Ernesto Valverde won two league titles in his two seasons as Barcelona manager, and was top of the table this season, when he was sacked. Andres Iniesta admitted that the way the club handled the situation, interviewing Xavi while Valverde was still manager, was ugly. A sparse goodbye letter on Barcelona’s official site explained little, a contrast to the extensive personal storytelling we’ve come accustomed to in the age of The Players’ Tribune. But the 55-year-old Valverde was never of this digital moment with his stoicism on the sideline, instead a peacetime general in a quickly evolving global football landscape. As Pep Guardiola once observed, Barcelona is the one club in the world where “winning the league is not enough.”
Valverde’s dismissal and perception amongst supporters shows the power of the stage, and how certain wins or losses carry more weight than others. Perhaps Valverde’s steadiness was built to balance the momentum swings of the season as opposed to the of-the-moment tactical decisions required in the Champions League. Valverde will be remembered not by the consistency of winning throughout a season, but by the collapses in one-off matches in Europe. His last match in charge was one more late collapse against Atletico Madrid in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup, in which Barcelona gave up two goals in the final 10 minutes to lose 3-2.
The first collapse came against Roma in the 2018 Champions League quarterfinals, where Barcelona blew a 4-1 lead in the first leg and lost 3-0 in the second. Valverde was accused of being too reactive in not making a tactical switch until Roma scored the decisive third goal. One could write off that comeback as the unpredictable magic of the Champions League, the x-factor that makes the sport worth watching.
But then it happened again the following year against Liverpool, with Barcelona unable to hold onto their 3-0 lead in the first leg in an even larger collapse. Valverde represented the team’s mental fragility, with his conservative approach taken as a lack of edge. He would later talk about how he could never escape the Liverpool loss, comparing his situation to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape in how “they throw me back in the cell every time I try to forget.”
“We didn’t expect a situation like this. This is what has happened to us,” said Valverde following that Liverpool loss. Soccer is something that happens to you, in the fatalist world of Valverde.
But shouldn’t a team with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Pique be able to figure out these situations? And what if Ousmane Dembele had buried his chance against Liverpool in the first leg? Valverde acted as advertised, letting his veteran players figure out and play through difficult moments during a match. Didn’t Barcelona’s lineup build, and run itself?
Barcelona managers must speak two languages, one of exterior results and the other of upholding an interior identity. Valverde could never shake that ambivalent feeling, coming to embody the stasis of a club that had lost its academy-driven innovations within a possession-based framework. Frustrations with the club and Valverde blended as one.
“I need to rest,” said Luis Enrique when announcing his resignation at Barcelona in 2017, blaming pressures that blurred into his personal life. Team president Josep Maria Bartomeu cited Valverde’s past with Barcelona, thus his understanding of the club’s culture, as one of the reasons for his hire at the time. Valverde’s collective approach symbolized by preferred 4-4-2 formation was seen as a way to relieve the team’s over-reliance on Messi. Yet Barcelona remain as reliant on Messi to win matches today. What is thought of as a managerial problem may just as much be about the difficulty in building a cohesive squad around the gravity of greatness.
Though the players were happy until the end. Messi and Suarez continued to back Valverde, blaming themselves and absolving Valverde of responsibility for their most recent loss against Atleti. Those respectful boundaries protected both sides. Valverde would continue to play his veteran players at the expense of youth, while the aging veterans would never turn against their manager. Valverde would often talk about Messi’s impending retirement, perhaps getting supporters use to the idea that one day, there will be a soccer world without the Argentine. He would also express his own managerial mortality through Messi.
“Sometimes the demands of everyday life means you are not allowed to enjoy everything. I think you appreciate these things more with time,” reflected Valverde about his time with Messi.
Valverde was sacked on the same day as the release of Deloitte’s study that Barcelona are now the highest income-generating side in the world, making over $935 million during the 2018-19 season. It was the first time in the study’s history that Barcelona topped Real Madrid, becoming what they’ve symbolically railed against. Just winning the league is not enough, not with a billion dollars at stake.
Barcelona attempted to placate vocal detractors of Valverde’s style with a symbolic, well-timed reference to the past in Xavi. The former Barcelona midfielder turned down the Barcelona role due to his inexperience, though he kept the door open for a reunion in the future.
Xavi eventually returning to manage the club feels inevitable. Ronald Koeman was also rumored for the role, another nod to the club’s glory years. They instead settled on Quique Setien, who while is not cut of Barcelona cloth, has always been a vocal proponent of its passing-based style. Though one wonders about the role of Setien, Koeman, or even Xavi with the club focused on generating income around the world. A manager would also then be a figurehead and representative for financial growth off the field as much as setting lineups and making tactical decisions. What does it mean for a club to return to the past if the priorities of the future have changed?