People following Barcelona closely know Lionel Messi has bailed out coach Ernesto Valverde on several occasions this season. The star striker’s brilliance has won matches despite the Spanish club’s poor performances because of contentious managerial decisions. Recent and past results clearly reaffirm Messi as the spearhead of this team and saviour of Valverde’s job.
Luis Enrique stands out as the only manager to take bold and difficult decisions after Pep Guardiola left Barca. Courage of conviction in his first season as coach helped Barca win the treble in the 2014-15 season -- the only club to have won the treble twice. Valverde’s decisions ensured the club failed to win the treble thrice. Is Valverde a good manager? Yes, but being good is not good enough at Barca.
Barca threw away a three-goal first-leg advantage after a resilient Liverpool pulled off an amazing comeback at Anfield. They thrashed the Spanish champions 4-0 in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final and knocked them out. The defeat against Liverpool is not the first time Barca played insipidly. Their performance calls for harsh criticism and scrutiny.
Jürgen Klopp’s tactics were clear; press the ball high up the field and force Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to go long. The two centre-backs Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk will win those balls all day long. Klopp got his tactics spot on. On the other hand, Valverde looked like a captain of a ship lost at sea. Former Barca player and coach Johan Cruyff has said: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing.” Many players and coaches often forget the mantra, ‘keep it simple’.
Jordi Alba’s glaring error saw Divock Origi score an easy tap-in in the sixth minute of the game. Alba clearly had an off day. He should not have stepped on to the field in the second half, but he did. Eight minutes later he made another blunder leading to Liverpool’s second goal. Trent Alexander-Arnold mugged him off the ball and delivered a low cross into the box which Georginio Wijnaldum dispatched comfortably into goal from 12 yards away.
Liverpool were relentless and rattled Barca with a third goal just two minutes later after a delightful Wijnaldum header from a Xherdan Shaqiri cross sailed into the box this time from the left flank.
At this point, the game was crying out for Arthur Melo, the heir to the midfield maestro Andres Iniesta. Barca desperately needed to control the midfield which they failed to do for the entire match.
Valverde did make a change, but who does he send on? Arthur? Carles Alena? No, he sends Nelson Semedo a right-back for Philippe Coutinho who was playing LM (Left-hand side midfielder) keeping in mind Barca were playing a 4-4-2 formation. Obviously, Semedo did not play LM. Sergi Roberto moved to midfield from RB and Semedo took his position.
Arthur Melo did not arrive till the 75th minute. It was a little too late by then. Barca just did not have the momentum or the time to claw their way back into the game. Four minutes later Barca switched off while defending a corner. Alexander-Arnold was sharp and had the presence of mind to set it up and Origi scored his second goal. Again, the goal coming from Alba’s side who had his back towards the ball.
Small wonder Messi was fuming and so were Barca fans. This is not the Barca template and philosophy. Valverde does not have the courage, tactics or the gumption to take bold decisions when needed. His defensive and slow motion responses are hurting Barca. The team needs a manager who can rally his players like Klopp does.
Barca needed to control the game. They only had to hold on to the 3-0 lead. Arturo Vidal is a world-class player, but Barca did not need muscle in the midfield, they needed to dominate the midfield. Arthur should have started in place of Vidal with the classic 4-3-3 formation Barca prefer with home-grown talent Alena coming on at some point either for Philippe Coutinho or Ivan Rakitic.
In my 11 years of following this club, I have never been so furious and disappointed. The win was a formality. Barca should have won the treble. Instead of celebrating they now rue and ponder over the bizarre decisions. This season will go down as another failure despite winning La Liga and potentially the Copa del Rey. I believe Valverde’s time with the club is over. He would do well to move on and make way for someone who sticks to the Barca philosophy and does not complicate matters.