La Liga: Ernesto Valverde made champions out of an unfancied Barcelona to achieve remarkable title success

“We’re not having our best time as a team or a club. We should be as close to each other as possible and paddle forward. Still, in the nine years I've been here, it's the first time I feel inferior to Madrid,” Gerard Pique had sounded ominous of his club’s present and future, minutes after their defeat to Real Madrid in the Super Cup in August last season. Eight months later, Pique is all set to lift his seventh La Liga title.

Barcelona seized their seventh league championship in ten seasons in an emphatic manner, amassing eighty-six points with four games still to play. Fifteen points ahead of arch nemesis Real Madrid and eleven points ahead of the ever-dogmatic Atletico Madrid, the Catalan club’s titular prospects were never in doubt since their run of twelve wins in thirteen matches in the first three months of the 2017/18 domestic season.

 La Liga: Ernesto Valverde made champions out of an unfancied Barcelona to achieve remarkable title success

Ernesto Valverede made best use of the players at his disposal to mastermind a fine title triumph for Barcelona. AFP

Things were not as rosy for Barcelona in August as they not only failed to prize away Marco Veratti from Paris Saint-Germain but were forced to sell Neymar to the Parisian club days after president Josep Bartomeu reassured fans that the coveted Brazilian forward will stay Spain-side at all costs. Combined with Liverpool’s denial to sell Philippe Coutinho, the Barcelona ranks seemed depleted in spite of Ousmane Dembele’s arrival for the Frenchman picked up an injury soon after.

As Real Madrid built a vivacious squad with the right mix of youth and experience, Barcelona seemed a disjointed squad of expensive players. Rumours surrounding Lionel Messi’s future and Ernesto Valverde’s apparent lack of silverware at the elitist levels did not help.

Valverde, unlike his predecessors at El Camp Nou, did not adhere to the ‘tiki-taka’ style of football the world has come to associate Barcelona with. Instead of adapting his squad to a variation of Cruyffian vision, in Barcelona’s first league fixture against Real Betis, Valverde chose to field a formation quite revolutionary for the Catalan club – a 4-4-1-1 with Sergi Roberto playing in the hole behind Messi.

As doubt mongers and Valverde’s critics looked on with befuddled expressions, Barcelona registered a 2-0 victory. And the Catalan club has not looked back ever since. On every instance when it seemed Barcelona will fall short on their know-how, their intent and zeal unlocked yet another level of performance.

From winning 3-0 against Las Palmas in front of an almost empty stadium as the Spanish referendum wreaked havoc through Catalonia to holding Atletico Madrid to a 1-1 draw in a game which could have swung the momentum of the race in Atletico’s favour, from overcoming Gaku Shibasaki’s stupendous solo goal to steal a win against Getafe to defeating Real Madrid in a momentous 3-0 triumph just before Christmas, Barcelona have dazzled their opponents and spellbound their supporters.

In spite of their awe-inspiring results, what is unique about Barcelona’s title win this season is that it came on the back of a poor season and on the foundations of a balanced yet dynamic squad – Barcelona have netted 87 goals this season, five more than the oft-acclaimed prolific scorers Real Madrid, and have conceded only 21 goals in league so far, a statistic bettered only by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.

“When you chase it all season you say finally ‘the league is very long’. It is not decided only in a match. From the beginning we have been in the lead. In the end we were the best. The hard part is winning and winning,” Valverde opined after Messi’s hattrick helped Barcelona put a defiant Deportivo La Coruna to bed in a 4-2 victory, also acknowledging that his team’s dedication to the cause often trumped their deficient performances, their grit leading the way for their title charge.

And in the heart of it all lay Valverde’s remarkable use of the players at his disposal. Defensively, Barcelona dropped deep off the ball in such a manner that the midfielders pegged the gaps left behind by the defenders, while going forward the two full-backs would take up advanced positions to ensure a smooth transition.

Following Neymar’s departure, Barcelona’s attack had to adapt to the loss of pace on the left wing, but it also allowed Messi to recapture his favorite position as a ‘false nine’, a move which not only revitalized Barcelona’s attack but orchestrated their title win.

“I have not invented anything; in the end these players have already won titles and leagues with other coaches. It’s more of them than the coach,” a modest Valverde weighed in on Barcelona’s tactical system following their La Liga triumph, but to say that Valverde has simply impacted Barcelona’s style of play would be an understatement.

The former Athletic Bilbao manager has restored calm in crisis situations, his composure and levelheadedness helping Barcelona’s cause in times of adversities. In past, Barcelona were a debonair side who often lacked a Plan B against tough opponents, today Barcelona are a sturdy, undramatic opposition with a ruthless instinct which can come up with alternative gameplans at the drop of the hat, and it is simply because of the tranquil Spaniard at the helm of the club.

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Updated Date: May 01, 2018 07:48:41 IST