An opportunity, not a poisoned chalice for Valverde at Barcelona

Perhaps when Pep Guardiola left Barcelona five years ago he did so in the knowledge that one day he’d face the impossible – and frankly he just didn’t fancy it.

The impossible? Managing the decline of probably the greatest football team to ever grace the game, rolling over the squad and then matching their feats by building another – and doing so while remaining imperious.

This is what the fans of the club, indeed fans of the game, all spoilt by Barca’s brilliance demanded. But perhaps Pep knew couldn’t really be done.

Tito Villanova, inheriting a more or less fully functional version of Pep’s side, kept the show on the road domestically, until illness overtook him. His successor Tata Martino, odd choice at a bad time, struggled as the intensity of the club’s great players waned and focus was lost.

Luis Enrique redirected, after a difficult start, recognising that with Xavi Hernandez’s legs gone, Barca could no longer play as they had once played.

Luis Suarez, Neymar and a more direct approach brought rewards – taking the pressure off Iniesta and Messi. Success was maintained, but the cracks began to show in his last season in charge as the goals conceded column (37) began to reflect his side’s increasingly soft underbelly.

The balance had gone. The dominance of the front three, their insatiable demand for service, and the loss of intensity, quality and confidence elsewhere saw the title lost to Real Madrid.

Maybe Enrique saw it too. Just how do you rebuild the greatest team there’s ever been? He found a way to cope with Xavi’s decline and departure. But long term, how would he manage without Iniesta and with his major stars the wrong side of 30?

And maybe Neymar saw it too. Yes, Lionel and Luis were still there – but clearly time and investment in quality were needed to wrestle the title back from the Bernabeu and have a realistic shot at the Champions League. How long could he wait?

And with Messi still the undisputed king, how long would Neymar have to be content with being the prince?

And so it falls to Ernesto Valverde to try and make sense of it all, to try and put some shape on it all. But maybe instead of it being the wrong time, its actually the right time. An opportunity rather than a poisoned chalice.

We all see the weaknesses now. Even the Barca fans see them. There is still wonderful talent at the Camp Nou, but perhaps the recent, dispiriting happenings will dampen expectations enough to allow the former Athletic Bilbao manager to leverage that – and integrate the new acquisitions and younger players needed to revitalise.

And to persuade. Persuade the fans that transition is a reality and is needed, but that it need not be a prolonged period. And to persuade Lionel Messi, who could go elsewhere for free next summer, that his future is best served staying in Catalonia.

Valverde will be satisfied by his new club’s first two results. Last Saturday evening, the Blaugranes followed up their opening day victory over Real Betis with a patient performance and win at Alaves.

Notably, the emphasis was again on solidity in defence and midfield and a greater intensity without the ball.

The hosts made it difficult, however, sitting deep and looking to counter quickly. Twice their strategy yielded decent openings, but in the main Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti were untroubled, playing much of the game in the opposition half as Barca pressed high and stayed compact.

Up front, Messi aside – two second half goals, a missed pen and a crack off the crossbar – Barcelona looked powder puff without the injured Luis Suarez and the departed Neymar.

Gerard Deulofeu and Aleix Vidal worked manfully either side of Messi but made very little impact. The return of the Uruguayan and the arrival of Dembele should increase the threat level – but Valverde’s men clearly still rely too much on Messi.

Iniesta’s return added fluidity to a largely untested and untroubled Barca midfield. But despite his majesty, the logic behind the pursuit of Philippe Coutinho is rock solid.

Greater competition for places is also requirement in the engine room, with a long season and bigger tests ahead.

Plenty for Valverde to ponder, but plenty to build on also.

Author Details

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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