March 22, 2019
The coach won a double in his first season, and the Blaugrana are top of La Liga and their Champions League group, but he has yet to win over everyone
Bobby Robson was once asked by author Jimmy Burns what it was like to manage Barcelona.
The Englishman’s reply was both revealing and poetic, a beautiful stream of consciousness which would have made Joyce beam with pride.
“It is the evening of a European tournament… an electric atmosphere, a hair-tingling scenario… and you know that if you lose, you’re going to get whacked, and people are going to be unhappy and the press are going to be out there waiting for you… and the tension brings the adrenaline and the excitement… The army cannot defeated.”
Barcelona is no longer more than a club. Dodgy deals and shirt sponsorships have put paid to that old adage.
But it remains a very special environment, unique almost. As Robson learned during his solitary season as Barca boss, winning is everything at Camp Nou.
“I’ve made history,” he sighed during his final press conference. “I must be the first coach to win three out of four titles in his first season at a club and not get the chance to carry on.”
Robson had claimed the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Copa del Rey and the Supercopa yet his haul was deemed insufficient – and not just because it was bitter rivals Real Madrid who had beaten the Blaugrana to top spot in La Liga.
It was more the belief that Robson had somehow betrayed the club’s tradition of playing beautiful football.
Part of the problem, of course, was simply that Robson wasn’t Johan Cruyff; the man he had succeeded at the helm. The Dutchman cast a considerable shadow over Camp Nou. He still does.
Cruyff built the modern Barcelona. As such, he remains the standard by which all other coaches are judged, including present incumbent Ernesto Valverde.
Just like Robson, Valverde must be wondering what he has to do to completely win over Camp Nou.
At least he survived his first season. Valverde led Barcelona to a dominant domestic double last term, with his side very nearly becoming the first side in history go to through an entire Liga campaign undefeated.
Yet he is not universally loved. His contract runs until 2020 but it contains a clause that gives Barca the right to terminate the deal for an undisclosed sum of money at the end of the current campaign.
What’s more, there is every chance that the Blaugrana board will do so.
Results, as at any club, will be pivotal. Should Barca again fail to advance past the quarter-final stage of the Champions League, Valverde will almost certainly depart – irrespective of whether he retains La Liga.
The Barca board were enraged by last season’s European exit at the hands of Roma – the team had travelled to the Stadio Olimpico with a 4-1 lead from the first leg – and their anger was merely compounded by the sight of Real lifting a third consecutive title.
Certain directors – and fans, for that matter – have not been entirely happy with Valverde’s brand of football either. His Barca have been functional rather than flamboyant, more reliant on the genius of Lionel Messi than ever before.
That Valverde allegedly wanted to hold on to the effective but limited Paulinho, and was against the acquisition of Malcom, summed up his pragmatism in the eyes of the Camp Nou purists.
Last season’s abandonment of the club’s beloved 4-3-3 was not well received, in spite of the fact that formation change was born of necessity.
Neymar’s shock departure, coupled with Ousmane Dembele’s struggles for form and fitness, effectively forced Valverde into tinkering with the system, resulting in him effectively playing two up front (Messi and Suarez) for the majority of the campaign.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that despite Barca’s best efforts, Philippe Coutinho only arrived in January – rather than at the start of the season.
Furthermore, the summer signing of Arthur has allowed Valverde to push Coutinho further forward – which is just as well, as the former Liverpool man, for all his talents, is simply not best suited to a role in midfield.
With Dembele also belatedly settling, despite ongoing concerns about his professionalism, Barca are looking more like their old selves this term.
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu even publicly expressed his satisfaction with the job Valverde was doing when asked about the coach’s contractual situation in October.
“We knew that he would succeed, we are very happy with how things are going, and he has always been our first choice,” he insisted. “I would like him to continue, as I like how he relates to us and to the players.”
That is arguably only half true, though. There are undeniably disgruntled players within Valverde’s squad – chief among them Rafinha and Denis Suarez, victims of Valverde’s reluctance to regularly rotate, something the 54-year-old would attribute to poor market recruitment, an area in which he is afforded very little input.
Valverde has also been criticised for his perceived disregard for the graduates of the club’s famed ‘La Masia’ youth academy. The kind of opportunities given to Carles Alena and Riqui Puig last week have been few and far between on Valverde’s watch.
Crucially, though, the former Athletic Club coach enjoys an excellent working relationship with Messi – imperative for any Barca boss – as well as the other key figures in the dressing room.
The rapport with Bartomeu is less cordial. Nobody was more disgusted by the Roma defeat than the club president, who remains sceptical as to whether Valverde can deliver Champions League glory.
The coach, for his part, is still upset by his boss’ reaction to the 3-0 loss in Rome and is open to the idea of leaving at the end of the season, no matter what happens between now and June.
As he now knows, the pressure of coaching Barcelona is unrelenting. Even Pep Guardiola, in spite of his unprecedented success, was left exhausted after four years in charge.
Valverde has not even been there half as long at this stage and yet he might decide he would be better off leaving in the summer. Worse, someone could make that decision for him.
But then, such is the nature of coaching Barca. No coach goes on forever. Not even Cruyff.
Games can be won on the field but victories off it are far harder to achieve, impossible even. Time marches on. The pressure mounts. Enemies rise. And the army cannot be defeated.