After weeks of whispers, clandestine meetings with club legends, rumours of dressing-room discontent and general tittle-tattle, Ernesto Valverde became only the second manager in Barcelona’s history to be sacked mid-season when the club announced he was to be replaced by Quique Setien.
Valverde had just witnessed Barcelona’s best performance of the season against Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the Spanish Super Cup (75 minutes of excellent football that ended up in defeat), had the club top of La Liga, unbeaten in the league since 2 November and in the last 16 of the Champions League, having finished top of a group that included Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan.
On the face of it, it might seem a bizarrely-timed decision. But this is Barcelona we are talking about.
Why this came as a surprise to no-one – Valverde included
For some time now, the 55-year-old Valverde has been spoken to by the movers and shakers at the club over matters that have been concerning them regarding the team’s form.
Many feel the side is going backwards, there are doubts being expressed about the physical preparation of the players and the substitutions during games, rumours of a charged atmosphere in the dressing room are rife and there seems to be a lethargy, complacency and general malaise about the place.
That is how it is explained from the club, who keep pointing to the painful Champions League surrenders of the past two seasons – against Roma and Liverpool – as proof Valverde could not take the team to the next level.
There is of course another side to the story. Valverde had to start his time at the Nou Camp by managing the departure of Neymar.
“The Brazilian is about to leave,” star player Lionel Messi told him during his first pre-season, the first news he had heard of what was going to be confirmed weeks later.
That season he ended up with a league and cup double. There was a second league title but Valverde could only work with the cards he had been dealt.
He inherited a changing room whose main characters are over 30, which is used to doing things its own way, that does not like to be challenged, had signings that did not work (Philippe Coutinho because of his personality, Ousmane Dembele because of his physique, Arthur because of his lack of focus) and a chairman who kept sacking directors of football without a clear idea of where to go.
The surprise perhaps is not that it has happened, but that is has taken so long to come to fruition.
So who was in contention for the job?
Valverde signed a contract extension until 2021 in February, apparently to quash rumours about his impending departure.
There was enough evidence in place even after the club’s 3-0 victory over Liverpool – never mind the capitulation at Anfield that followed soon after – to suggest there was a worrying lack of dynamism, defensive structure, discipline and basic energy required to go toe to toe with a side like Jurgen Klopp’s.
Despite the defeat in the cup final against Valencia and the desire of many within the club to part company with the manager, both parties decided to go on one more season.
But as far back as the beginning of November, just after they had lost 3-1 to Levante, the club approached former player Thierry Henry, only to be informed he had already signed a deal to join Montreal Impact. The Frenchman was told Valverde’s days were numbered.
When they went to meet club legend Xavi last Friday in Qatar, where he is manager of Al Sadd, they announced they were going to watch Dembele, who also just happened to be recovering from injury in the country.
But the meeting took place the day after the Spanish Super Cup defeat by Atletico and, despite the doubts for months about Valverde, there was a look of political improvisation about the encounter between Xavi and the club (chief executive Oscar Grau and sporting director Eric Abidal).
It brought to mind what took place when the club tried to make the right noises and look as interested as they could in re-signing Neymar from PSG without actually doing so. Or wanting to do so.
Xavi struggled with his decision because the club he loves approached him but he was not convinced himself of exactly what they wanted.
Two things eventually led to him turning down the offer: the unstable situation at the club with presidential elections in 2021 and the arrival into the scenario of a presidential candidate called Victor Font, who has already declared that if he wins he would make Xavi the new club coach.
Many believe it is actually the other way around, with Xavi deciding that new blood like Font and a new regime might be needed in the boardroom at the Nou Camp.
Also Xavi needed time to think. He believed next summer could have been his moment if Barcelona had given him total control over football matters, and he was planning to bring in top people he trusts.
Not any more it seems; for now that ship has sailed, with the announcement from the club that Setien has signed until 2022. Any suspicions that ‘negotiations’ with the former Barcelona legend had been nothing more than political expediency now seem likelier than ever to have some truth to them.
Before Setien’s signing another former Barca player, the ex-Everton manager Ronald Koeman, also turned down their offer to take the job until the end of the season. And they also approached Mauricio Pochettino, recently sacked by Tottenham.
Ramon Planes – who used to work at Pochettino’s former club Espanyol and now is part of Barcelona’s technical department – and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu are both close friends of Pochettino and in constant contact.
For them to approach the available Argentine coach, it was probably because they thought they had half a chance of him saying yes.
Unfortunately, probably because of his long history with Espanyol, Pochettino has an entire back catalogue of statements he has made proclaiming why he would never take the Barcelona job and the likelihood of him doing so will always be remote.
That said, being seen as a suitable candidate for such a prestigious appointment certainly isn’t going to do him any harm in his quest to eventually take charge at one of Europe’s top clubs, something he will undoubtedly do at some time in the near future.
What will Setien bring to the Barcelona table?
Where Setien is a perfect fit is in his unquestioned zeal alongside coaches like Pep Guardiola and Oscar Garcia, currently at Celta Vigo, for the Johan Cruyff possession game, much loved and oft-perfected in the past by Barcelona.
On taking the Betis job, Setien revealed in an interview with El Periodico that despite his love for football he didn’t really understand it “until I saw the football of Johan Cruyff”.
“It was with coaches like him when I began to get it,” he continued. “When to touch the ball, to pass, the spaces… this is what I try to communicate to the players, to keep the ball and to run as little as possible after it.”
He added he would have had his little finger cut off to be given the chance to play for one of Cruyff’s sides, “not because I wanted to be a Barcelona footballer, but rather because of the way they played because I could see just how much the footballers were enjoying themselves”.
His teams in the lower leagues were often referred to as the Barcelona of those divisions. It takes a while to convince the players and even more the fans, and he never completely managed the audience at Betis where, in truth, he never really had the depth of talent that he could trust in to carry out his plans to maximum effect.
Barcelona should prove an easier sell.
On the minus side he is already 61 years old and lacks extensive top-flight experience with Betis being, until now, by some distance the biggest managerial job he has held. But he is not after a career, he just wants to see if he can get his approach, so familiar to the club, to work.
But it isn’t in the passing aspect of the game where he could potentially be let down but rather in the work rate of the players without the ball, which is precisely where Valverde was hung out to dry by some of his team.
This side has the look and feel of the dressing room at the end of the Frank Rijkaard era, when I remember the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta telling me they were losing their love for the game. Drastic measures had to be taken by Pep Guardiola in order to go on to achieve what he later did.
Will Setien have the same passion and desire and be able to do what Valverde decided not to do, namely change the culture and dynamic of the dressing room? Will he be able to do what Guardiola did? It will be easier said than done.
Guillem Balague is writing a regular column throughout the season and also appearing every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast, when the focus will be on European football.
You can download the latest Football Daily podcast here.
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