As Barcelona fans, it can be very hard to watch Ernesto Valverde’s version of our beloved club.
The club has made some expensive dips in the market with the purchases of Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho. The latter is ineligible to play in the Champions League but his arrival in January was always about resting Andres Iniesta for Europe. Dembele, on the other hand, is available and raring to go. Despite his attacking prowess, Valverde has chosen to ease the winger in with care.
Against Girona, Valverde pulled out all the stops and started Coutinho and Dembele together for the first time alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. The result was a mammoth scoreline that brought some joy to Valverde’s tactics. It was a carefully planned display of his attacking nous and organization.
His selections since then have, however, been suspect. Against Las Palmas, Valverde started Paulinho in the middle with Aleix Vidal on the right side of midfield. The Brazilian had a pretty poor performance and was eventually taken off while Vidal did little to justify his playing time. The game was a difficult one and it was only a Lionel Messi free kick that kept Barcelona from ending their undefeated streak.
When it was time for Atletico, one would have assumed that in light of the Champions League fixture against Chelsea, Iniesta should have started on the bench. Valverde, however, thought otherwise. Not only did he start Iniesta, he also put Coutinho on the right which crippled his strengths while magnifying his weaknesses.
Cut to the half-hour mark and a limping Iniesta was taken off. In his stead came Andre Gomes--a man who hasn’t really impressed anybody in his time with the Blaugrana. To put this in perspective, Barcelona was up against their title rivals who were in incredible form.
The change did not make any sense tactically either.
Atletico are a compact team and the only way past their defense was around it. The game was screaming for width and Valverde had the perfect option on the bench.
Many will attribute this win to Lionel Messi and his gorgeous free kick. Few will notice the defensive masterclass that Barcelona put up. Even fewer will admit that Barcelona beat Atletico at their own game.
It was surprising to see Atletico make attacking substitutions with Barcelona focused on their defensive shape.
Valverde’s critics will keep giving him the stick and the purists will question his methods.
The solution to this problem, however, is to kick back and relax.
Either Valverde is good and he’ll win a lot of trophies or he’s riding his luck and will be exposed sooner or later.
There is very little evidence for both arguments which makes judging the coach an incredibly difficult task. However, the game against Atletico should give everyone a benchmark of how the coach will react to adverse conditions in big games.
If anything, this was Barcelona’s first big test with high stakes and Valverde’s approach was for everyone to see.
This win sets the tone for the business-end of the campaign and any titles, won or lost, will have this day to look back on.