Why Barcelona's problems run deeper than Ernesto Valverde
Getty Images/Alex Caparros

Why Barcelona's problems run deeper than Ernesto Valverde

Ernesto Valverde is unpopular among Cules despite winning back to back La Liga titles but is he the biggest problem at the club? 

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Gerry Johnston

Ernesto Valverde has one of the hardest jobs in football. The 55-year-old has won two league titles, a Copa del Rey and a Supercopa de Espana in his little over two years in charge of Barcelona but he still finds himself unpopular among fans of the Blaugrana

While the trophies won are impressive, it is understandable that some question his abilities considering he overseen two of the worst Champions League collapses in the modern era when Barcelona twice threw away three-goal leads to Roma and Liverpool

He managed to survive the Roma debacle due to an almost perfect La Liga campaign in which it took 37 games for Barca to lose a league match but he looked sure for the sack when the Liverpool collapse was followed up by a Copa del Rey final loss to Valencia but he managed to channel his inner-Houdini to somehow escape the clutches of the baying supporting and find instead the sympathetic ear of President Josep Maria Bartomeu who has decided to give him at least another season. 

In many ways, Valverde can point to a job well done with back to back league titles but the fans and even captain, Lionel Messi, long to be kings of Europe. Is Valverde the man to lead the club to a sixth European crown? Is it the fact that he doesn't possess what it takes or is it that Barcelona, in their current guise, just aren't built to succeed in Europe's premier competition? 

A game of cycles

Football goes in cycles. Barcelona had a fantastic end to the last decade and start to this one. Pep Guardiola's "tiki-taka" was a joy to watch with the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta at their peak alongside Messi and all the others that made that team so special. However, that team won two Champions League titles and in the year following both successes they lost semi-finals to Inter Milan and Chelsea, both of whom deployed extremely defensive styles in winning the Champions League. 

After that began an era of counter-attacking teams winning the competition and Barcelona themselves won it in 2015 with the infamous MSN strikeforce of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. While that team weren't as outright a pressing and counter-attacking force as Liverpool last season, they were still a lot less controlled and more direct than the Guardiola era.  

Real Madrid's three titles in a row came thanks to a team that had the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale using their pace to stretch opponents on the counter-attack and Liverpool similarly are at their best when what is best described as a functional midfield, win the ball and get it forward to their matchwinners in attack who are at their best when they can use their pace. 

Reinventing the wheel

Modern football is a bit of a myth. In this day and age, there's very little new about how the game is played. All the modern innovation that is talked about is really just a hybrid of something that's been done before. Pep Guardiola, much to the surprise of many, didn't invent the short passing game. He once played in a team managed by Johan Cruyff who played in a team coached by Rinus Michels who all played the game that way. They were influenced by the great Hungarian team of the 1950s who were influenced by Austria's Wunderteam of the 1930s. 

Similarly, the Italians have been masters of the defensive side of the game for decades and even Catenaccio was essentially a mix of what we would now call "parking the bus" and counter-attacking football. One of the great masters of Catenaccio, Helenio Herrera, insisted that his Il Grande Inter team defend deep and then when they won the ball, get it forward as soon as possible so his attackers could exploit the defence of the opposition before they had a chance to settle. 

There seems to be an attitude that Valverde is playing in a style that goes against Barcelona's values and that this is sacrilege. However, is there an argument that he is simply trying to adapt his team to a style that seems to be the one that is picking up the big prizes at present but that the players at his disposal simply don't fit what he needs to do to make Barcelona successful? 

Every system in football has its own version of kryptonite. In recent seasons, Barcelona have struggled to cope with teams that press high and that have pace in attack. If you put those words into Google, the likelihood is you would be met with the grinning teeth and baseball cap of Liverpool boss, Jurgen Klopp.  That describes his team to a tee and to a lesser extent, you can see similarities to Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid team that won the Champions League three times before him. Right now, it's the system that's dominating the continental competitions and Barcelona either find it's kryptonite or if you can't beat them, you join them.

There's little doubt this Barcelona are a good team. Their dominance in La Liga is evidence of that and Valverde deserves credit for winning those titles. The best team wins the league but quite often, the best-coached teams win the cups. Man for man, there are not many players Barcelona would swap with Liverpool or Roma but they have fallen to them in European competition twice now. Similarly, Manchester City have won back to back Premier League titles but in both seasons lost to domestic rivals in the Champions League. City have shown themselves to be the best in England but in one-off ties lost to Liverpool and Tottenham. Those teams had a plan and a style to beat City. Their coaches did their bit and the players did there's by adapting to a style that was necessary to get the results. 

Is Valverde good enough to produce a tactical masterclass that can win Barcelona the Champions League? Nobody really knows as he is generally rigid with his style of play and the mentality at Barcelona seems to be, this is how we do things and we don't adapt for anybody. Ironically, this rigid style is somewhere between trying to control games but also being strong defensively which appears to lead to confusion when the team comes under pressure. 

Does Barca have the right players? 

There's an obsession among Cules that Barcelona should play a certain way. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that as long as you are willing to accept that there will be cycles that playing the Barcelona way probably won't bring the honours that the supporters want.

The current team is set up to dominate possession. With Xavi and Iniesta moving on there has been gaps in the midfield but now there are no excuses with Sergio Busquets being joined by Arthur and Frenkie de Jong. Together those three could keep a beach ball off the most industrious of midfields in a phone box. They are all similar players who rarely waste possession but with so many teams deploying a deep block, their constant recycling of possession allows teams to get back and defend. 

In attack, there's a clear lack of pace. Messi is the fastest of the first-choice front three but the reality is with the current midfield trio, he's going to drop deeper to take the ball from them and look to thread passes to Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. It will win league titles but against the best defences and best coaches in the Champions League the tempo will be too slow and it will essentially be a case of leaving wide spaces on the counter-attack, which against the top teams, will see Barcelona fall short again. 

While Messi is still lacing up his boots, Barcelona will always remain competitive as the Argentine is simply magical but the current supporting cast isn't really doing him any favours. He needs pace around him and while Ousmane Dembele is still at the club, it's unlikely that he will oust Suarez or Griezmann in the big games. 

At 32 years old, Messi is probably only two or three seasons away from calling it a day and as long as he's at Barcelona, they should be maximising this window of opportunity to win the Champions League. It's the one that Messi wants, it's the one the fans want and it's the one the board want but whether it's the manager or the personnel it feels a bit like a different day but the same old problems. 

 

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