Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Away performances in La Liga helped condition Ernesto Valverde’s sacking” – Graham Hunter

Posted on 18 January 2020 by Inam Yaphi

Quique Setien has taken over as head coach of F.C Barcelona after Ernesto Valverde was sacked earlier this week.

Valverde left Barcelona’s training ground, Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper with a smile and rightly so. What he has achieved at Barcelona has been outstanding for any coach in such a short space of time.

A recurring theme of teams coming from behind to beat Barcelona put Valverde’s job in danger.

A theme him and his team would’ve been aware of as it was a result of their last two European failures. A capitulation of a monstrous magnitude would have a knock-on effect on the team and their ability to trust the coach and his methods.

It was tough for culés to forget the disasters in Rome and Anfield.

Sports Gazette spoke to author of Barca and producer of Barcelona’s 2008-2012 domination documentary Take the Ball, Pass the Ball , Graham Hunter on the events leading to sacking and the positives and negatives of Valverde’s tenure.

One of the positives is the how the level of football during the Valverde era has managed to try balance the financial books. Barcelona has received more money from the Champions League in the last two seasons than any other European team, a whopping 180 million euros.

“Too little attention is paid to that right now, Barcelona are hugely in debt because of the wages they pay. They owe a massive chunk of the (Philippe) Coutinho money and the (Ousmane) Dembele money. They want to improve Ter Stergen’s contract and they are desperate to redo the stadium in a project that will cost around 600 million – a project that’s been delayed for 2 years because of the lack of money” says Hunter.

The Board of Directors and President Josep Bartomeu have continuously showed incompetence. Like the failure to renew Neymar Jr’s contract, a player that was instrumental in the most dominate front three’s in modern football with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez.

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“They fucked up big time there” says Hunter who moved to Spain in 2002.

Valverde’s first acquisition would’ve been Dani Parejo which Hunter admits was because the manager wanted a midfielder to fit the system of possession play, a player with “la pausa”. The level Parejo has shown in the last two years shows why. But the board said no.

Valverde also wanted a backup striker. He was very interested in Carlos Vela who was looking in good condition at the time. But the board also said no to that and brought in Kevin-Prince Boateng. Boateng would fail abysmally, only playing 240 minutes for the Blaugrana. Hunter believes the transfers the board brought in have been a big problem for Valverde and his side.

“Over the period Valverde has been in charge, they bought him a series of players who haven’t really worked. Coutinho did not work, Dembele – beyond Valverde’s difficulties did not work. In my view, Nelson Semedo is a B-class player, he is not good enough and if you think at having to replace the level that Dani Alves gave, Semedo isn’t good enough.”

The problems were there, they were seen under Luis Enrique so Valverde can’t be blamed entirely – the drop in intensity in Barcelona’s play and below par in away performances. The 3-0 in Turin and the 4-0 in Paris in 2017. Teams around Europe were increasing their intensity and becoming more tactical astute.

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Fitness wise Barcelona have been embarrassing, constantly looking lethargic and drained in important moments which shows the lack of preparation which this level requires.

The trip to San Mamés against Athletic Bilbao on Matchday 1 is a good reference point for Hunter.

“They looked lost, they looked second to everything and they looked uncompetitive, partly that was to do with being fit. They had a bad pre-season which the club enforced on Valverde and that was a major reason they weren’t competitive at San Mamés”

So how does Quique Setién fix this?

This appointment is a step in the right direction as the board try and bring back the “Barca DNA”. He is coach with a Cruyffista footballing brain.

It will be in Setién’s mind that he was ideally the fourth choice for this job. Xavi simply said no to the job, not now. He isn’t ready and his relationship with Bartomeu wouldn’t be the ideal president-coach relationship.

Ronald Koeman who was part of the Dream Team that won Barcelona’s first European Cup also said no. He will not abandon his Dutch side before the Euro2020. The board even turned to former Spurs and Espanyol boss Mauricio Pochettino.

Setién is the perfect match in terms of style.

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His style has embedded the same tropes of those of Cruyff. Setién and his technical team will have their work cut out with this Barcelona side who are still top of the Liga, in the last 16 of the Champions League and still in the Copa de Rey.

Setién is going into a dressing room with decorated players, to a magnitude he has never experienced before. He needs these players to trust him, trust his concepts and trust the hard work that they put in will pay off.

Just how the Dream Team trusted Cruyff in the 90s and how the La Masia golden generation trusted Guardiola in his four-year spell. He will need to convince crucial players, like Messi and prove to him that his ideas will work.

Setién will need to use that little magician to return FC Barcelona to throne as kings of Spain and most importantly, of Europe.