When he left Barcelona’s training ground for the last time as the club’s manager before his dismissal on Monday, Ernesto Valverde noticeably wore a big, happy smile, and he raised a hand to wave somewhat ironically at the gathered media scrum. Why the smile? Well, perhaps because Valverde is a tough, pragmatic man.
Firstly, there couldn’t have been an iota of surprise, at least at Barca president Josep Bartomeu’s actions.
The humiliating manner of the club chasing one new coach after another in the past few days — via which Barca signalled that they’d given up on their manager while his team is top of the League, facing a weak Napoli in the Champions League and awaiting a first opponent in the Copa del Rey — was so pathetic, so ridiculous, that perhaps it may have surprised Valverde. But the 55-year-old Basque must have been counting the days until Bartomeu fully pulled the carpet from underneath him.
Now, just for a second, those who claim that following Barcelona’s dreadful display at Anfield in last year’s Champions League semifinals and the subsequent disappointment of losing the Copa del Rey final to Valencia, there might have been a natural and well-timed break between the club and their manager probably have a good case. But Barcelona didn’t do that. Either they thought they knew better, or they were playing a “we’ll do what suits us for the moment” game, which has now backfired and left them with egg on their face.
So, back to the point. Barcelona kept this man on, and they invested in the squad to the tune of more than 200 million euros, but I swear to you that Valverde will have been perfectly clear that his continuity was hanging by a thread. Why? For two reasons.
Firstly, the away performances — in both La Liga and the Champions League — this season have not only continued a theme that has dogged Barcelona in Europe for several years now, they’ve worsened. Irrespective of their statistical positions right now, the trajectory was downward.
Secondly, Valverde is far from a stupid man, and only a stupid man would have failed to recall how Bartomeu does his business: in a knee-jerk and brutal manner when he sees fit.
For example, this is the man who was vice-president and consigliere to the regime when Eric Abidal, having been publicly promised he’d get a new contract the moment he was back ready to play after a liver transplant to beat cancer, was then unceremoniously shown the door as soon as he won his battle and got fit. This is also the man who sacked his director of football, Andoni Zubizarreta, halfway through a season in which his Zubizarreta-assembled squad would go on to win a glorious Treble culminating in the 3-1 Champions League final victory over Juventus.
Zubizarreta’s crime? In 2014, when the Camp Nou crowd booed the giant screen upon which members of the Barca board were congratulating Lionel Messi on scoring his 253rd La Liga goal, which made him the all-time top scorer in that competition, Bartomeu needed a sacrificial lamb so he could convince himself and the media that it was not he who was being booed. So, out with the Zubi-goose who had laid the golden eggs — in fact, half a dozen of them.
Valverde knew precisely what would happen when the chips were down.
When he took over, he was told he’d have Neymar alongside Messi and Luis Suarez. Before Valverde’s feet were properly under the table, he discovered that Bartomeu and his board had been vastly complacent, that Neymar was not only keen to leave, but that his buyout clause was well within Paris Saint-Germain’s reach.
When Valverde pointed out, a year ago, that he was going to need extra goals in the January market, he suggested signing Carlos Vela — who would go on to score for fun in MLS, looking his fittest and most athletic for years. Instead, he was given Kevin-Prince Boateng — heavy, disenchanted with football and slower than every La Liga defender.
Enough context. This guy has had to exist in a deeply flawed Camp Nou environment.
Valverde has a superb trophy record and an exemplary win ratio in his three seasons, and he leaves in the same manner as Pep Guardiola, Tata Martino and Luis Enrique: significantly burned out, pretty disenchanted and acutely aware of the poisoned chalice nature of managing Barcelona.
He’s the first manager Barca have sacked midseason since Louis van Gaal in January 2003. I was at that goodbye news conference, and the tough, arrogant Dutchman cried. His lip quivered as he stated, over and again, “I’m still the right man to coach Barcelona, I’m still the right guy,” then he started to cry — just a little. It was far from the resigned, almost relieved, smile that split Valverde’s face as he drove away from the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper on Monday.
He and his agent stood firm on details when Barcelona began to rescind his contract. The pair wanted not just every penny that was due to them, but they, legitimately, wanted Barcelona to feel some of the discomfort he’d felt since news broke that the club had not only offered his job to Xavi, but then to Ronald Koeman and, before Quique Setien, they’d explored the idea of appointing Mauricio “I’d rather go back and work on my farm than coach Barcelona” Pochettino to replace him.
The club handled the whole business with all the aplomb of a fisherman juggling a wet salmon with one hand tied behind his back. Truly, they did. These themes are about the class, the timing, the foresight, the logic and the dignity of what has happened since a team — one that is top of La Liga, likely to reach the Champions League quarterfinal at least, and has scored 34 goals in nine home games — lost a ding-dong battle in the Spanish Supercopa semifinal to Atletico Madrid after, frankly, one of the best performances of their season.
Valverde, like any employee, can be sacked. Fine. But the manner has been inept.
There were sufficient clues in the performances at Athletic Bilbao, at Levante, at Granada, in Prague and in Dortmund that the chronic problems Barcelona showed in heavy European defeats at PSG, at Juve, at Roma and in Liverpool were getting worse. Not all those European humiliations were under Valverde, please note. Whatever Valverde was doing right or wrong — whether hard-line Barcelona fans, committed to their core to the idea of playing football in the image of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, were sick of “El Txingurri” or not — the problems run far, far deeper than who is coach.
On which subject, there can be few better benedictions for a new coach entering a Camp Nou crisis than the @JohanCruyff Twitter account:
— Johan Cruyff (@JohanCruyff) January 13, 2020
And beyond being the last La Liga coach to win away at Camp Nou, when Real Betis imposed themselves 4-3 in November 2018, Setien is a self-declared, proven evangelistic disciple of Cruyff’s footballing principles. But that didn’t stop Bartomeu from ignoring him until at least three others had already refused to take over midseason. Nor is it enough.
Anyone who has read my thoughts on football or listened to my broadcasting will know that I adored Cruyff, met him, talked football with him and still think that his concepts are the most intelligent, the most beautiful in the sport we all love. However, the answer to Barcelona’s ailments run far deeper than bringing in a devotee of the greatest thinker the club has ever had the privilege of employing.
What the incoming coach has to do, for Cruyff’s ideas to become relevant, is to re-convince the players. Not of Cruyff’s footballing concepts, but the cost of applying them.
Positional football takes discipline and patience, two traits noticeably lacking from Barca for months. Losing the ball is a crime that fundamentally requires lightning-fast minds, reactions and superb recuperative athleticism. Does that sound like this ageing Barcelona to you? Pressing takes a greater level of fitness, stamina and belief than this squad is — now and for the longest time — capable of.
Possession football, as imagined by Setien and Cruyff, requires constant movement to create three or four passing options, every single moment that the ball is at the feet of a Barcelona player. Right now, anyone blaming Valverde exclusively for a decline in Cruyffian football at Barcelona either doesn’t know what it means or they haven’t been paying attention.
Setien has a huge task on his hands. Whether he can answer these three questions in the affirmative will be vital to his success: 1) Can he convince this hard-nosed, success-saturated squad to work harder, to train more intensely every single day? If not, then asking them to play pure Cruyff football is foolhardy. 2) Can he convince them that their current mood, “We’ll play our way out of trouble” isn’t sufficient? 3) Can he get through to Messi and explain to him that even a genius needs a higher work rate and degree of alertness on the pitch than he’s been showing since November?
Setien’s arrival should, in principle, benefit players such as Arthur, Frenkie de Jong, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique and Ivan Rakitic. And so long as his form is good, Sergio Busquets won’t be dropped for every away game as had begun to be the case.
Statistically, Barcelona are in a good position in terms of La Liga and the Champions League. Perhaps of more importance, they still possess proud, ultra-skilled, tough-minded players.
If, and this is a big “if,” Setien and his staff manage to electrify the stultified atmosphere around the team, there is time for this decision to pay off in the way of a trophy or trophies. But that doesn’t justify the pig-awful way this business has been handled. Nor will it be rewarded simply because Setien has a profile and a philosophy that dovetails nicely with the Cruyffist past of this club.
He has an utterly enormous job to get through to his players, to completely revamp their habits and to convince and inspire. As the Cruyff Twitter account (almost) said: “All the best, mate.”