Valverde's quiet crisis management leaves Barca ready to clean up
When Ernesto Valverde steps out at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, chasing the first part of a domestic double in the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla and on track for an undefeated title canter, the early weeks of his Barcelona tenure last year will feel like an increasingly distant and terrible dream.
Installed as Luis Enrique's successor and charged with ensuring Real Madrid's latest LaLiga reign was one of brevity, the unheralded 54-year-old's reputation as a safe pair of hands was quickly put to the test as he found himself embroiled in a perpetual act of crisis management.
Barca arrived for their pre-season tour of the United States undercooked in terms of the defensive organisation Valverde classes as fundamental and with a Neymar transfer circus in tow. Paris Saint-Germain got their man to rock the football world, at which point the fun and games really began in Catalonia.
Barcelona could not replace their Samba star with another as Liverpool resisted advances for Philippe Coutinho and they had to make do with another Brazilian, Paulinho, who none of their fans particularly wanted. The nominal Neymar replacement was Ousmane Dembele, who was soon to embark upon an injury nightmare.
Then there was the Supercopa de Espana, where Madrid dispatched Barca 5-1 on aggregate. It could have been more. A yawning chasm gaped where there was supposed to be a rivalry.
By the time Coutinho arrived in January, there was still a chasm. Barcelona swaggered into the mid-season break with a 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu and a nine-point lead at the top of LaLiga – 14 better off than their bitter rivals.
Domestically, they have not missed a beat in 2018 and it is hard to regard Valverde's stewardship from arrival to now as anything other than expert; his lightness of touch as welcome as Paulinho's unexpected knack for vital goals from midfield.
33 - Barcelona haven't lost in the first 33 league games (W25 D8), the best starting without defeat in La Liga ever (surpassing to Real Sociedad in 79/80, 32). Record pic.twitter.com/3obn1Ryq81
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) April 17, 2018
And yet it is undeniable that this Barcelona do not beguile as Pep Guardiola's side did or provide the visceral thrills of Luis Enrique's turbo charged MSN outfit. MS-compact-midfield-four just doesn't have the same ring.
The Champions League quarter-final humiliation against Roma showed a soft underbelly remains – time is defeating the once-imperious Sergio Busquets, inviting a scrutiny defensive leader Gerard Pique has grown accustomed to avoiding. It also means Barca will wrap their season at 59 games, just as they did last term under Valverde's predecessor.
During that time, Luis Enrique's men scored 171 goals. In 53 outings Valverde's Barca have 120 but have conceded 32 – 26 fewer despite facing almost as many shots.
Talk of Messidependencia has grown this season but Barcelona's talisman is not noticeably more influential by numbers alone. He scored 54 of last year's mammoth haul and has 39 currently – an incremental percentage increase from 31.6 to 32.5.
Of course, the influence of arguably the greatest player ever to lace boots stretches far beyond his goal return. With Xavi gone and Andres Iniesta poised to announce his departure, Messi is the heartbeat of Barca more so than ever before. Valverde has harnessed this impressively.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) April 21, 2018
On the three occasions this season he opted to rest the mercurial Argentinian on the bench in LaLiga Barca drew each match, with Messi called upon to instigate salvage jobs every time. The last of those came in an uneven 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo this week, where Barcelona started a game without a single La Masia graduate for the first time in 16 years.
These are changing times at Camp Nou and parallels to the seasons following Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" zenith are easy to draw. Louis van Gaal secured back-to-back LaLiga titles in the late 1990s and Valverde is similarly juggling the pursuit of honours with the turbulence of a celebrated era ending.
The 54-year-old's laidback nature probably gives him an advantage over the combustible Van Gaal, whose two Barca spells still garner mixed reviews. Winning the first half of a double would be due reward for a largely excellent season but the work that will come to define Valverde's Barcelona tenure is only just beginning.