Barcelona have sacked head coach Ernesto Valverde after two years and eight months in charge.
This is the first time since 2003 that Barça have wielded the axe on a manager in the middle of the season. Back then, when they sacked Louis van Gaal, Barcelona were mid-table in La Liga. They currently sit joint top with Real Madrid, but long-standing fan complaints over playing style, as well as humiliating cup defeats to Roma, Liverpool, Valencia and now Atlético Madrid have caused them to act.
Ironically, the recent defeat to Atleti carried none of the hideous nonsense that plagued their failures at the Stadio Olimpico, Anfield and the Estadio Benito Villamarin against Valencia. But, elimination from the Spanish Super Cup proved the straw that broke the camel’s back because, after a meeting earlier on Monday, club president Josep Bartomeu agreed to dismiss him.
Since then they have announced that Quique Setién is set to step into the Camp Nou equation in a statement posted on the club’s official website. The statement read: “FC Barcelona and Quique Setién have reached an agreement for the latter to become first team coach until 30 June 2022.”
Barça have been swift and decisive in appointing Valverde’s successor, but the sacking of the Spaniard remains nothing short of ugly and controversial. So here we have a look at the big winners and losers of the move.
Winner: Ernesto Valverde
Valverde getting sacked shouldn’t see him marked as a winner, but it does. Why? Simply because of the way it unfolded. Valverde comes out of this looking genuinely hard done by and unfairly treated, when the truth isn’t quite so clear. Plus the fact that Barcelona are still top of the league, having also won the previous two La Liga titles, just makes it all look rather ridiculous.
Quique Setién will be the new manager of FC Barcelona. Welcome!
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 13, 2020
Of course the small print will explain just how bad the football became under Valverde, and how Leo Messi and Marc-André Ter Stegen performed miracles to secure the 2018/19 La Liga title, but no one is going to think less of the Spaniard after this. Yes, he had to endure some awfully disrespectful nonsense from the Barcelona board, but he’ll get lots of pity, a big fat payoff, and will now have his pick of the kind of mid-table jobs he’s more suited to anyway.
The photo of him leaving his meeting with Bartomeu, beaming ear to ear and waving at journalists, shows a man who has just had a huge weight lifted off his shoulders and is now free to live something of a more normal life (with his massive contract fully paid off) having won back-to-back La Liga medals. How can he be anything but a massive winner?
📸 La foto del dia es de @VALENRICH
— Diario SPORT (@sport) January 13, 2020
Loser: Josep Bartomeu
In contrast to his manager, Josep Bartomeu and the Barcelona board have come across like a bunch of incompetent buffoons. Their inaction over Valverde after his genuine failures, leading to their hysterical overreaction to an unlucky defeat, and their ridiculous attempts to replace him by courting a club legend makes them look cold, callous and frankly more than a little stupid.
“Barcelona is a special place where winning the League is not enough,” former Barça boss Pep Guardiola said, before adding: “I [feel] very badly for Ernesto Valverde, he does not deserve this.” When you’ve got Barcelona legends criticising you, that’s never good.
Xavi also spoke of wanting to respect Valverde. And today Andrés Iniesta visited his former team and had this to say: “The way everything is being done is a bit ugly. I think that there should always be respect for the coach.” So, that’s three of the biggest figures in Barcelona’s recent history talking about how the Blaugrana should have respected the dude they just sacked.
Regardless of the fact that Bartomeu has since replaced him with Setién, the president went about this process in completely the wrong way and is now looking like the bad guy, an incompetent bad guy. Not a great look for a president that is 18 months away from elections.
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Winner: Riqui Puig
Despite the support Valverde has received thanks to the uncouth manner in which the Barcelona brass have gone about this, his sacking is not without merit. There will be many beneficiaries to Valverde leaving, but perhaps the most acute of those is young Riqui Puig, the 20-year-old La Masia midfield maestro.
Puig made a huge impression on Barcelona’s pre-season tour in 2018, but sensibly didn’t feature too much in 2018/19; although, whenever he did, his ability, and more importantly suitability for the Barça system was screamingly obvious. He impressed again in the 2019 pre-season, but has basically been shut out from the first-team picture even though the signing of Frenkie de Jong has meant that the midfield should be even more suited to his talents than ever.
"Riqui Puig is a classic La Masia midfielder; short, silky and smooth. He’s got an absurd first touch, so delicate he could rob a diamond vault with no shoes and never leave a footprint."
He even tucks in his shirt. ✊ pic.twitter.com/ZgHTcSNosM
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 23, 2019
The idea that Barcelona could waste a talent so supernaturally suited to their midfield would be unthinkable had they not already done so with Thiago Alcantara. However unlike in 2013, now they do not have Xavi and Iniesta to call upon instead. So integrating Puig into the first team (he’d honestly perform better than everyone bar Sergio Busquets and De Jong and perhaps Arthur) is essential. Now with Valverde and his pragmatism out of the way, and Setién in charge (knowing what the Spanish coach did for the development of Dani Ceballos and Fabian Ruiz), Puig is riding high.
You have to feel for Xavi. He wanted to grow as a coach and went as far away as Qatar to do it (the money can’t have hurt, though). The Catalan must have thought that, as he had not yet turned 40, he still had time on his side to develop himself as a coach before taking his dream job at the Camp Nou.
Well, Barcelona’s sacking of Valverde and the Barcelona board’s desperation to save face has seen them place him front and centre of their attentions. Xavi is currently coaching Al-Sadd, where he’s doing okay, but Barça tried to fast-track him into the Camp Nou hotseat last week, only for the former midfield genius to say that he’d be happy to take over, but not now.
It was always suspected that Xavi would be the head coach attached to the 2021 club presidential campaign of Victor Font, but now Bartomeu has pulled Xavi into the present and made him associated to the current sporting project. So whilst Xavi may not take over in January, he will now be unable to move from rumours linking him with a summer appointment at the Camp Nou (especially because, at 61, Setién is hardly a long-term appointment). It’s placed a massive spotlight on his development and ability as a coach and thrust him into contention for his dream job much sooner than he’d have liked.