In the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in 2015 against Athletic Bilbao, and going for their sixth trophy in a calendar season, Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen did what he often does in coming out of his box to deal with a long ball from an opponent. Although this time his clearance landed to Bilbao defender Mikel San Jose, who launched a shot from half field for an improbable goal and an early 1-0 lead. Aritz Aduriz added a hat trick in the match as Bilbao won 4-0. The second leg ended in a 1-1 draw. Ernesto Valverde, the newly named Barcelona manager, lead the Basque side to its first trophy in 31 years.
Valverde and Athletic Bilbao continued their trajectory in which the Basque club finished seventh, fifth, and seventh in the league. Valverde's work with the club, his second time around, was complete. Having turned down Barcelona previously out of obligation and loyalty, he left through the front door. Valverde began his managerial career with the Bilbao B side before embarking on a 15-year journey across two countries and six clubs, including Bilbao and Olympiacos twice. Taking over for Marcelo Bielsa in 2014, his style emphasized pressing and directness. The ageless Aduriz became a symbol of that relentlessness. In the Super Cup match described above, Bilbao pressed Barcelona with a 4-4-2 shape, staggering the two strikers to prevent passes to Javier Mascherano in the build up.
The direct nature of Bilbao's 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations are significant since it was a criticism leveled at Enrique in losing the Barcelona DNA. And when the Basque club shifted to a three man backline as they did in a 2-2 draw against Atleti earlier this season, it was inspired by adding depth to their pressing as opposed to bringing calm in possession. Not that Valverde's Bilbao didn't take care of the ball, averaging over 51% possession on the season, but that his sides overachieved with the intensity and energy they provided away from the ball. That number is in stark contrast to Barcelona's over 60% average possession. In 2015, Bilbao led La Liga in headed goals, headed attempts, and crosses.
Valverde's initial challenge with Barcelona lies in rebalancing the club's reliance on the MSN forward line. A common theme in the latter stages of Enrique's reign was the individual brilliance of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez bailing out the side when the collective failed. Their continual reliance on Andres Iniesta to set the tempo says much more about his quality than an inability to develop his replacement, but he is 33 years old. Andre Gomes was a much maligned transfer, could benefit from a fresh start in midfield.
Gomes wasn't alone in being a high priced transfer from last summer who failed to reproduce his form this season. Paco Alcacer, Lucas Digne, and Denis Suarez also appeared to be square pegs, although whether to blame the players or the lack of overall direction from the former manager is up for discussion. Regardless, and as we saw at Real Madrid, developing these role players around the forward line will play a significant role in Valverde bringing trophies back to Barcelona.
Yet on field tactics only make up so much of being a manager at the club. Pep Guardiola mentioned Valverde's even keeled nature in supporting the hire, stating that the football must talk. Hidden in the subtext was the circus like atmosphere surrounding Enrique, whether that was due to the manager stoking the or just the nature of the club. But similar to Zinedine Zidane quieting the circus at Real Madrid with his personality, Valverde could provide a stability to the club both on and off the field. While Enrique sought out "Frankenstein" lineups, Valverde's simplicity in approach of promoting youth, having a tight defense (his 2014 Bilbao side conceded 26 goals less than the previous season), and playing to his strengths is a welcome tonic. If one can't be a genius of a million moving parts like Guardiola, the next best thing is understanding what one can control and doing that well. The element of control does not extend to Gerard Pique's twitter account.
Luis Enrique's resignation kicked off a long debate of what type of manager Barcelona needs for their aging core. Along with Valverde, Eusebio Sacristan was rumored as a contender. The two managers present a poignant contrast. While Sacristan managed the Barcelona B side - and is blamed by some for the recent lack of La Masia graduates breaking into the first team - Valverde played at Barcelona and received Johan Cruyff's blessing as an intelligent thinker of the game, but is not necessarily of Barcelona. If there were ever an era to play for the Catalan club, it was during those late 80s, early 90s teams. And while Valverde was there, Valverde also left.
From this perspective, Barcelona managed to have it both ways. They hired a manager who played for Barcelona during perhaps its most influential era thereby understanding first hand what the club represents. But there is no savior aspect in Valverde's hiring, just a pragmatic case of him being the best available manager in Spain, with the right experience, at the right age, with the right people backing him. His hiring has already inspired attention from players like Hector Bellerin on possible moves home. Of course, the expectations will be for Valverde to win every trophy, but there are more concrete, attainable goals that play to his strengths: usher in the next generation of players, pass the ball with purpose, and maintain a sense of self above the Barcelona fray.