These days, Ernesto Valverde has consistently seemed like a slightly apologetic figure, downtrodden, put-upon. He is not particularly inspiring. His team keeps capitulating in embarrassing circumstances. Conceding twice in the final nine minutes to lose the Spanish Super Cup semifinal to Atletico Madrid in Saudi Arabia last week mattered not because of anything intrinsic about the game, but because it was an echo of far worse collapses against Roma and Liverpool. By the time Valverde was finally dismissed on Monday, it had come to seem inevitable. Winning La Liga is not enough, not anymore.
And so elite football must once again face the ludicrous futility its economic structures have created. Juventus didn’t continue on with Max Allegri after five league titles in five seasons, four of them domestic doubles. Valverde goes after two league wins in two years, with his team currently at the top of the table, halfway to a potential third. This is the problem when the league title comes to be taken for granted. Success or failure is judged on what happens in Europe and on that most nebulous of concepts: style.
Barcelona is unbeaten in Europe this season. It qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League at the top of its group. It has only lost four games in all competitions this season. True, some of its football has been rotten, it has won only one of its last five and Lionel Messi has papered over a lot of cracks. And that perhaps is what is most disturbing. This feels like a natural move. It feels like Barcelona needs fixing. It feels like it needs a new voice with new ideas, a fresh interpretation of the Barcelona way. And yet step back, look at its results and this all feels absurd. How has football gotten itself in a position where results that in any other era would have led to statues of the manager being erected outside the Camp Nou now lead to the manager being sacked in derision?
Some might think the confusion provoked by the ludicrousness of the modern world lies behind Barcelona’s ham-fisted handling of Valverde’s exit. But only the most generous of souls. Perhaps the most damning aspect of the superclub era is that so many of them remain superclubs despite being run so appallingly. Barcelona’s transfer policy has been in shambles for years. Basic decision-making, clarity and dignity seem utterly beyond its reach.
With Valverde still in place, Xavi was being interviewed for his job by the club’s CEO, Oscar Grau, and sporting director, Eric Abidal. They seem to have assumed he would leap at the opportunity. But he did not. It would be nice to think he feels underprepared, given his managerial career to date consists of half a season with the Qatari club Al-Sadd. But of course nobody in this whole fiasco has that much decency. He turned Barcelona down primarily because he is allied to Victor Font, who will stand in Barcelona’s presidential elections in two years.
So Grau and Abidal turned to the former Barca libero Ronald Koeman, who, since his days as Ajax manager two decades ago has seemed like a Barcelona manager-in-waiting and has made little secret of his desire to coach the club. But he is manager of the Netherlands and, understandably, wants to see his rebuilding project there through to the end of the Euros. So he said no as well. And all the time Valverde dangled on. Former Las Palmas and Real Betis coach Quique Setien will take over, another make-do-and-mend solution from a board that is increasingly coming to specialize in them.
Valverde has been dangling, really, since he arrived. That was the summer that Neymar left, ruining the plan the club had put in place to see it through to the post-Messi future. Yet despite that, and despite an aging and increasingly imbalanced squad, Valverde has won two league titles. But it is not enough. He is the fall guy, the easy scapegoat for the far bigger issues of leadership that continue to haunt Barcelona. Perhaps he wasn’t quite the right fit for the job–and he must bear some responsibility for those collapses at the Stadio Olimpico and Anfield. But few managers last three seasons at Barcelona, and he leaves with a record far better than the vast majority of his predecessors.
His detractors might remember what an impressive figure Valverde cut in his four years at Athletic Bilbao and wonder whether the issue might be less on his side than on Barcelona’s. And wonder, too, about an environment in which winning the league every season doesn’t matter anymore.