From crisis to topping La Liga: how Ernesto Valverde stabilised Barcelona

The calm and popular manager has put Lionel Messi centre stage while turning Neymars departure into an opportunity to recalibrate the teams setup

At the start of the season Gerard Piqu admitted that for the first time he felt inferior. Barcelona had just lost the Super Cup: Real Madrid had scored five, Barcelona just one and that was a penalty. Neymar had gone, 11 days after Piqu announced he was staying and 16 days since the vice-president said he was 200% sure he wouldnt leave. Coutinho hadnt come yet and wouldnt come at all. And nor had Marco Verratti, Hctor Bellern, or even ngel Di Mara. Iigo Martnez was done then undone and in Nice, where the walls shook, Jean Michal Seri exploded. In the editors office at El Mundo Deportivo, walls shook too, phones rang and, near midnight, presses stopped, a front page hurriedly changed from Seri Day to No to Seri. Seri said his dream had been broken; for Bara, the nightmare seemed never-ending.

The former president went to jail and the players call the current president Nobito, after a timid, naive and hapless cartoon character whose friend is a robot cat. When, that is, they dont call him worse. Neymar called the board a joke and threatened to take them to court; the feeling is mutual. That very day, he was back in Barcelona posing, all smiles, with the team-mates and best mates he had left behind.

The club he left behind were friends with Qatar, which no one liked much, then they were enemies of Qatar, which no one liked at all. And as for Catalonia, they dont really know where they are: caught in a storm, incapable of pleasing all the people all the time, theyve played in an empty stadium, supporters stopped at the gates while two directors resigned.

Theyre involved in seven legal cases, all carefully laid out before the AGM, accused among other things of tax fraud and an act of espionage. A vote of no confidence was sought against the president, who has listened to chants to resign even on days of celebration, and although the motion failed that wasnt the end of their troubles. There were eight different men deciding signings (two of whom have walked now), but they still couldnt get them done despite, or perhaps because of, the 222m in their pocket. Well sign one or two in the next few days, the sporting director promised; four days later his PowerPoint presentation explained how, actually, he hadnt signed any. Liverpool offered Coutinho 200m, he said; no we didnt, Liverpool replied. The best thing about the window, Barcelonas manager said, is that its closed now.

They did sign Ousmane Dembl but the most expensive player in their history walked off 52 minutes into his league debut and wont be back until Christmas, injuring himself as he tried to do a backheel. A more experienced player wouldnt have done that, his manager said. Their most expensive signing of last summer is also injured now; more to the point, an easy scapegoat, hes still there when many wish he wasnt. Neymar has gone. Luis Surez has gone off: he has not scored for 459 minutes, his worst run at Barcelona. And Leo Messi could yet go: hes 56 days away from being able to negotiate with whoever he wants, for free. Their captain is 33, their centre-back is public enemy No1, until this weekend their backup striker had played just 82 minutes, and their other big signing was 40m 29-year-old from China who failed in England and no one wanted.

And theyre top.

Eleven weeks into the season, Barcelona are unbeaten. Played 11, won 10, drawn one, only Atltico Madrid have taken a point from them. In the Champions League they have won three, including victory over Juventus, and drawn one. In the league they have scored 30 only Valencia have as many and have conceded only four.

Ernesto Valverde has guided his team to the top of La Liga, winning 10 and drawing one of their opening 11 games. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Inferior? As La Liga pauses for the last time before Christmas, the international break offering a moment to stop and look around, what Barcelona see makes happy viewing: they have a four-point lead over Valencia in second and eight over Madrid and Atltico in third and fourth. Its early and a word of warning from Mr Wolf wouldnt go amiss after all, the last coach to start like this, with the exact same numbers after 11 weeks, was Tata Martino, who didnt lose until December and ultimately didnt win anything at all but its not insignificant: Madrid have never overcome a lead so large to win the title. And Barcelona are six points better off than they were at this stage last season.

It wasnt supposed to be this way and at times this season it has been hard to explain why it is this way. Perhaps fixtures play a part theyve played six of the bottom nine but its not like Real Madrid, whove played seven of the bottom nine, have had it tough by comparison. They havent always impressed: Girona scored two own goals at Montilivi and Betis scored one at the Camp Nou; they had to come from behind to win 2-1 at the Coliseum, the winner coming moments after Getafe had a chance of their own; and after they beat Athletic at San Mams, Sergio Busquets said: We owe much of this to [goalkeeper Marc-Andr] Ter Stegen. Its true that at times you cant help thinking that a fall is coming and also true that they havent always been very Barcelona. And yet. And yet there they are, top of the table with 10 wins. Despite everything.

Calm in a crisis, Barcelona could hardly have hoped for a better man in charge than Ernesto Valverde. Hugely likeable, universally popular and abnormally normal, a music, film and photography fan who likened his return to Athletic to The Godfather Part II and proved it by taking them to Europe four years in a row theyre down in 15th now without him he has a startling ability to block out the noise and cut through the bullshit, to not be dragged down by it all. At Barcelona it helps that he is particularly popular with those most inclined to decry the club losing their religion, embraced by all sides, allowing shifts and tweaks that might draw opposition if imposed by others. But it helps more that it is all done so naturally.

Valverde has made the Camp Nou fall in love with him, the president Josep Maria Bartomeu said. That may be an exaggeration but, a listener as well as a leader, it is true that he invariably connects. After two years I said I would jump off a bridge for Luis Enrique, Rakitic said. Id jump off a ladder for Valverde, [as] its very early. Its clear what he wants from us and were happy with him. Its a start and a good one: neither Pep Guardiola nor Luis Enrique began their Camp Nou careers as well as this. Nor is it just the stats; the hope is that slowly, something is building. Something a little different.

Well, sort of. Messi still stands at the centre of everything, even more the centre of gravity than before: while Surez may be partly a victim of the shift (albeit one his manager insists will come good), Valverde says: Were delighted to build our play around Messi. And when a player is this good it is hard to argue, however much over-dependency concerns. Operating centrally but free, at once midfielder and striker, Messi has 12 league goals but his contribution cant be quantified unless everything is a quantity and at times it really can look like he is doing it on his own, starting, continuing, and finishing moves, even getting out the way if necessary: when Pablo Maffeo man-marked him against Girona, Messi headed to the touchline to ask his coach where he was most use, which spaces he could best vacate for others, from false nine to false footballer.

Around him, the structure is strengthened. An extra midfielder is added, a little more consistency. Valverde admitted that losing Neymar was not part of his plans and that his departure forced a rethink. It offered an opportunity to reinforce the midfield, to tilt the balance a little: maybe not the way some puritans would prefer, but back towards the centre.

There is another man alongside Busquets now, Ivan Rakitic finding his form, and Valverde was explicit that one of the things that attracted him to Paulinho was precisely that he was not the classic Barcelona player. Yet so far, he has also shown more willingness to use Andrs Iniesta and if the side has not always flowed, there were moments in the first half against Athletic and this weekend against Sevilla, while the second half at Atltico impressed. With Neymar we had more punch, but now were compact, Rakitic says.

Ernesto Valverde has moved Lionel Messi into a more free and central role where his influence on the team has increased. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While Messi has dominated, there have been contributions from elsewhere, even if some respond more to the on-going search for the right mix than actual rotations: eight different players have been the other attacker with Messi and Surez, while 10 players have scored in the league. Last season, Madrids strength in depth was one of their defining features, while at Barcelona there was virtually nothing beyond the starting XI; this season, there has been a response. Against Atltico, it was Surez who scored, sure, but against Getafe it was Denis Surez and Paulinho second top-scorer with three league goals who secured the victory. Gerard Deulofeu opened the scoring against Mlaga. And this weekend, against Sevilla, it was Paco Alccer who got the goals.

Saturday was a curious kind of night, one that fits with Barcelona so far this season, a portrait of a team that so far may only offer up tentative conclusions but offers optimism too, when just three months ago there was virtually none.

A superb opening 20 minutes where they could have scored three or four settled into an impressive hour, but then it slipped away from them. On Messis 600th game for the club he didnt score he did, though, get the games only yellow card but Alccer, making only his second start, did. The former Valencia striker scored the first, only for Guido Pizarro to get an equaliser on the hour. Alccer made it 2-1 five minutes later, meaning the man so often dismissed as a failure, signed last summer for 30m, has now scored nine in nine games and is running at an average of a goal every 141 minutes for Barcelona, Sport declaring him Super Paco on Sunday, El Mundo Deportivo declaring him Super Paco on Monday.

Recovered him? Valverde asked afterwards. I never thought I didnt have him.

For the last half an hour, he didnt. Alccer was immediately removed he looked tired, Valverde explained. Control was lost and as the final minutes ticked away, Barcelona hung on, exhibiting qualities rarely seen as theirs. They ended with a midfield of Mascherano, Busquets and Paulinho. While there are doubts, while there will be debates, they also ended with another win. And one things for sure, Valverde said, we wont apologise for winning.

Talking points

Cdric Bakambu one half of the BaccaBakambu strike partnership scored three on Saturday evening, and none of them counted. Luckily for Villarreal, the two that Nicola Sansone scored did count. The changes decided it, Villarreal manager Javi Calleja said. Sansone came off the bench to score twice and that was always likely to be enough against Mlaga, who still havent scored a single goal on the road.

Im strong; I believe, Cuco Ziganda said after Athletic were defeated in Vigo. The question is whether they believe in him.

Partey Time! It was the 91st minute and Atltico were on their way to a 0-0 draw at Depor, in a game that didnt see a shot on target in the first half and didnt see many of them in the second, until they got a late, late free kick. Gabi touched it, Thomas Partey thumped it, bending it past the ball and into the net. Simeone turned, leapt into the arms of Mono Burgos and then ran to Profe Ortega. They may be unbeaten still but they needed that, at the end of the week in which their Champions League campaign came to a virtual end. Were playing well, creating more chances than last year, Simeone insisted, not entirely convincingly. We have a point more than we did last season.

Thomas Partey, centre, celebrates after scoring a late winner for Atltico. Photograph: Cabalar/EPA

Valencia: seven from seven. Take them seriously, very seriously. There was just one down side for them: Simone Zaza didnt manage to equal a club record for scoring in consecutive games. He was taken off just before a penalty that might have allowed him the record and he wasnt happy. Nor though was he quite as unhappy as it looked when he headed off down the tunnel, not stopping even as his manager asked him to. Five minutes later, he was back. Hed popped to the toilet.

Strange? No. Lamentable. We cant allow football matches where there are only 25 minutes played in each half. The Betis manager Quique Setin is not impressed with Getafe.

In the tunnel at the Bernabu, just before they went out for the second half, Kiko Casilla was trying to cheer up Cristiano Ronaldo. Come on, Cris, he said. Yeah, agreed Vallejo, patience: it will go in. Ronaldo just looked on in silence. And in the end it didnt go in, no. Not from Ronaldo anyway he has just one league goal this season, having racked up more than fifty shots. It did go in from Marco Asensio, who smashed an absolute rocket into the top corner at 99km/hr as Madrid eased their troubles with a 3-0 win over Las Palmas.

Talking of troubles. On the right-hand side of the Santiago Bernabu press room, a journalist took the mic, and began his question for Las Palmas manager Pako Ayestarn. Well, question? It was more a statement. Your numbers invite the sack. he said. Its a good job you dont decide, then, Ayestarn shot back. Instead, it is the club who decide and they say hes staying. Mind you, the figures are bad Ayesterns managerial career in La Liga, across three seasons and two clubs, reads: played 12, lost 12 and up in the directors box the vice-president wasnt exactly delivering a ringing endorsement nor offering up an impassioned defence. Ayestarn will stay with us for a few games more and, we hope, until the end of the season, he said.

Results: Betis 2-2 Getafe, Valencia 3-0 Legans, Deportivo 0-1 Atltico, Alavs 1-0 Espanyol, Barcelona 2-1 Sevilla, Levante 1-2 Girona, Celta 3-1 Athletic, Real Sociedad 3-1 Eibar, Villarreal 2-0 Mlaga, Real Madrid 3-0 Las Palmas.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Barcelona 11 26 31
2 Valencia 11 19 27
3 Real Madrid 11 13 23
4 Atletico Madrid 11 10 23
5 Villarreal 11 7 20
6 Sevilla 11 1 19
7 Real Sociedad 11 3 17
8 Real Betis 11 1 17
9 Leganes 11 1 17
10 Girona 11 -3 15
11 Celta Vigo 11 5 14
12 Getafe 11 2 13
13 Espanyol 11 -4 13
14 Levante 11 -3 12
15 Athletic Bilbao 11 -4 11
16 Deportivo La Coruna 11 -7 11
17 Eibar 11 -19 8
18 Alaves 11 -11 6
19 Las Palmas 11 -20 6
20 Malaga 11 -17 4

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Author: Billy Roland

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