In the dressing room after Barcelona’s brilliant 3-0 win over Real Madrid, the Catalan club’s players were naturally raucous, but manager Ernesto Valverde was still the picture of restraint. Quietly content, of course, but also concentrated and steely. It was a mood slightly out of kilter with the extent of the win and the celebration going on around him, but entirely in-keeping with Valverde’s general approach, as well as his reaction to the other extreme: Barca’s previous match against Real Madrid.
That August fixture culminated in a dismal 5-1 aggregate defeat in the Super Cup that also brought to a head what was arguably one of the worst summers in the club’s history.
Given the sensational sale of Neymar, as well as their much debated struggles to actually go and spend the money to replace him and replenish a squad that badly needed improvement even before that, it was almost like both the depressing close-seasons of 2000 and 2001 combined. There was a modern Luis Figo-level nightmare story, as well as a lack of direction that didn’t exactly speak well of the club’s planned path.
It really was that bad. Then there was the actual specifics of the job itself. Aside from the gloom about the sale of Neymar, this was a tired-looking squad recovering from a failed title challenge for the first time in three years. Valverde had to accommodate a player who nobody seemed to want in Paulinho, and who did provoke debate among the club’s hierarchy and fans, and then lost Neymar’s eventual replacement Ousmane Dembele to injury for three months and then another six weeks.
On top of all of that, there was the unsettling uncertainty fostered by what may well have ended up as the biggest moment in the club’s history: Leo Messi’s apparent indecision over a new deal. Even if many were always confident the Argentine was fine, and preaching as much, the Neymar situation illustrated that nothing is done until it is done.
It was quite a situation to walk into, almost impossible. There were so many factors against him.
If the Barcelona job is “an oven”, as many of those with direct knowledge describe it, then here it was turned up to maximum temperature. And yet Valverde just proceeded with the minimum of fuss.
And just kept on going, and going… to the point his side have now won their first trophy of the season, having just thrashed Sevilla 5-0 in the final of the Copa Del Rey at the Wanda Metropolitano, and are only three points away from what seemed like an unachievable Liga title at the start of the season.
Given the pressure, and given how good Barcelona are ending the season – maybe even invincible league champions – it may well be the best managerial job of 2017-2018.
Valverde wouldn’t come close to making such claims himself, but that type of attitude has been part of it. He just went into that infamously difficult dressing room and immediately commanded the respect of the squad due to his self-belief and the evident trust of his own ideas, as well as the clarity of them.
Barca had already been on the course of a much-debated drift from their famous philosophy, but Valverde at least gave a proper focus to it. He also did the fundamentals of any good managerial job. He instantly gave the available squad a playing approach that fitted them, bringing out the best in them. Messi was made the centre of a more calculated Barca. They were still capable of flamboyance, as one absolutely brilliant passage of football against Deportivo La Coruna displayed, but they were more calculated about it.
That calculation and sense of certainty about what they are doing has of course given the confidence to occasionally go on such surges. They may have been willing to cede possession to Real in the first half of the Clasico, but the second showed that the real point is they can still use it to devastating effect at the right moment. This was also evident in how Barça approached the Champions league tie away at Chelsea, composed and calculated, before finishing off the job at the Camp Nou.
It didn’t go quite well for Valverde and his team in Rome though, as Barça relinquished a 3-goal cushion in embarrassing fashion, but that is the only blemish on what was never envisaged to be anything near a perfect season.
This calculated decision making has perhaps been Valverde’s best piece of work. He has restored a resolve and focus to a club that can often be too bloated, too distracted by everything going on around it.
Luis Suarez pointed on the more specific on-pitch effects of this after the game at the Bernabeu.
“What we have been doing so far this season, together, compact, pressing and taking advantage of the opportunities… this win is a result of that.”
It was also a result that nobody would have expected in August. That alone reflects the brilliance of Valverde’s work, the progressive pragmatism.
It may be the managerial job of 2017, although he would just insist on keeping focus as the only justification for all the hard work is the big trophies.
The Copa Del Rey goes into Barcelona’s trophy cabinet for a record 30th time and it would be safe to say that one more trophy is expected to follow suit, the manner of victory being the only uncertainty.
Invincibles or not, One of the worst summers in the club’s history has ended up with one of the best possible responses so far, and that credit should go to Ernesto Valverde.