Long Read: How Barcelona have bounced back as Valverde has inspired Messi and Suarez to take charge of the Primera Liga
The omens were not good for the Catalan club at the start of the season, but they have begun 2018 in a commanding position in the league.
The massive face of Lionel Messi greets visitors to Camp Nou, Europe’s biggest stadium with 99,354 seats.
The Argentine is pictured celebrating one of his many goals, with fellow forward Luis Suarez to his left and Andres Iniesta to his right, three men in their 30s who have long been at the top of their trade, winning everything there is to win with Barcelona.
The words ‘Welcome to the Camp Nou’ have written above, in English: ‘Where Football Makes History’.
Barcelona have made much history since 2004. Until Real Madrid’s recent run of three Uefa Champions Leagues in four years, no team had won Europe’s top trophy as much this century.
Barca have still won eight league titles this century to Madrid’s six and five Copa del Reys to Madrid’s two. Who is better is an argument that will never be settled.
At the start of this season, it seemed like Real Madrid would be the answer. Zinedine Zidane’s side were the Spanish, European and world champions.
They outclassed Manchester United to add the European Super Cup to that list and they appeared so indomitable as they defeated Barcelona home and away in the Spanish Super Cup that it was difficult to look beyond Madrid as football’s pre-eminent force.
Barca were troubled. They had sold Neymar against their will for a world record €222 million (Dh995.5m) fee after Paris Saint-Germain met his buyout clause.
There was a gathering protest against their club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Their transfer policy looked bungled and when they broke their own record to make 19-year-old Ouseme Dembele the second most expensive player ever, cries for the president to resign followed as the Frenchman was unveiled.
A few days before the club’s first home game, 16 people died and 130 were injured in terrorist attacks in the city’s Ramblas thoroughfare and the nearby coastal town of Cambrils.
Tickets sales for Barca games were hit and the crowds dropped to 56,480, 22,000 below last season’s average. Little would they suspect it was a pre-cursor of what was to come.
Of the three players on the giant poster, Messi and Iniesta had yet to sign a new contract, with Iniesta stating semi-cryptically: “At this club you can never lose respect for people who have given their lives for the shirt”.
Suarez was also out for five weeks with an injury and Neymar’s departure caused outrage among fans and the players.
Barca were unused to being usurped in the transfer market. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho, the club’s main transfer target, had failed to arrive from Liverpool.
Instead, Barca signed Paulinho, a signing quickly dismissed since he was considered washed up after moving to China.
Barca were on the ropes, with the former - and popular – club president Joan Laporta weighing in with: “If we want Messi to continue to be happy at Barca we have to get rid of Bartomeu immediately.”
It was in this potentially toxic climate that Ernesto Valverde became Barca boss after agreeing to join at the third time of asking from Athletic Bilbao after he had been offered the job by his friend and Barca’s former sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta,
Valverde was new and spared criticism from the storm around him, but he was also the solution to Barca’s crisis.
Calmly – and very surely - the 53-year-old from rural Spain who had spent two seasons at Camp Nou under Johan Cruyff as a forward, began to make his mark on the team.
He became the first Barca boss since Cruyff to shift tactics away from the famed 4-3-3 style which was so ingrained that former captain Philip Cocu stated that it was virtually impossible to change that philosophy.
But Valverde changed it. He knew that Messi was the best player in the world and had to be central to his plans. He asked the Argentine to play a deeper, but not defensive, role, where he could be more effective between the lines of opposing midfielder and defenders, drawing out foes and leaving more space for Luis Suarez to attack.
Without Messi and the departed Neymar alongside him as before, Suarez took time to adjust. By the start of November he had scored only three league goals, well down on his usual totals, but he has since returned to form.
There was more bad news for Valverde when Dembele was injured after only four matches – he has only recently returned, only to be injured again. Fans hope he does not become Barca’s one Gareth Bale, a record signing who is injured too often.
Valverde tweaked things further and began to play a changeable system which had no left-winger and two, rather than the famed three attackers. It looked like a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-3-2.
The left-back Jordi Alba, who has been exceptional, especially at linking who and assisting Lionel Messi, was at liberty to run down the left. Dembele is likely to play on the left.
Paulinho was also a success. The captain of Brazil no less, he deserved more respect than he initially received. He is a strong box-to-box player who arrives in the opposing box at just the right time. He has scored seven league goals so far.
After an opening win against Betis, Valverde said: “It was important to get back to playing well and restore confidence”.
Simple, measured and effective. Players think he is rational, calm and deals well with the pressure which, after three years, had started to show on the faces of previous incumbents Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.
Though he does not try and be their friend, the players respect him greatly and trust his judgement. It helps that his passion is photography and not football.
Valverde is calm and confident with the media and while the football played by his side is not the best ever, he has found a way to win games.
With the 2017-18 season at its halfway point, Barca are unbeaten, with 51 points. That status looked threatened when they were 2-0 down at Real Sociedad, where they have not won since 2007, in the Basque Country rain on Sunday.
Barca surged back and scored four to win 4-2, with Messi and Suarez again scoring absurdly good goals.
They have scored more goals and conceded less than any other team in Spain.
They have kept 19 clean sheets in 28 games – in no small part to the flourishing German goalkeeper Ter Andre Stegen, now settled and regarded as being better with his feet than any goalkeeper on the planet.
His quick feet suit Barca’s style – the recently retired Victor Valdes always maintained that Pep Guardiola considered him an outfield player … except when Valdes asked him if he could play up front.
As the season wore on and Barca continued to win and pull away at the top of the league, they had an unexpected bonus: Real Madrid stopped winning.
Madrid drew their opening two home league games against both Valenician sides, then lost their third against Real Betis.
Madrid have played catch up ever since, but losing the December clasico at home to Barça all but killed their league challenge off.
Madrid are currently 19 points behind the Catalans, albeit with a game in hand. Madrid are fourth, Valencia third and Atletico Madrid second, nine points behind a Barça side who will break their all time points total for a season (100 in 2012-13) if the second half is as good as the first.
There are further bright points for Barca. The club finally signed Coutinho, a versatile player who can initially take the burden off Iniesta in league games and also has something Barca has been missing – goals from outside the box.
Coutinho, who loved Barcelona beach life in a six-month loan spell at Espanyol in 2012, became football’s third most expensive signing.
The Catalans have also signed Colombian central defender Yerry Mina in an €11.8m deal from Palmeiras. He is strong and good with the ball, but will he be fast enough for Barca?
Like Coutinho, he has a five-and-a-half year deal, though his €100m buyout clause is a quarter of the Brazilian’s. The new signings are helping lower the average age of a squad where several of the mainstays were over 30.
Barcelona now need to sell and fully intend to. They are worried that the salaries of their players is touching 90 per cent of their total revenue when they want the figure to be closer to 70 per cent. At least Barca do not have to make a profit, nor pay off debts, since they’re owned by their members.
A big new contract for Messi will make him the best-paid player in football history. The club are enjoying burgeoning commercial success, but they need to support football’s highest wage bill, even when trimmed.
Javier Mascherano, a second tier earner, has moved to China’s Hebei Fortune, managed by Manuel Pellegrini, for €10m. Mascherano, 34 in June, had lost his place to Samuel Umtiti and wants to play in the run up to the World Cup finals. He will also get a pay rise.
Valverde wants four central defenders, so Mina covers Mascherano. Having overcome injuries, Thomas Vermaelen has become more central to his plans, especially as he is a left footer.
Barca will sell more players, something they have not always done well, especially compared to Real Madrid. Even though the €202m for Neymar dwarfs every other sale, Real Madrid have still received more from sales in the last decade.
It pleases many Barca fans that they can still go for the top Premier League players, who play in a far richer league, and that they have the financial might – and appeal – to attract those players.
Arda Turan, who impressed so much at Atletico but who has flopped at Camp Nou, has left on loan to Basaksehir Istanbul for a big loss. The Turkish winger never really got over being unable to play for the first six months in Catalonia after Barca had a transfer ban upheld.
Catalan full-back Aleix Vidal is likely to join Sevilla. Another Catalan, the forward Gerard Deulofeu, is talented but not Barca class. Both Milan clubs are interested.
Barca also want to sell Andre Gomes, a talented midfielder who has struggled to make an impact since joining from Valencia for €50m in 2016, but Valverde is adamant that he wants to keep him.
The Masia youth system is not producing as it did and Barca’s B team are at the wrong end of Spain’s second tier, but along with Sevilla they are the only top-flight team with a side in the second tier.
Though Carlos Alena and Jose Arnaiz are talented, many of their players were brought into play second division football rather than with the intention of them progressing.
Do not write La Masia off just yet. Some of the younger squads have outstanding players. The B team is also playing two divisions higher than a decade ago when Pep Guardiola was in charge.
Barca will continue to spend. Atletico accused them of tapping up Antoine Griezmann after the players’ family had a meal with Bartomeu in Barcelona.
Though Griezmann was prepared to join Manchester United last year, he would prefer Barcelona and Barca insiders are confident he is coming.
Gremio’s Arthur, 21, is also expected to sign. A player compared to Iniesta, he is the best in Brazil at present and a major reason why Gremio are the South American champions.
The sporting director Robert Fernandez is the man who makes the decisions with transfers.
He can smell a good player and was responsible for bringing in Dembele, Coutinho, Semedo, Umtitti and Gomes. Semedo and Umtitti have been a success.
Much as they have been proud of their home-grown talents, Barca have always signed the biggest international names, too, from Cruyff to Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Local players are preferred and the versatile Sergi Roberto, who has performed well this season and will earn a new contract which will increase his bargain €40m buy out clause, is held up as an example, but the Catalan political issue has become a thorn for the club and Bartomeu.
While rivals Espanyol take a neutral political stance, Barca have always given tacit support to the independence movement. A huge ‘Catalonia is not Spain’ flag has been allowed to fly in the stadium during the clasico against Real Madrid for over a decade, while former coach and 50 per cent of Catalans want independence.
The problem is that 50 per cent do not. Bartomeu is between a rock and a hard place, not hard-line enough for the separatists, too political for the non political.
Like all the major clubs, Barca court a global audience, yet fans in Asia or the United States have little interest in Catalan independence beyond whether it means Barca will have to leave the Primera Liga.
The political situation has hit Catalan tourism – and the tourists the club court to come to games with numerous sales points around the city, plus souvenir shops with racks of shirts with ‘Messi’ on the back.
Barça’s average attendance of 55,121 is 22.4 per cent down on last season’s 77,443.
Not one league crowd has even touched last season’s average and Real Madrid are back as Spain’s best-supported club, with an average crowd of 70,291, up 1.2 per cent on last year.
Barcelona have even slipped behind Atletico, who are averaging 60,481 in their new home.
Television is not helping match day attendances either, with games staged at unpopular times to suit the Asian market that the Primera Liga courts. The clasico kicked off at noon.
Ticket prices for the tourists Barca court are also high – a main stand ticket for next Sunday’s game against Alaves is over €100, though there are cheaper ticket high up behind the goals.
Barca do have more attractive home fixtures in the second half of the season, with big crowds expected for games against Real Madrid, Atletico, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal, plus there are cup ties against Chelsea and neighbours Espanyol, but the low attendances have been a worry for the club.
It hardly provides encouragement to expand Camp Nou either; there is a €600m project, a long held plan to make it fully covered and increase the capacity by 6,000 to 105,000.
Camp Nou needs updating, it is tired and dated and has not received a major makeover since the World Cup in 1982, which was held in Spain. The plans for the new stadium in Barca’s reception look smart, but the dates continue to be put back.
The 16,000 capacity mini-stadium used by the B team will make way for housing to part fund the project with a new stadium named after Cruyff being built to house reserve games at the club’s training ground.
The main attention will remain on the giant stadium over the road, the Camp Nou, which, while little over half full for most league matches, has witnessed a football revival unlikely at the start of the season.
Messi remains the star, but Valverde, who has finally started to feel the love of the crowd, is a major reason in Barca’s resurgence.
Updated: January 17, 2018 07:51 PM