The summer of 2017 was a summer of losses for FC Barcelona.
First came the departure of Luis Enrique, a manager who had brought them massive success in the form of two La Liga titles, three Copa del Reys, and a Champions League in his three years in charge. He was replaced by Ernesto Valverde, a man who had been in charge of Athletic Bilbao for the last four years, during which his only notable achievement was winning the Spanish Supercopa in 2015.
Next, Neymar left the Camp Nou to join Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record transfer fee. In a Kyrie Irving-esque decision, Neymar got out of the shadow of the best player on the planet to become the main star on another team. A week after that came the infamous 5-1 loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa, in which Barcelona looked lost and vulnerable for the first time in recent memory. To top it all off, Neymar’s replacement, Ousmane Dembele, suffered a severe hamstring injury in just his second league appearance for Barcelona.
This summer made the soccer world take a closer look at the overall health of the club. For years, guys like Xavi, Carles Puyol, and Dani Alves were staples in Barcelona’s starting XI, but as they’ve moved on (either via retirement or to another club), and with the likes of Iniesta, Pique, and Busquets getting older, the club’s main focus in the transfer market has slightly shifted to finding replacements for these players.
But look at some of the notable names that Barcelona have brought in over the past few years – Jeremy Mathieu, Aleix Vidal, Arda Turan, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes, Jasper Cillissen, and Paco Alcacer. Aside from Umtiti, not a single one of them developed into quality players, and some of them aren’t even on the team anymore. And then they go and spend 40 million euros for Paulinho, a Tottenham reject who effectively threw his career away by going to play in China? All signs pointed to Barcelona spiraling into a deep depression.
Fast-forward to March, and Barcelona is undefeated in all competitions, and now sit eight points clear at the top of La Liga, after beating second-placed Atletico Madrid 1-0 this weekend. They’re also in the Copa del Rey final, and are one of the favourites to win the Champions League.
Six months ago, Barcelona was a shambles. How is this team that everyone had written off at the beginning of the season now in prime position to win the Treble?
Well if you ask Marc-Andre ter Stegen, that aforementioned “summer of losses” may actually be the biggest reason for their success. In a recent interview with ESPN, the Barcelona goalkeeper said he believes that the team’s response to the events of this summer made them better overall.
One player who certainly got better was Jordi Alba, who is currently enjoying one of the best years of his career. Without Neymar occupying the left-hand side, Alba has had the freedom to bomb forward and get involved in the attack. As a result, Alba has six assists this year, which is second-most among La Liga defenders. Alba himself has even admitted that he’s benefitted from Neymar’s absence, telling Mundo Deportivo: “I have regained confidence. With more space on the left I am very comfortable and that is demonstrated in the field. I’m enjoying it in a way I haven’t for a long time”.
Neymar’s departure seems like a prime example of the Ewing Theory. If you’re unfamiliar, The Ewing Theory is a phenomenon that suggests that sometimes teams will actually play better when their star player leaves the team. The catalyst to this theory was former New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing, and the fact that the Knicks surprisingly seemed to play better without him. One major example is that in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks lost Ewing to an Achilles injury, and everyone wrote them off. The Knicks then came together to win three of the next four games and advance to the NBA Finals. Similarly to Barcelona, losing Neymar caused the public to write them off, yet here they are, still one of the best teams in Europe.
It’s possible that losing Neymar resulted in a greater sense of togetherness and team spirit amongst the players. The players look like a confident, cohesive unit, and part of that could be derived from dropping the baggage that comes along with Neymar. When you look at a prototypical Barcelona player, you see a player with a certain mentality and a sense of humility. You see it with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, and any other prominent player that has been with Barcelona from a young age – they’re some of the most humble stars I’ve ever seen.
Neymar doesn’t really fit that mold though. The flair and pizzazz that he dazzles audiences with is something that he takes with him off the field - He embraces being a celebrity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as someone with such a differing personality, it may have interfered with the overall chemistry of the team.
It seems like he has this sense of entitlement as well - something that he’s shown to the public on a few occasions, whether it be leaving such a successful club because he wanted to be the main man, or getting into fights with teammates over penalty and free-kick duties. Not to mention all of the showboating that he does against his admittedly inferior competition in Ligue 1. Opponents haven’t been shy about showing their frustration, and it wouldn’t be far off to assume that his teammates aren’t impressed either.
To be fair to Neymar though, there are definitely times where Barcelona miss his creativity. They haven’t been held scoreless often this season, but there have been a few matches where they struggled to create chances, like in their nil-nil draws against Getafe last month, and against Olympiakos and Juventus in the Champions League group stage. Coutinho and Dembele have certainly shown in the past that they can be just as creative, and that’s something that Barcelona will need if they want to make a deep Champions League run. It’s one thing to beat up on Girona and Real Betis in La Liga, but those two could be the factors that put them over the top against the likes of Bayern or Man City.
Another massive part of their success has been Ernesto Valverde, whose hiring was initially met with some skepticism. However, while everyone was panicking over the future of Barcelona, Valverde was the order amongst the chaos.
With a third of the fabled MSN gone, Barcelona couldn’t be as reliant on their attack as they had under Luis Enrique, so Valverde came in with a fresh approach. The biggest difference involved changing the formation from the 4-3-3 that Barcelona are so famously known for to a 4-4-2 with more of a defensive emphasis.
Valverde came in with an interesting new management style as well, which ter Stegen also touches on in that same interview. He says that while planning to face another team, Valverde tries to get into the mind of the opposing manager, trying to figure out how he would plan to face Barcelona. He went on to say, “It was very interesting to see how he was seeing us and maybe at the beginning this was a bit difficult but then step-by-step we have seen what he wants us to do and now we are doing what he wants us to do”.
The players all bought in to Valverde’s coaching philosophy, and it’s paid dividends. The Catalan side leads La Liga in goals scored and is on pace to concede 19 goals this season, about half of what they conceded last season under Enrique (37).
Everyone is thriving under Valverde’s system. Messi and Suarez haven’t missed a beat with Neymar gone, Busquets and Rakitic have stepped up their game to fill in for Iniesta’s decrease in playing time, and the entire back line is defending very well, especially with converted center-mid Sergi Roberto getting more comfortable in his new right-back role. But oddly enough, no one is thriving more than Paulinho.
It’s clear that Barcelona knew something we didn’t when they paid 40 million euros for Paulinho this summer, because Ernesto Valverde has turned him into one of the best role players in Europe. He’s made fewer league appearances for Barca than only Messi and Ter Stegen, and contributed eight goals – third most on the team. Yes, he’s had a dip in form recently but that same overpriced, washed-up midfielder is now a staple in the best team in Spain, and is a legitimate goal-scoring threat.
He’s a hard-working box-to-box midfielder who goes out and does whatever his manager asks him to do. Whether he’s being deployed on the right or in the middle, he can get forward to offer himself as the tertiary attacking option in the box while still being able to get back to help defend and facilitate play in the midfield.
On top of all that, Barcelona used the rest of the money they got from selling Neymar to buy Phillipe Coutinho. With Ousmane Dembele back from injury as well, it’s like Barcelona got two new quality signings in January. Neither have made much of an impact yet, but once they get accustomed to Spanish soccer, Barcelona could be an unstoppable force going forward.
Valverde has clearly found the right formula, and they now look poised to win La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and possibly even the Champions League. It seems as though the soccer world could not have been more wrong about Barcelona.