La Liga

Modest Valverde remains the ideal coach for Barcelona

 • by Callum Rice-Coates
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The news was greeted on social media not just with mutterings of discontent but by overwhelming negativity.

“It’s time, Barça Twitter,” came one reply. “We need to bully him out like Lucho.” “Nobody wants him to continue even if we win the treble,” wrote another.

Social media, though, is not an accurate barometer of the general mood. The sensible Barcelona fan, the fan who takes a seat at the Nou Camp every matchday, will have been quietly pleased to hear that Ernesto Valverde has extended his contract at the club until 2020.

Away from the pernicious and pervasive cesspit that is ‘Barça Twitter’, the atmosphere at Barcelona is good. And why shouldn’t it be? Valverde, a calming influence since his arrival from Athletic Club in 2017, has guided his side to the top of La Liga, again. They remain in contention for the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, too.

For some so-called supporters that is not enough. There is an assumption that Barcelona, since the days of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola, must adhere to a certain style of play. The manager, say the critics, is obliged to entertain the fans, not just to win. Football must be played in the right way, the Barcelona way. Anything else is unacceptable.

Most of the criticism of Valverde is based on his approach: the perception is that his side are boring, turgid. But the numbers dispute that. Last season, the Blaugrana were La Liga’s top scorers with 99 goals. This season, they have found the net 60 times in 23 games, 20 more than second-placed Real Madrid.

Their only league defeat last term – with the title already secured and an unbeaten campaign on the cards – was a 5-4 loss at Levante. Hardly tedious.

Valverde’s achievements at Barcelona need to be put into context to truly appreciate the job he has done. He has steadied a club teetering on the brink of imminent crisis – at least by their typically hyperbolic standards – and established a level of consistency that appeared some way off prior to his arrival.

When Valverde was appointed in the summer of 2017 Gerard Piqué publicly admitted that he felt “inferior” to rivals Real Madrid, who had won La Liga the season before and were expected to do so again. Barcelona had lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and there had been a vote of no confidence in the club’s president. The situation was not ideal.

Ernesto Valverde Barcelona manager

But Valverde has a knack for easing the pressure on his players. Under the circumstances, to go almost a whole league season without losing was hugely impressive. The double was secured with victory in the Copa del Rey, while in the Champions League Barcelona fell to humbling quarter-final defeat against Roma, having led 4-1 from the first leg.

The manner of that exit still plagues Valverde. His harshest critics pounced on it, used it as ammunition for further attacks. Another early elimination in the competition this season would probably send some of those perpetually furious supporters over the edge.

In a sense, it is a surprise that Valverde was even willing to extend his stay at Barcelona. The criticism – often bordering on abuse – is relentless and sometimes personal. And he does not appear to be a character who thrives in such an environment. He is reserved and modest, a coach who likes to take a step back away from the limelight and let his players take centre stage.

“When I signed my contract here, I knew what it would be like,” Valverde said in the aftermath of that Roma defeat. “I knew how hard it would be to cope with defeats. For people to say things like [I’m too conservative], it’s something that goes with the role.

“When you sign a contract with a club like Barça, that’s what you have to cope with. You have to show your face when you’ve lost games. I knew that when I came into the job. It hasn’t surprised me. It happened to other coaches before me and it’s going to happen to me again.”

It is happening more and more often, and it is rarely justified. At the time of Valverde’s contract extension, Barcelona have won 65, drawn 22 and lost just nine of his 96 games in charge. They have eased to a league title in difficult circumstances, won a Copa del Rey and are challenging on all fronts again this season.

Valverde is not flamboyant or eccentric. His brand of football is not as noticeably artistic as some of his predecessors. But he is reliable; he provides stability and calmness under pressure. Plenty of others would already have crumbled under the weight of expectation.

And that is the salient point. Expectations are now so ludicrously high at Barcelona that even success is not enough. It is a phenomenon perpetuated by the nonsensical ramblings of a frenzied minority on social media.

But it won’t deter Valverde. He will go about his work quietly and modestly, with the continued backing of a group of players hungry for more silverware.

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