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In March, Luis Enrique announced he would step down as Barcelona manager at the end of the season. Enrique, who guided the club to a treble in his first season and a double in his second, cited a need for rest as his reason not extending his contract.
For the 47-year-old, managing the Catalan giants has been a richly rewarding and immensely exhausting experience. It’s a job that requires an insatiable appetite for work and a steeliness to harness the suffocating pressures that come with it. Enrique had it but it’s now time to pass the torch on to another man to usher in a new chapter in the club’s illustrious history.
Managing Barcelona doesn’t so much break the strongest men as it does drain them. Pep Guardiola, who possesses a famously restless mind constantly fixated on all things football, wore himself out after four trophy-laden years, while Gerardo Martino lasted only a single season.
Before Guardiola, Frank Rijkaard wore a dishevelled, increasingly glazed expression on his face in the Camp Nou dugout as his successful five-year spell petered out in defeat to Real Madrid.
Yes, it takes a certain resilience and robustness to handle the gig, which is why it’s always interesting to see who Barcelona pick. It looks as though Ernesto Valverde, the former Barcça who stepped down from his position as Athletic Bilbao head coach on Tuesday, has been anointed Enrique’s successor.
Enrique’s successes make it a tough act to follow, so is Valverde the right man for the job?
Steeped in Barcelona’s tradition
One of the prerequisites for the Barcelona managerial position is knowing the club’s identity. Valverde certainly ticks that box. The 53-year-old spent two years of his playing career at the Camp Nou from 1988-90 – winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup – and, while his stay may have been relatively brief, he was present during a time when the great Johan Cruyff began shaping his revolutionary vision of how Barcelona should play their football.
Cruyff’s celebrated philosophy of playing the beautiful game with flowing attacking football resonated with Valverde, an attacking player by nature, and has informed much of his own coaching ideology.
Valverde has developed his own tactical preferences but there is no doubting that much of what he knows was nurtured during his time under Cruyff – which explains why he is an attractive option for the club’s directors.
He is not just about Barcelona, though. Thanks to spells with Bilbao, Villarreal, Olympiakos and Valencia, he has learnt from a wide variety of experiences in different cultures and such experiences have been instrumental in improving him as a coach, a thinker, and a Barcelona managerial candidate.
What type of coach is Valverde?
Valverde has established himself as one of Europe’s more efficient coaches. Restricted by Bilbao’s famous Basques-only selection, he has earned the nickname Txingurri (the Ant), for his exemplary work-rate and ability to get the most out of his squad.
Having won three Superleague titles in Greece with Olympiakos, he succeeded Marcelo Bielsa at the Bilbao helm. In his first season in his second spell in charge at San Mames – he also managed Bilbao during the 2003/04 campaign – he secured Champions League football.
During his time at Bilbao, Valverde has been commended as a coach with a keen eye for player development. Under his watch Aymeric Laporte has developed into one of the most promising centre-backs in Europe while ageless striker Aritz Aduriz played some of his finest football during Valverde’s tenure.
Valverde’s relationship with the Bilbao players has been productive and professional, a refreshing departure from the sometimes maddening and suffocating demands of the Bielsa era. Valverde is a more grounded personality. He’s frank and demanding, as managers should be, but not alienating while still commanding respect.
Ander Herrera, who played under both Bielsa and Valverde before joining Manchester United, summed up the latter rather succinctly. “Above all I would highlight that he is a very normal person,” Herrera told The Guardian in 2014. “He was a player until not long ago and he knows our needs very well. He's understanding and he talks to us a lot.”
It is that sense of ‘normality’ that has made Valverde approachable to his players, a personality trait that may make him a big hit at the Camp Nou where Enrique has been insistent in doing everything his way.
As touched upon above, Valverde was influenced by Cruyff at Barcelona and, although he does not usually deploy a 4-3-3 favoured in recent seasons by a succession of Barça coaches, his 4-2-3-1 system facilitates a high press aimed at receiving the ball high up the pitch – a mantra favoured by Guardiola and co.
However, the 4-2-3-1 is partially designed to disrupt the opponent’s phase of possession. Seeing as Barcelona invariably dominate possession, Valverde may be tempted into altering his style to a 4-3-3, a system that suits Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez.
The main tactical clash is that Valverde’s sides favour a direct style of play with plenty of crosses, which is a contradiction to Barcelona’s infamous triangular passing movements. Unless Valverde signs a target man/poacher in the mould of Aduriz and implements such a change, he may be forced to accept a departure from one of his main tactical requirements – but that’s not to say he won’t be willing to try it.
Valverde, however, has proven how his style can yield thrilling results. In August 2015, with Enrique not long in the Barça hotseat, an Aduriz hat-trick lifted Bilbao to a thrilling 4-0 win en route to securing the Spanish Super Cup, their first piece of silverware in 30 years.
This season, it took a late Messi strike at the Camp Nou for Barça to edge out Bilbao over two legs in the Copa del Rey. So this current crop of stars know how well-organised and efficient Valverde’s teams can be.
Deserves a chance to prove his worth
Having established himself as an adept and intuitive coach that embraces the values of the club he is employed by, Valverde certainly deserves the opportunity to step up to the highest level.
Valverde has in recent weeks emerged as the frontrunner, and with the former Bilbao boss remaining coy on his future, we won't know for definite until sometime after 27 May when Enrique takes charge of his last game in the Copa del Rey final against Alavés.
Valverde would be a strong candidate to ensure a smooth transition in the post-Enrique era.