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Ernesto Valverde deserves credit not criticism for Barcelona’s season

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Barcelona v Getafe - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

In a season which began with low expectations following a dismal performance against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, Barcelona suddenly find themselves in an envious position.

The Blaugranes sit five points atop La Liga, have booked their place in the final of the Copa del Rey and return to the Camp Nou for the second leg of their Champions League tie with an away goal in their back pocket after Lionel Messi finally broke his scoring duck against Chelsea.

It has been a year full of pleasant surprises for Barcelona, none more pleasing than how quickly Ernesto Valverde has changed around the fortunes of the club in his first year in charge.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - Supercopa de Espana: 1st Leg Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Last summer was arguably the toughest period the club have had to endure since Pep Guardiola took the reins from Frank Rijkaard back in 2008, when an ageing squad containing Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Deco needed refreshing.

The daunting, yet possible, reality at the time was that Barca would need to sacrifice a few years of contending for trophies in order to rebuild a side capable of competing.

Fortunately, the genius of Guardiola saved them while the young superstar in Lionel Messi spurred them, quickly turning the Catalan club into a treble-winning side just 12 months later. It led Barca on an eight-year glory-hunting path that seemed to all come crashing down last August.

Neymar’s move to Paris Saint Germain shocked anyone and everyone involved with the club. From the board memebers right down to the tea lady, no-one could have expected the Brazilian superstar to depart for the same side who Barca had just eliminated from the Champions League a few months prior.

They had also gotten the better of their French counterparts in 2015, when Neymar scored a brace to lead Luis Enrique’s team into the semi-finals of that year. If anyone realised just how inferior PSG were to the Spanish giants, it was Neymar.

And yet, he refused to be deterred in his move across Europe. Was this a sign that Barcelona, for all their success and stardom, had lost their status as one of the world’s most attractive clubs?

The truth is, even before the Neymar transfer had occurred, the 2017-18 season wasn’t exactly looking rosy for the Catalan side. The arch-enemies located in Madrid had destroyed Juventus in the Champions League final, becoming the only side in the competition’s history to defend their crown succesfully.

An experienced, technical savvy Real side, led by the young and energetic Zinedine Zidane, looked set to dominate Europe for years to come. Cristiano Ronaldo was hitting the back of the net multiple times in big matches, while the partnership of Luca Modric & Toni Kroos were pulling the strings from midfield with Sergio Ramos leading by example at the back. It was a perfect blueprint from Los Blancos, one which looked invincible.

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - Supercopa de Espana: 2nd Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Until it wasn’t. The Super Cup hammering was a massive blow for a Barcelona side that were dejected enough without having to suffer through THAT four day humiliation. Real were rampant, Barca were hopeless, and the 5-1 aggregate defeat felt even heavier.

But since then the form of both sides have switched. Real have lagged through the campaign, unable to pick up an ounce of momentum through the first few months of the season, while Los Cules, for all their troubles at the start of it, have mirrored the domination of the Guardiola-led sides.

Messi has been as good a facilitator as a scorer, driving in 22 goals and 12 assists, while Luis Suarez’s return to form has been a blessing. Ivan Rakitic’s consistently impressive performances have been delightful to witness, Sergio Busquets’ status as one of Europe’s most talented midfielders continues to grow and Paulinho’s contributions in front of goal have been a pleasant surprise.

For all the praise of the players though, it’s unfair to overlook Valverde, who would have enjoyed a more stable pre-season, for the role he’s played in this new and improved Barcelona.

Instead of sticking to the famed 4-3-3 system which rewarded the side with a laden of trophies over the years, Valverde made the gutsy call to revert to a rigid, midfielder-based formation of 4-4-2. Moving away from a strategy that yielded such success was a risk, but having been dealt such an awkward hand, Valverde decided to push his chips all the way in.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the former Athletic Bilbao man, of course, as a couple of poor results have left the Camp Nou faithful unsure as to whether Valverde is the right man for the job.

His team selection during last night’s 1-1 draw versus lowly Las Palmas confused many, and angered others, as his insistence on playing Aleix Vidal & Paulinho in place of the exciting newcomers in Philippe Coutinho & Ousmane Dembele looks like an ever poorer decision in hindsight.

Neither Vidal nor Paulinho could be proud of their peformances, both as sluggish and sloppy as each other, while Coutinho and Dembele added a much-needed spark. One can only wonder what might have been had the latter two gotten the nod from the start.

Alas, no manager is pefect. And Valverde is no exception to that rule. He has made mistakes, but he’s been responsible for a lot more good than bad in his short time in Barcelona.

Considering that, due to the rotten luck which caused Dembele’s serious injury upon his arrival at the Camp Nou, he had taken over a squad largely the same which surrendered the title to Madrid last year, with the lone exception of Neymar being swapped for Paulinho, it wasn’t an ideal situation.

He was tasked with reinvigorating a side which fell short of expectations last season, both domestically and on the European level, handling his responsibility in a professionally impeccable manner.

Finishing top of a Champions League group which contained last year’s foes in Juventus was a mentally-boosting achievement, their dominating 3-0 win at home and soundly-organised outing during a 0-0 draw in Italy a far cry from last year’s failed attempt to register a single goal against the Bianconeri’s impeccable backline.

FC Barcelona v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Valverde has also revitalised players such as Rakitic, who struggled at times during Enrique’s last year. In his time playing time under Valverde, Rakitic has seen his passing attempts per game, pass success and long balls attempted increase tenfold, with the Croat often asked to drop deep as a third centre-back in an effort to give himself more space to pick out a pass further upfield. It has expanded Rakitic’s influence on the side, and the former Sevilla man has smoothly slotted into his new duties.

Even out-of-favour flops Andre Gomes & Paco Alcacer have been offered opportunities of retribution at a time when their futures at the club appeared to be coming to a quick end. While not setting the world alight, both players have, at the very least, resembled reliable squad players under Valverde, and have looked more comfortable under his regime than they did with Enrique at the helm.

There are plenty of twists and turns still to come with three months left to play in the campaign, but Barca have certainly put themselves in a better position than most would have expected during the off-season.

The upcoming season-defining contests with Atletico Madrid & Chelsea are bound to test the tactical skills of Valverde, but if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that he’s more than able for the challenge. Finding success in both contests will push Barca close to achieving an historic third treble, an achievement in which Valverde will certainly have played his part.