Ernesto Valverde will probably end the season winning La Liga, there’s even a chance the club may go through the entire season unbeaten. And you never know he could even bag the Copa del Rey too. A league and cup double in his first season in charge of Barcelona, that’s really not bad going. Except no matter what silverware he ends up with this season, rightly or wrongly, his achievements will be tainted by Tuesday’s dismal, disappointing and downright dreadful Champions League defeat at the hands of Roma.
The 54-year-old was hardly the overwhelming favourite to take over from Luis Enrique, but he came in and steadied the ship after a traumatic summer. He brought calmness and order where there was chaos and while his 4-4-2 took some adjusting to, it was difficult to argue with the results.
Barcelona’s football under Valverde hasn’t won over everybody, but he can only work with what he has. Neymar’s departure was a massive blow and Ousmane Dembele’s early and lengthy injury was a problem both he and the club could well have done without.
Valverde’s team may not be beautiful but they were effective and there were some real highlights too. The 3-0 win over Juventus in the Champions League stands out as does the 3-0 Clasico win at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The Barca boss still has his detractors but the league table doesn’t lie and it tells us that his team are 11 points better than anybody else in Spain. They have also scored more goals and let in less (well apart from Atletico) than any other team in the Spanish top flight. Some critics describe this as the worst Barcelona team for a long, long time, but if that’s the case then Valverde must be doing something right to have them top of the pile.
The former Athletic boss brought up 50 games in charge of Barcelona at the weekend against Leganes and his record makes for impressive reading: 36 wins, 11 draws, 3 defeats, goals scored 116, goals conceded 26.
Yet despite everything there’s always been the uneasy question of just how good this Barcelona team is? The glaring dependence on Lionel Messi covers up many problems, and there was always a nagging feeling that when it came down to it Barcelona might be found wanting.
And that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday, although let’s not take any credit away from Roma. They were unfortunate to lose the first leg 4-1 and they fully deserved their place in the semi-finals of the competition.
However, Valverde also deserves criticism for his role in the defeat. Barcelona had a three-goal lead in the tie and with the squad he has available they really should be able to see that out, even against an inspired Roma at an electric Stadio Olimpico.
Valverde’s starting lineup was no real surprise, it was the same team that started the first leg and was a product of his cautious nature. The omission of Dembele will attract criticism but you can see Valverde’s thinking, after all this was a game Barcelona started 3-0 up. Plus, the young Frenchman has had a tough season, he’s only started nine games for Barcelona and you sense his confidence is still fragile, he needs handling with care.
But what is difficult to understand is how the match played out. Barcelona were 1-0 down after six minutes and you could already sense that a comeback was very much on. The hosts’ pressing and intensity was causing all sorts of problems, Barcelona couldn’t string any passes together and were reduced to passing it back to Ter Stegen to kick long.
The players’ attitudes were all wrong too. Sergi Roberto, a Champions League hero just 12 months ago, managed a rare foray forwards and was far too easily knocked off the ball. The difference in desire was evident, and instead of getting up and back at his opponent he went to ground appealing for a free-kick he was never going to get.
Barcelona somehow got to half-time only 1-0 down but the game was crying out for Valverde to change things or face disaster. Yet he didn’t and Roma just kept on coming, and you knew it was only a matter of time until they scored again. The only surprise was that it took them until the 58th minute.
Valverde has used substitutions well this season, particularly in the early part of the campaign. However, his refusal or inability or whatever it was that left him standing motionless on the touchline was as surprising as it was costly. The first change did not come until the 81st minute, he might as well not have bothered by then.
The third goal arrived shortly afterwards and although Dembele finally got on the pitch late on it was a substitution borne of desperation. A late goal for Barcelona then would have been a travesty and if the team had gone through you wonder just how they would fare against Bayern, Liverpool or even Real Madrid.
The Barca boss clearly likes to use a small squad but Barcelona have an ageing squad and have been fighting on three fronts. Whether he likes it or not rotation is needed. The international break has had a big impact, Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic both had long trips and look desperate for a break, while you wonder just how fit Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi actually are.
Yet Valverde simply does not seem to trust his squad even though Thomas Vermaelen and Paco Alcacer have proven able deputies this season, Denis Suarez has sparked in recent weeks and Andre Gomes may have his critics but is more than capable of doing a job as and when required. Of the Barca B youngsters only Jose Arnaiz has managed La Liga game time this season, just five minutes as a substitute against Levante in January.
Valverde has done a lot of things right this season, but there’s no doubting Tuesday’s shock exit has undone a lot of the goodwill he had built up. It’s also raised genuine concerns over whether he is the right man for the job and if he can take Barcelona forward.
Barcelona can make La Liga history on Saturday if they avoid defeat to Valencia, as they will break Real Sociedad’s record unbeaten streak of 38 games unbeaten. They’re only 10 points away from claiming the title and barring an incredible collapse they will be crowned champions.
Valverde will demand a response from his team, and rightly so, he’s not solely to blame for the defeat to Roma although he was quick to take responsibility. Although he made mistakes Tuesday’s traumatic defeat is not entirely his fault, and whether you like him or not, Valverde deserves credit for this season and time to build his own team. Next season the club should be better placed with Coutinho and Dembele properly settled, Arthur due to arrive in the summer and maybe even more signings.
However, Barcelona is not a club where there are vast reserves of patience, it’s also a place with exacting standards and intense pressure. Valverde has started well but he has to show that he’s more than a solid coach who can make this team tough to beat. The club craves another European title and Tuesday’s defeat to Roma proved that the question marks over whether he is the man who can deliver it are entirely justified.