Barcelona’s decision to sack Ernesto Valverde may have come as a surprise to some. After all, the club sit top of La Liga and safely secured their passage to the Champions League last 16 from a group that included Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan.
Some may roll their eyes and lament the inclination for clubs to sack their managers at the drop of a hat, but there had been signs at Barcelona for a while now that Valverde had somewhat lost his grip on the Spanish champions. Rumours of dressing room disharmony and board-level discontent have been rife in recent months, and ultimately Valverde has taken the fall for the general malaise surrounding Barcelona at the moment.
Part of this stems from the plethora of disappointments the Catalan club have endured in recent times, from on-field results in Europe to the failure of big-money signings to make an impact. In Valverde’s time at the club, Barcelona failed to progress beyond the semi-finals of the Champions League, losing in devastating fashion to Roma in the 2018 quarter-finals, and Liverpool in the semi-finals in 2019.
Those kind of defeats require a manager to unite his squad and demonstrate resilience to overcome the immense disappointment associated with throwing away significant leads. But rather than rally the troops, Valverde oversaw a squad that seemed to harbour bitterness and disillusionment and enmity towards their coach.
The senior Barcelona players – Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets – are the kind who need coaches to facilitate their experience and understanding of the game. It always felt that there was a disconnect between Valverde and those players, and in such situations, the manager will always be the fall guy when faced against legends of the club.
The signings made by Valverde failed to make a sufficient impact at the club. Great things were expected of Ousmane Dembélé when he joined from Borussia Dortmund for a whopping €105 million-plus add-ons. But injuries have played their part and Dembélé has struggled to make a significant impression.
Philippe Coutinho was another big-money signing who didn’t make an impact and is currently on loan at Bayern Munich after failing to live up to his £142 million price tag. Such disappointments did no favours for Valverde’s reputation among the Barcelona hierarchy, and despite two consecutive league titles, it felt as though the coach could not take the team to the next level.
The standards and demands at the biggest clubs in Europe are sky-high. You need only to look at the example of Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur to see how quickly things can change at the highest level, and how ruthless boards and chairmen can be. Valverde is the latest victim of this trend, but this is the way of modern football. The rivalry between the top clubs on and off the pitch is so intense that shortcomings can’t be tolerated for very long.
For Barcelona, it’s a chance for a fresh start under new manager Quique Setién, who did a fine job at Real Betis in the two-and-a-half seasons he was in charge there. His first task will be to get the current crop of players on his side and pulling in the same direction. While things had stagnated under Valverde, Barcelona are still well-placed in the league and Champions League to enjoy success this season, if the football odds from today are anything to go by. If Setién can restore the feel-good factor, then it may soon be a return to the good times at Camp Nou.