When Ernesto Valverde arrived at the Camp Nou in the summer, it was presumed he would embark on a reconstruction job at his new club. This was even before Neymar left for Paris. Barcelona had just finished the previous season second to Real Madrid, also crashing out the Champions League at the quarter final stage. Regardless of whether the Brazilian stayed or went, an overhaul was needed.
The comprehensive overhaul never really materialised, though. Ousmane Dembele, signed for a club record fee of €105 million bore testament to the panic felt at the club late on in the window as they scrambled for signings. Gerard Deulofeu returned from Everton, with right back Nelson Semedo arriving from Benfica. The signing of former Spurs flop Paulinho was derided as the image of Barca’s disastrous summer. He was the best they could muster.
A lot has changed since then. Barcelona are now 11 points clear at the top of La Liga, holding an astonishing 19-point lead over Real Madrid, are in the last 16 of the Champions League and have made the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey for the eighth successive year. They only suffered their first defeat of the season last week, when they lost to Espanyol in a Copa tie they overturned on Thursday.
Many have been hailed for this remarkable turnaround in fortunes – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, even the surprisingly effective Paulinho – but Valverde is the true mastermind of this season’s success at the Camp Nou. He has been the primary factor and driving force behind their storming campaign up until now.
Valverde, rather than looking at the players he could have signed in the summer, recognised the quality of the players he already had. Under Luis Enrique, many of Barca’s squad had slumped, hit career plateaus, but the former Athletic Bilbao boss fancied his chances in restoring them as among the best in Europe.
Take Jordi Alba, for instance. The Spanish international left back bore the brunt of much flak last season for a series of poor performance. He was even dropped from the first team on occasion, with Enrique opting to play Lucas Digne in a number of big games. Now, however, Alba is back to his best, forging an understanding with Messi which has generated more goals than any other pairing in La Liga this season.
Sergi Roberto is another who is playing his best football under Valverde. Semedo was signed to replace the midfielder-turned-full back in the Barca first team, but Roberto has raised his game even further to retain his place, already notching six assists for the campaign. Even when he is played in midfield, like he was last weekend in the 5-0 win over Real Betis, Roberto looks confident, more sure of himself.
Even the likes of Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes have found a role at Barcelona this season. The duo had become the embodiment of the Catalans’ mindless transfer policy over the past few years, signed from Valencia for big money in the summer of 2016 without a clear role or position in mind for them. Gomes, in particular, became something of a scapegoat.
That’s something the Portuguese midfielder is still struggling to shake off, but Valverde has seen something in him in recent weeks, using Gomes as part of a four-man midfield. In this system, he has impressed. Valverde has taken a £30 million signing essentially everyone at the Camp Nou had written off and found a use for him. This is a common theme.
In the post-Neymar age, Barcelona are a far better balanced outfit. While the Brazilian previously meant much of the Catalans’ play came down the left side, pulling possession to one flank, now they play through a variety of different attacking channels. They are more tactically fluid, more adaptable and more mindful of the task at hand.
They are also more comfortable in their own skin. Valverde has created an environment that has seen nearly every Barcelona player thrive. Sure, Valverde was signed Dembele, as well as Philippe Coutinho this month, but going on the trend of the season so far he might not even need them.
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