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Barcelona’s huge mistake: not firing Valverde in the summer

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It still doesn’t make sense

Espanyol V Barcelona Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s hard to understand why Ernesto Valverde was not fired last year, and it’s even harder to understand now. After overseeing two consecutive collapses in the UEFA Champions League, the manager should’ve been shown the door. This is especially true after also losing the Copa del Rey final to Valencia last year.

His firing seemed imminent. Then, nothing. He was allowed to continue, and prospective new managers were told to look for jobs elsewhere.

What came next was strange, but perhaps predictable. Barcelona looked... all right. Good, but not great. They were first. They were alive in the Champions League and Copa. But it looked, sadly like a re-run or even worse. This team didn’t look likely to break the Champions League curse. Yes, they were first in La Liga but winning less points than they usually did under Valverde.

After losing the Spanish Supercup in Saudi Arabia, Valverde was sacked. In normal circumstances, it would be crazy to fire a manager mid season for losing a minor trophy. But a lot of people saw it as rectifying what was long overdue.

The problem is the timing made no sense. Most great managers don’t change jobs in the middle of the season. Most don’t want to, even if they could.

Let’s be real: Quique Setién wasn’t given the job because he was the club’s first choice. He was just the guy who happened to be out of a job and who happened to be willing to take the job. This isn’t to say he’s a bad manager, or that he was unwanted. He still had to beat out many, many other candidates.

But let’s be clear that he wasn’t the first choice, and he accepted more because he would never get another chance to manage a superclub if he he said no. Xavi rejected the job because he knew he’d get a better chance later down the line.

Setién got no signings, apart from Martin Braithwaite, and that only as an emergency replacement for an injured player. The Cantabrian had limited time to impose his footballing philosophy. He had virtually no say in the squad and virtually no time to get the team to play to his liking.

He seems almost certain to be fired after a disappointing season, although perhaps not, after all, it seems Barcelona can be quite gun-shy about firing a manager. But if he does get fired, the question arises: who will replace him?

It’s hard to imagine, but the Barcelona job might not be so attractive. Xavi will only take it if he’s allowed broad powers to reformat the club how he sees fit. The board isn’t one to give up power so easily. Meanwhile, any other candidate might feel they are only keeping the seat warm for the former Barcelona captain.

The fact that only Laurent Blanc (out of a job since 2016) has been mentioned as an alternative to Xavi should give one pause. But this all stems from the original sin: not firing Valverde last year.

In a different reality we would be on the cusp of starting year two of a project originated by the coach who took over last year, with say in the squad composition and a full pre-season for tune-up. Instead, it seems like lost time, and perhaps predictably, a possible trophyless season.