For the second season in a row, Barcelona have thrown away a three goal lead in the Champions League.
It doesn’t really matter that they’ve won La Liga back-to-back and could well make that consecutive domestic doubles, when you crash out of Europe in such an absurdly ridiculous manner two years on the bounce, questions are going to be asked of the manager.
Ernesto Valverde has done a lot of good at Barcelona, albeit most of it was last season when he stabilised a free-falling club and helped them get back on their feet, but he’s also made several terrible mistakes. Five of them are more prominent than others, however, and should really cost him his job. What are they? Read on!
1. An over-reliance on Messi
This may seem churlish because honestly how is any manager out there not going to rely on Messi? He’s the best player on the planet by some order of magnitude and his all-encompassing style of play means that he can’t even be siphoned off to pure goalscoring, he’s going to involve himself in every facet of attacking play so of course he will be focal.
But being focal doesn’t mean that he should be the only source of genius. Barcelona have always had great players but when they were at their best (under Pep Guardiola) or even just pretty damn great (under Luis Enrique or Frank Rijkaard) it always felt like their system of play was simply empowering the great players to do great things.
Under Valverde, however, it feels like Barcelona’s system is basically just hanging onto the edge of a speeding train for dear life and praying that Messi shows up with a star on his chest and a shield on his back and saves you before you fall to your icy death.
Lionel Messi was directly was directly involved in all eight of Barcelona's shots tonight against Liverpool:
• 5 shots attempted
• 3 chances created
It would be nice if his teammates could help out too… pic.twitter.com/pfHoOOTZUV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 7, 2019
Even Barcelona’s one regular “automatism” (structured play), that is the use of an overlapping Jordi Alba to provide cutbacks and crosses, seems almost entirely an invention of Messi’s brilliance as he’s been playing those diagonal passes since he had shaggy hair and looked like a tiny Gerard Depardieu.
There is nothing in the way Valverde’s Barcelona attacks that doesn’t depend on Messi, and for the most part that’s fine. But this means if an opponent swarms Messi on the ball, as Liverpool and Roma both did, then Barça are about as threatening as a small child with a stuffed bear. That is what caused the Blaugrana’s Champions League eliminations in both 2017 and 2018 (as well as 2013 and 2014 if we’re keeping it real – it’s pretty wild that this problem has returned but there you go).
2. Sergi Roberto: right-back
Everyone likes Sergi Roberto. The only feel-good La Masia story of the Luis Enrique reign – the kid who just hung around forever and then turned into a Utility God. Roberto played everywhere under Luis Enrique but settled on right-back even though he’s naturally a midfielder.
The fit at right-back made sense in a clumsy way. The club needed someone to replace Dani Alves but you can’t directly replace a once-a-lifetime player who plays two different roles at the same time, so they chose to replicate the passing and midfieldery aspect of Alves’ play.
Roberto did that stuff well, he’s a midfielder after all, and he occasionally had great bursts of pace when running from deep on the overlap. But the man couldn’t defend Fort Knox. He’s a catastrophic defender both spatially and 1v1. He makes Alves look like Franco Baresi.
Barcelona signed Nelson Semedo, a magnificent defender with the kind of athleticism and skill to make a world-class wing-back for many years. But his lack of instant connection into the passing game at the Camp Nou meant that Valverde never really gave him a fair shout. All Semedo needed to get going was basically a massive run in the side as the right-back to develop relationships and understandings with his team-mates but no, Valverde would nearly always opt for Roberto although anyone with eyes could see what a catastrophe he was.
Roberto’s “defending” cost Barcelona several points this season and the Spaniard was directly responsible for two of the goals Liverpool scored in their Anfield turnaround. It’s easy to say now but there’s at least a 90% chance that those goals don’t go in if Semedo was on the field. He’s that much better than Roberto, and what’s mad is Valverde even acknowledged this!
In both legs Valverde saw his right-back getting hosed but gave him an hour there before bringing Semedo on and moving Roberto to midfield. It’s genuinely baffling that he continues to get starts rather than Valverde simply giving Semedo the minutes necessary to become the world-class full-back he so obviously is.
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3. Neglecting the power of pace
Ernesto Valverde really bloody well doesn’t give a vegan sausage roll about pace. That’s quite an incredible thing to say in this day and age where everyone and their gran knows that pace is a deadly weapon and Kylian Mbappé has shown that even teenagers who have barely started shaving can become weapons of mass destruction if they can run quickly.
Barcelona have a history of fast, skilful players in attack. But does Valverde care? Nah, not really. He came into this season armed with Ousmane Dembélé and Malcom, two sonic-boom-creating wingers that could and would provide Leo Messi with the kind of passing options he hasn’t had at Barcelona since he was playing with Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o. Yet Valverde would nearly always have one or both of them on the bench.
With Dembélé there was always the spectre of the Frenchman’s poor professionalism, although quite how ostracizing a 21-year-old from playing time in a new club, country and culture is going to help him adapt and become better isn’t quite clear. And that excuse never washed anyway because Malcom is a beacon of professionalism, works like a demon defensively, and yet has seen the Camp Nou pitch about as much as Thomas Vermaelen. In fact, hang on…No, even less than Thomas Vermaelen.
The handsome Belgian once-defender has played 678 minutes in La Liga and the Champions League whilst the mercurial Brazilian has appeared for just 497 minutes. There’s 181 minutes difference. Meaning Vermaelen, a husk of a player who’s at the club only because no one would buy him, has played an entire The Godfather’s worth more football than Malcom.
Without pace, Barcelona’s attack is easily contained by a side that presses intensely. Well, not easily, but the Blaugrana basically have to conjure up perfect passing attacks to break through the lines because any time they play a through-ball to, say, Luis Suárez behind the defence – said defence has more than enough foot speed to close them down and get the ball away.
This lack of pace is what allowed both Roma and Liverpool to push up and press the life out of Barcelona. They knew any ball in behind could be handled with ease, and so had no fear of committing the bodies forward that eventually loaded too much pressure on the Barça defence for it to cope.
And what’s really wild is that in both matches, one of the fast wingers sat on the bench, waiting to come on. And Valverde only got them on the field once the opposition had taken the lead, meaning they had retreated into a deep-block and there was no longer any space for the pace to exploit! He did this exact same thing two years in a row! That’s a story so absurd that even Dan Brown wouldn’t use it.
4. Baffling rotation
Football is a squad game nowadays. You can’t get away with riding the same XI players into the ground every week, you need to rotate. And every manager does, to an extent. Even Valverde rotates, but the way he does it sometimes defies all logic and sense.
When you have to give several starters a rest, most managers would pick a home game as the advantage of playing in front of your own fans will mitigate missing some star men. But not Valverde! Oh no, he saves his biggest rotation games for away from home! And when his side predictably struggles in the face of oppressive opposition fans and a team that is giving Barça the game of their lives, he has to bring on his starters anyway!
It defies belief, really. As does the way he manages the fitness of certain star men. Arthur, for instance, is carefully game-managed. This being his first season in Europe means that by now he’s basically been playing non-stop for a year-and-a-half. So to avoid burnout he never plays more than 60 minutes. Smart.
But Luis Suárez, a 32-year-old striker who cannot handle playing his 100mph style of play every three days… plays every three days. Barcelona have back-ups, but Valverde doesn’t care to use them, burning out his stars over the course of a long season meaning that even with a week’s rest, they still have trouble physically competing with a side like Liverpool.
5. A lack of tactical courage
The final mistake, the one that sort of encompasses all the others and sums it all up is the fact that Ernesto Valverde is a coward. Not in the traditional sense, he might actually be very brave at dealing with giant spiders and mobs of fascists, but in footballing terms he’s a scardey-cat through and through.
Risk-averse managers have always existed and done well plenty of times too, but they are the antithesis of everything Barcelona want to be. And honestly everything Barcelona have been since Pep Guardiola took charge. Getting big picture for a second, it’s quite fitting that the only two managers hired by the Sandro Rosell-Josep Bartomeu alliance (Pep basically anointed Tito Vilanova and it was Andoni Zubizaretta who chose Luis Enrique) are the risk-averse Tata Martino and Ernesto Valverde.
Valverde hates doing anything that exposes the team to risk. And whilst that made him the perfect candidate to pick 2017/18 Barcelona off their knees and make them a stable, competitive side again – it also made him wholly unsuited to go beyond that. So when he began 2018/19 with Coutinho, Dembélé and Malcom at his disposal as well as a fully integrated Nelson Semedo – this was the time to open up the playbook and really start cookin’! But… no. It was the same old same old, culminating in a repeat of Roma disaster.
By restoring Barcelona to their original stature, Valverde basically made the job to big for him. He won’t learn, it has been proven he won’t learn. Case in point: the 5-1 Clásico win over Real Madrid was basically heading down the Roma route in the second half. Los Blancos had pulled it back to 2-1 and had gone full-on press to kill Barça – except this time Valverde did bring Dembélé on. He also brought Semedo on and moved Roberto into midfield.
Guess what happened? Dembélé went on one driving run up the middle of the pitch and boom, it was 3-1, then 4-1, then 5-1 with Dembélé himself getting the assist. Roberto, now in midfield, assisted the other two. A masterpiece of a performance and a clear and shining example that taking a risk, trusting pace and getting Roberto out of right-back are all good things.
Then he never did it again. Went straight back to his usual nonsense. And thanks to the incredible talents of Leo Messi, Ousmane Dembélé and Luis Suárez they picked up enough wins to retain La Liga (honestly, go see how many points those three won out of nothing). But against Liverpool, what did he do? Was he brave? Don’t be ridiculous. He entered that game with the mentality that losing 2-0 would be fine as they’d progress – and that predictably blew up in his face like an Acme dynamite kit.
That his only response post-match was “it is what it is” shows that this is a manager unwilling or incapable of facing his own flaws and growing as a coach. He will never rectify the mistakes he’s made, and if Barcelona want to move on from his stale football and get back to playing beautiful stuff that the world envies, then they need to sack Ernesto Valverde as soon as possible.