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The Barcelona churn: Valverde out, Setién in

Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde gets the sack despite winning back-to-back league titles

Barcelona's former manager Ernesto Valverde
Barcelona's former manager Ernesto Valverde

Elite football clubs often defy logic. And never more so than when it comes to choosing their managers. The latest logic-defying move comes from Barcelona, who sacked their manager Ernesto Valverde mid-season on Monday and appointed former Real Betis manager Quique Setién. Despite the Catalan club being top of the table, Barca’s hierarchy had moved to replace Valverde, first going behind his back to woo former player Xavi Hernandez. Xavi turned down the offer, saying that the timing wasn’t right, but it beggars belief why the club would go for a rookie manager in the first place. Setién, who is a professed admirer of the Barcelona way of technical, one touch football, should be well suited to the task, but it remains to be seen if he's an upgrade on Valverde.

Valverde had taken Barcelona to back-to-back title triumphs in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He also won the Copa del Ray in 2018. By every measure, Valverde has been a success, and yet, Barcelona weren’t happy. One reason may be Valverde’s failure to win the Champions League in his three years at the club. The way Liverpool outplayed them to win the semi-finals last year must still rankle, but it’s also true that Valverde has won only one league title less than his predecessors Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola, and that too with an inferior squad. Barcelona were in their pomp under Guardiola, when they had Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Dani Alves. And that was just the starting eleven. Apart from Messi, only Pique and Busquets remain, and none of them, barring Messi, are anywhere near as good as they were ten years ago. Of the current greats, Luis Suarez is on the wane, and is now out for four months from injury.

Given all this, plus the resurgence of Real Madrid, as well as the fact that the LaLiga this season has been the strongest that it has ever been, would surely have been mitigating factors for Valverde. That’s what most football watchers would think. That’s certainly what Guardiola thinks. He recently told Sport, “Coaches are always judged by the results, whatever we do. Barcelona is a special place, where winning the league is not enough. I am very sorry for Ernesto Valverde, he does not deserve this."

However, in saying this, Guardiola may have pointed towards the real problem. For a club like Barcelona, merely winning the league is never enough. It’s the Champions League that the club craves. Guardiola won it twice, in 2011 and 2012. Enrique once, in 2015. Barcelona would feel cheated because of the fact that the club has tasted European triumph only thrice over a decade of having the best footballer in the world, ever, playing for them. And in recent years, arch rivals Real Madrid have won the competition four times in six years. In 2018 and 2019, Barcelona were dumped out of the European Cup unceremoniously, first by AS Roma, and then, more damagingly, by Liverpool. There’s a feeling inside the club that Valverde really doesn’t get the Total Football ethos of Barcelona, and that his teams seem to freeze in the headlights at key moments.

Yet, Valverde deserved more time. In settling for Setién, Barcelona acknowledges that there were hardly any managers of the required stature who Barcelona could’ve turned to right now. Xavi has the necessary Barcelona DNA, but as he himself said, managing Barcelona is still some way in the future of his nascent managerial career. It might make more sense for the club to focus on building a new team and planning for a not-so-distant future without Lionel Messi. Setién will now be the man to oversee this transition.

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