Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde has renewed his contract at the club.
The experienced coach was appointed back in 2017 and despite getting hammered in the Supercopa de España, losing his first two games to rivals Real Madrid, he rebounded and guided the Blaugrana to an impressive domestic double by season’s end. Now midway through his second campaign, Barça are top of La Liga, in the Copa del Rey semi-finals as well as the Champions League round of 16.
Things are pretty good right now, so why are people greeting this Valverde extension with reactions that range from “huh?” to “really?” to “WHY?!” – what is causing the renewal of a successful coach to be so controversial?
Barcelona have been tremendously successful under Ernesto Valverde’s tenure. When he came in it looked like the club were about to spiral into chaos and rivals Real Madrid were coming off their first title since 2012 and were about to embark on an era of dominance. Instead Valverde’s Barcelona finished 17 points ahead of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in La Liga.
Valverde achieved this with a squad that had no right to win anything. Ousmane Dembélé was missing for over half the season through injury and Philippe Coutinho didn’t join until January. Meanwhile Luis Suárez also spent much of the campaign carrying a knock that greatly impacted his abilities. For most of the season Barcelona’s most reliable attacker after Leo Messi was Paulinho.
And yet, Valverde’s adherence to tactical discipline and reduction of risk saw them through. And in his second season they’ve continued to power along. Under his tenure they’ve won 65 of their 96 matches, losing just nine. They’ve scored 233 goals and conceded just 78, keeping 45 clean sheets along the way. In terms of pure results, this renewal is a good thing.
Moreover, nearly all of the senior players at Barcelona are very happy with Valverde. They’re all playing regularly and being given plenty of trust from their coach. No matter the scenario, Valverde will always turn to his veterans when the chips are down. Given that this bracket now includes Leo Messi, the finest player on the planet, keeping them happy is a very good thing.
Of course, squads aren’t wholly made up of veterans. In recent summers Barcelona’s transfer activity has centered almost exclusively around finding the next generation of talent. Ousmane Dembélé, Nelson Semedo, Marc-André Ter Stegen, Samuel Umtiti, Philippe Coutinho, Malcom, Arthur, and so on. These young talents (and Coutinho) are part of the future of Barcelona.
The thing is, bar Ter Stegen they’ve all had a very difficult time under Ernesto Valverde. Alright, Umtiti’s issues are related to injury, but the others have all found Valverde as much of a hindrance as a help. The coach doesn’t mean any harm, but his natural aversion to risk that made him such a good fit for the talent-deficient Barcelona of 2017/18 causes him problems now in 2018/19.
Dembélé has struggled for consistent minutes under him, and has only recently been getting the trust his superhuman talent and production deserves. Semedo is lightyears better than Sergi Roberto but gets about half the minutes. Coutinho was meant to be a midfielder but Valverde abandoned that experiment so quickly (too risky!) that he’s thrust the Brazilian into a back-up wing role he’s too talented for.
These are fantastic talents struggling to make an impact because their coach is too cautious with them. One wonders how Frenkie de Jong will fare under Valverde – will he receive the level of trust he currently does for Ajax and the Netherlands? Or will he, too, never get to play unless Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic are also present, grinding their ligaments to powder.
Then there’s the timing: we’re in the middle of February. Barcelona are top of the league, sure, but two draws in a row has seen their lead cut to just six points with one Clásico and a handful of very tricky away games to come. Meanwhile they play Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg having drawn 1-1 at home, so that’s far from settled too.
Then in the Champions League they face Lyon, a winnable tie but even if they past the French outfit there are two more ties to go before the final. So much could go wrong in any competition that this season could end in disaster. Obviously you always want teams to trust coaches regardless, but Valverde’s tenure is heavily predicated on results; so betting on him now when the results could all go so wrong is, somewhat ironically, a massive risk.
Even if Barcelona were to win everything, you would still hear murmurs of discontent. Barça is a club where the demand isn’t just to win, but to win well. And for many a year that is exactly what they did. Frank Rijkaard’s side were wondrous entertainers, as were Luis Enrique’s Treble winners, and obviously Pep Guardiola’s period in charge remains the high-water mark of both style and substance.
Valverde’s football is far more prosaic than any of those three coaches. With him in charge Barça can be quite a slog to watch, with only brief moments of magic from Messi, Dembélé, Busquets and Jordi Alba illuminating proceedings. Sure they are still capable of wondrous football, even across an entire match, but their baseline performance is efficient and, well, dull. They don’t get the blood pumping, and for a squad with as much talent as Barcelona now possesses, that’s a serious problem.
Valverde did such a good job of coaching Barça in his first season that he’s now unqualified to coach them in his second (nevermind the third!) The Blaugrana need something more than just a results-oriented taskmaster. They need an artist so that the side can continue to evolve, because if you’re not moving forward then it won’t be long before you’re going backward. No side that contains Leo Messi is ever truly bad or boring, sure, but what about life after Leo? He turns 32 in the summer so it must be considered.
What Barcelona need is a coach who will trust the youngsters so that the club can manage the impending transition away from the core that Guardiola established (Messi, Busquets, Piqué, Alba). That’s a huge changing of the guard and so Barça will need all their young talent on point; not just the signings but the kids from La Masia too. And there again Valverde falls short. He has shown as hesitance to use the youth academy to fill out the squad, because of course young people carry risk with them.
Carles Aleña has been ready for the first-team for about a year now, but he is only now getting his first taste of minutes. Juan Miranda is young but could be a great full-back alternative to Jordi Alba, instead after two bad games Valverde already prefers to play right-backs out of position there rather than trust the youngster to figure it out.
Then there’s Riqui Puig, one of the most promising young midfielders to emerge from La Masia in over a decade. This contract renewal ensures that his entry into the first-team will come under Valverde’s watch. How will that go? How much trust will be placed in this precocious phenom? Will he be afforded the chance to make mistakes and grow? Or will he be benched for reliable veterans?
Barcelona are about to approach their biggest crossroads in their history: the ageing and departure of the greatest player of all-time. Leo Messi is Barcelona’s everything, and the club will need to have an incredible set-up around him to avoid dropping like a stone when their awesome Argentine does finally depart the Catalan capital.
Worryingly, the last time Barça faced a similar situation was in 1961 when club legend Laszlo Kubala left the club. They had just won two Ligas in two years, but once Kubala left they dropped off so hard that they won their next two Liga titles across a time span of 30 (yes, thirty) years. Barcelona need a coach with capability, courage and a bold vision to ensure that their transition away from the legend of Leo Messi is as smooth as possible; and it really doesn’t look like Ernesto Valverde is that man, which makes his new contract a potential problem.