La Liga: Ernesto Valverde faces difficult task of delivering stability and renewed glory at Barcelona

“It’s like being in Disneyland, ” said Luis Enrique back in 2014, when appointed as FC Barcelona’s coach. For a while there, it truly felt like the Catalan club was on a dreamy vacation, collecting trophies and offering a distinct ruthlessness with MSN, but this spring, however, the fairytale between Lucho and his beloved Blaugrana came to a close.

To the end, Enrique remained clairvoyant and lucid: he understood that Barcelona’s supreme level had deserted the Camp Nou. His own behavior, his state of mind, the team play – it all pointed to a simple conclusion, one Enrique wasn’t afraid to draw: ‘burnout.’ And so, Enrique left the big stage at the right time, citing physiological and physical fatigue. “I need a rest,” said the 46-year-old coach.

Under Lucho, Barcelona won seven trophies, all the while winning three-quarters of their games, but failure in the European Cup and the pressure that comes from helming one of the most popular clubs in the world got to Enrique as it did to Pep Guardiola half a decade ago.

New Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. AP

New Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. AP

Enter Ernesto Valverde. He ticks the Barcelona past checkmark: he played at the Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990. His coaching credentials aren’t lacking either, but can he manage at the divergent environment of FC Barcelona, a global institution of footballing excellence, where exorbitant pressure is the norm?

Success at the biggest clubs– a.k.a. the biggest brands – has to be relentless, and losing just six games all season, four in La Liga and two in the Champions League, wasn’t enough for Lucho to stay. Enrique’s departure was all but inevitable after the disaster in Paris. A miracle did sprout in the second leg as Barcelona performed a feat of great escapology on an apocalyptic night in Catalonia, but the accusations against Enrique ran deeper: Barcelona had abandoned their trademark Guardiola all-sweeping possession obsession and pressing mania in favor of the might of the Messi-Suarez-Neymar trio. With Lucho as coach, Barcelona perhaps moved too far away from the Guardiolan and Cruyffian core values of the club.

Valverde is not a return to those principles. He had a brief spell under Johan Cruyff, but Valverde is not subjugated to possession. His team like the ball, but he plays with rigor and organization. Cruyff wrote of him: “He was intelligent and always expressed his interest to learn. As a coach he’ll be one of the most promising.”

Barcelona have long courted Valverde. When Frank Rijkaard’s reign collapsed in 2008, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho were the frontrunners, but the list of candidates also included Valverde, Michael Laudrup and Laurent Blanc. During Tito Vilanova's single season in charge of Barca, Valverde was put on standby. Barcelona’s new coach has a no-nonsense approach. He wants more verticality in the game and in that sense he is not so different from his predecessor.

It’s the first time Valverde will coach a major club. The vast recourses and the spangled playing personnel will be new, like the perpetual paradox of great clubs: they are always in a crisis. Win and they must seek to consolidate their reputation and prominence at the top. Lose and they must recalibrate, at times even reinvent, to rejoin the cream of the crop and wander in the gilded halls of football’s Bullingdon Club.

Lionel Messi will be key to Valverde’s reign. How will he integrate the game’s alchemist and ultimate thaumaturge, whose impending 30th birthday seemed to corrode his footballing powers? The diminutive Argentinean dispelled the notion of decline with an audacious and splendid performance in El Clasico when he mustered his perpetual movement and beautiful swiftness to deceive Real Madrid as he transcended a game of mere subterraneans.

Valverde needs to adapt to Messi, and not vice versa. It’s another challenge for Barcelona’s coach. He is tasked with delivering stability and renewed glory at Barcelona, an act that will be difficult to balance.

Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 17:55 PM

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