Ernesto Valverde has won only three league titles as a manager, all of them with Olympiacos, which has won the Greek league in 12 of the past 13 seasons. Valverde was also there the year Olympiacos didn’t win. The 58 year old also won two Greek Cups and a Spanish Super Cup with Athletic Bilbao. On the face of it, over a managerial career stretching back to 2002, that doesn’t sound like much of a résumé, certainly not for a manager of Barcelona.
But Barcelona has rarely simply appointed the most glamorous candidate available and on Monday Valverde was appointed on a three-year contract. The “mes que un club" motto may grate, and suggest a certain level of sanctimony, but it is seen in Barça’s managerial appointments. It is a club that wants not merely a great manager, but one who comprehends and buys in to its self-image.
In his book Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go in by Chance, the Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano explains how, when he was Barça’s vice-president with responsibility for economic affairs, it became apparent that Frank Rijkaard would have to be replaced as coach at the end of the 2007-08 season. The club created profile of what they were looking for in their new manager. Each candidate was to be assessed according to eight criteria:
- Respect for the sports management model and the role of the technical director.
- Playing style.
- Promoting the right values in the first team and paying special attention to the development of young talent.
- Training and performance.
- Proactive management of the dressing-room.
- Other responsibilities with, and commitment to, the club, including maintaining a conservative profile and avoiding overuse of the media.
- Experience as a player and a coach at the highest level.
- Support for the good governance of the club.
- Knowledge of the Spanish league, the club and European competition.
A long-list of six was drawn up. Manuel Pellegrini, Arsène Wenger and Michael Laudrup were quickly scrubbed from it. The three who remained were Pep Guardiola, who got the job and created the greatest Barcelona team of all time; Jose Mourinho, who has spent the last nine years stewing over his rejection; and Ernesto Valverde.
In the end, Valverde lacked the necessary support in the Barcelona boardroom and went to Greece that summer instead, but it’s revealing that he was on the club's radar that early. At the time, he was coach of Espanyol and, the previous season, had taken Barcelona’s other club to the final of the Europa League. He had worked as an assistant at Athletic, then been manager of Athletic’s reserve side before getting the number one's job in Bilbao. After Olymapiacos he has had spells with Villarreal and Valencia before returning to Athletic. His record is steady without being spectacular, although he did lead Athletic to victory over Barcelona in the Supercopa in 2015.
Yet by the time of his appointment Valverde was effectively the only remaining candidate. From the moment in February that Luis Enrique announced he would leave at the end of the season, it had seemed a straight choice between Valverde and Jorge Sampaoli, but as Sevilla stuttered to the end of the season, the Argentinian’s stock fell and he, anyway, had made clear his desire to manage the Argentina national team. Formal confirmation of that appointment is expected later this week.
Both men play high pressing, aggressive football, but Valverde has the advantage of being a former Barcelona player. He is not an outsider like Sampaoli, but one of their own. An energetic attacking midfielder, Valverde joined Barca from Espanyol in 1988, winning the Cup-Winners Cup and the Copa del Rey as Johan Cruyff slowly put together what would become known as the Dream Team. Never a regular, though, Valverde moved on to Athletic in 1990, just as Barca began a run of four successive league titles.
There will be questions, of course, as to whether Valverde will be able to cope with a job of the magnitude of Barcelona. He has a reputation as a good man-manager but he’s never had to handle players of the stature of those at the Camp Nou, never had to deal with the pressure of being expected to win every game.
And the Barca job is perhaps harder now than at any point since Guardiola took over. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are ageing, there are major issues in the full-back positions and the conveyor-belt of talent from the academy seems to have slowed. The transfer policy has come in for criticism: it’s one thing to amend the system to accommodate the brilliance of Neymar and Luis Suarez, but the signings of Andre Gomes and Arda Turan seem bafflingly against the Barça grain.
Valverde, even after just 22 league appearances for Barça, is seen as representative of the club philosophy. That is his major strength. His job is now to restore and uphold that philosophy.