Ernesto Valverde must believe his job as manager of Barcelona is a gift and a curse. On the one hand, you get the opportunity to work with the best players in the world, day-in and day-out. On the other hand, the pressure is so great that failure is almost inescapable; even after winning back-to-back La Liga titles.
As this season begins, Valverde is right on the edge of that failure. Most of the fanbase were ready to fire him after last season’s Champions League debacle and there are still plenty of vultures ready to fire him at his first mistake.
Ernesto Valverde on a Knife Edge
Even as two times defending La Liga champions, it’s impossible to predict Valverde’s future. Would anyone be surprised if Valverde was fired after the first Clasico? Probably not. Would anyone be surprised if he walked away in peace after winning the Champions League? Again, probably not.
Such is the pressure of coaching this Barcelona side. As Lionel Messi continues to age, the goals are simple; win everything. But you have to do it playing Barcelona’s style – while rotating the squad and playing the young players.
Ernesto Valverde stands at the culmination of all of that pressure. He is blessed with a club with deep pockets, a squad loaded with talent, and the best player in the world.
The Barcelona Squad
A squad with this much depth of talent can be a blessing and a curse. He has young players ready to be superstars. Players like Arthur Melo, Ousmane Dembele, and newcomer Frenkie De Jong are ready to dominate. To do so, Valverde will have to wrestle with benching the superstars who have been around Messi for the last decade.
Players like Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez cannot shoulder the load Valverde has asked them to in the past. Even Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique need to have their game time reduced despite their importance and obvious quality.
Those aren’t the only important questions he has to answer. There are a ton of great players who are going to need to play. How much does Philippe Coutinho feature if he isn’t sold? Where does Antoine Greizmann fit into the squad? Can Samuel Umtiti win his place back from Clement Lenglet? Will Valverde make use of new backup full-backs Junior Firpo and Moussa Wague?
To do his job successfully Valverde will need to build a team that can thrive with Messi, and sustain itself without Messi. None of the managers who have had Messi for club and country has ever been able to do that. So good luck, Ernesto!
Barcelona can still achieve all their goals this season. Messi is still at his peak, and they have the players to maximize that peak, but those players aren’t Busquets or Rakitic, or even Suarez. They are Griezmann, De Jong, Arthur and Dembele and they need to play a big role for Barcelona to achieve their goals.
Valverde will have a lot of work to do to get those players on the pitch. Busquets, Rakitic and Suarez are crucial voices in that dressing room. He needs to be careful with how he tries to reduce their workload, or risk a dressing room revolt. But there are multiple different ways Valverde can go about this. Sadly for Ivan Rakitic, all of them end up with him on the bench.
The first way requires Arthur and Frenkie De Jong to use all of their youthful athleticism. Valverde could set up the team in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. The trick would be putting Messi at the top of the diamond, with Suarez and Griezmann in front of him. It would require Arthur, De Jong and Sergio Busquets to cover a ton of ground.
Another option is playing Busquets as a centre-back. Right now the centre-back rotation includes 19-year-old Jean Clair Todibo. If he struggles, or someone gets injured, it would be wise for Valverde to try the lead-footed Busquets in that position. He is going to be hesitant about the idea, but its still a potential option for Valverde.
With all that said, Barcelona are still easily the favourites in La Liga. Their squad looks much deeper on paper but will need to be carefully integrated. Valverde’s most important job this season will be putting the younger players into successful positions. He cannot let them get exposed or lose their confidence, because the results will show it.
However, if he gets that balance right, Barcelona could thrive. They have enough talent to be the best team in the world and compete for the Champions League Trophy. Ernesto, it’s all on you. Good luck.