La Liga

Analysing Barcelona’s nine potential Valverde replacements

 • by Matt Gault
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Football’s a funny game, one we love, hate and fail to understand at the same time.

One of the more dizzying and exhausting aspects of the modern game is the managerial merry-go-round. Managers never seem entirely secure nowadays. It’s a results-driven business and when results start to slide, the man on the touchline is the one to get the chop.

But there are, of course, myriad other factors at play that lead to a manager leaving his post. Contract disputes and power struggles with the hierarchy over transfers are big ones. So, too, is the club wanting to take things “in a new direction”.

Even the successful, distinguished coaches don’t seem entirely secure, like Ernesto Valverde at Barcelona.

The 54-year-old, who replaced Luis Enrique ahead of the 2017/18 season, led Barça to a league and cup double in his first year at the helm, finishing 14 points ahead of nearest challengers Atlético Madrid in La Liga and thumping Sevilla 5-0 in the Copa del Rey final.

But even that has failed to seal the former Athletic Bilbao boss’ long-term future.

Out of contract in the summer, Valverde offered no guarantees when quizzed about what lies ahead for him beyond the summer. “Who knows?” was his not-so-reassuring response.

His comments were followed by Marca publishing a story in which they revealed the club’s nine-man shortlist to replace Valverde. Here, we assess each candidate on the list.

Quique Setién

The Real Betis coach appears to be many people’s preferred candidate to take up the reins at the Camp Nou if Valverde steps down.

Setién has garnered praise for his excellent work in recent years, first by securing Las Palmas’ status in the Spanish top flight before joining Betis in 2017.

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In Andulacia, the 60-year-old has enhanced his reputation considerably, guiding Los Verdiblancos to sixth in his first season in charge, thus qualifying for the Europa League.

Setién has maintained that position through 20 games in the current term. His attractive, expansive brand of football was thrillingly demonstrated when he led Betis to a 4-3 win over Barça at the Camp Nou in November.

After that bravura showing, it’s no surprise to see him as a leading candidate.

Laurent Blanc

The Frenchman has been out of work since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in 2016 and is reportedly keen on a return to management.

Blanc’s credentials are clear. The 53-year-old led Bordeaux to Ligue 1 success in 2009 and clinched a hat-trick of championships at PSG.

His time with the French national team was somewhat more challenging. Tasked with rebuilding after the farce of Les Bleus‘ 2010 World Cup campaign, Blanc led his country to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, where they lost to holders Spain.

Blanc isn’t perhaps the most exciting or adventurous name on the list but, as an experienced coach and former Barcelona player, expect the ’98 World Cup winner to be in the running if Valverde leaves.

Arsène Wenger

Like his compatriot Blanc, Wenger is available, having been unemployed since leaving Arsenal in May.

As a three-time Premier League winner who revolutionised the Gunners and greatly influenced perceptions of the importance of nutrition in English football, Wenger’s pedigree is enormous.

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He has also been synonymous with a free-flowing, creative brand of football that would be heartily embraced by the Barça fans. His stellar track record of developing youth talent is another plus point.

However, at 69, Wenger cannot offer the longevity of some of the names on this list and there remain concerns over his failure to reinvigorate Arsenal in his final years at the Emirates. Given the size of the job, it would be a surprise to see Wenger handed the keys to the Camp Nou.

Jordi Cruyff

A highly surprising inclusion on the shortlist, Cruyff’s return to Barcelona to revive the legacy of his late father, the legendary Johan Cruyff, seems dubious at best.

After a nomadic playing career during which he turned out for clubs in Spain, England, Ukraine and Malta, Cruyff has worked largely as a sporting director.

He enjoyed a successful five-year spell in that position at Maccabi Tel Aviv, overseeing the club’s first appearance in the Champions League group stages for 11 years, before taking over as manager in 2017. After finishing second in the Israeli Premier League, the Dutchman took over at Chinese Super League outfit Chongqing Dangdai Lifan.

Considering the gulf in standard from Israeli and Chinese football to La Liga, Cruyff’s would be an appointment fraught with risk.

Xavi Hernández

As one of the club’s greatest ever players, a hugely respected figure and effectively the living embodiment of tiki-taka, appointing Xavi would be both immensely exciting and deeply romantic for the club’s fanbase.

Xavi spent almost 25 years at Barça, absorbing the club’s philosophies as he made his way through the various youth ranks before eventually being appointed captain.

Since bidding farewell to the club in 2015, Xavi has been with Qatari club Al-Sadd. The 38-year-old has stated his desire to pursue a coaching career but assuming charge of first-team duties at Barcelona would surely be too big a jump, even for a man of his considerable intelligence and knowledge of the club’s identity.

Ronald Koeman

A far more realistic scenario would be the return of Koeman, who spent six hugely successful years in the Catalonian capital as a player under Cruyff.

Another man with Barça blood pumping through his veins, Koeman boasts an enormous wealth of experience having been in management since 2000.

Since then, he has taken a host of big jobs including Ajax, Benfica, Valencia, Everton and the Netherlands, to whom he is currently under contract.

Koeman is a divisive figure. His spell at Valencia proved disastrous while, having rebuilt his reputation at Feyenoord and Southampton, his time at Goodison Park also ended in ignominy, sacked with the Toffees in the relegation zone even after a handsome splurge in the transfer market.

But the 55-year-old has been credited with breathing new life into the Dutch national side – they finished top of their Nations League group ahead of Germany and world champions France – and certainly has to be considered as one of the stronger candidates on the list. Having already worked with Barcelona transfer targets Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt is an advantage too.

Frank de Boer

Like Cruyff, De Boer’s inclusion is certainly a cause for raised eyebrows. After six years at Ajax, the former Barça defender spent a combined 162 days in charge of Inter and Crystal Palace.

More pertinently, though, he has just been announced as the man set to succeed ex-Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino at MLS champions Atlanta United. With that, his appointment at the Camp Nou is highly improbable.

Stylistically, however, it would make sense. While his possession-based philosophy proved a catastrophic misfit at the San Siro and Selhurst Park, it would align with the traditions of the La Liga holders.

Even still, we just can’t see this happening.

Thierry Henry

Another name that makes you doubt Marca’s list, Henry is currently in the middle of trying to haul Monaco out of the wreckage that is their season.

The Frenchman, who won the Champions League under Guardiola at Barcelona, has struggled after being appointed Leonardo Jardim’s successor at the Stade Louis II, winning just three of 14 games in charge.

In his defence, injuries have ravaged his squad and, with the club expected to make significant moves during this month’s transfer window, Henry’s abilities as a coach may not become entirely until the end of the season.

Should he fail to steer Les Monégasques clear of relegation to Ligue 2, it’s tremendously doubtful that he’d be entrusted with leading Barça through a new chapter.

Roberto Martínez

Last but not least, Martínez has long been linked with the Barcelona job. Having cut his teeth at Swansea City and Wigan Athletic, leading the latter to FA Cup glory in 2013, the 45-year-old spent three years at Everton before succeeding Marc Wilmots as Belgium head coach after Euro 2016.

Although Martínez led the Red Devils to the World Cup semi-final, he was admittedly blessed with an extraordinarily talented squad.

That is not to say that his contributions as the coach should be overlooked, but it would be churlish to laud him as one of the game’s great tacticians considering he was often blasted for the naivety shown in prioritising possession-based football over defensive structure.

His in-game management was also called into question. In the 2015/16 season, Everton dropped 18 points from winning positions.

His reinvention as the enthusiastic leader of Belgium’s oft-touted ‘Golden Generation’ has been commendable, but it’s difficult to envisage a Martínez-led Barcelona sweeping all before them in Spain and Europe.

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