Barcelona have parted company with Ernesto Valverde despite the club being top of La Liga, but problems have been brewing beneath the surface throughout his troubled reign.
Valverde met with president Josep Maria Bartomeu on Monday at the club’s training ground following the Spanish Super Cup semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid.
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Summit talks were held between director Javier Bordas, chief executive Oscar Grau, technical secretary Eric Abidal, and assistant Ramon Planes over the weekend, and the decision has now been made to relieve Valverde of his services.
Valverde at Barca (joined May 2017) Matches 145 Wins 97 Draws 32 Losses 16 Honours La Liga x 2, Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup
The galling manner of the defeat to Atletico in Saudi Arabia – leading 2-1 heading into the final nine minutes only to lose 3-2 – has forced the Catalan giants to seek a change in peculiar circumstances.
Barcelona sit top of La Liga on goal difference ahead of Real Madrid, and they advanced to the Champions League last 16 as group winners.
Valverde secured back-to-back La Liga titles in his two full seasons in charge, while also lifted the Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup in 2018. He signed a new contract last February which was set to expire this summer, but with the option of extending it for another 12 months.
The Atletico defeat, however, and the way in which club supporters in Saudi Arabia booed Valverde at the final whistle, pushed the Barcelona hierarchy to act now.
Champions League failure
The timing of the former Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol coach’s departure does not point to his failure to land a sixth European Cup, with Barcelona facing Napoli in the last 16 next month – but his record in that competition certainly counted against him.
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After losing on away goals to Roma in the quarter-finals in 2017 despite winning the first leg 4-1 at the Nou Camp, further ignominy came last season when Valverde’s side surrendered a three-goal advantage to lose 4-3 on aggregate to Liverpool in the semi-finals.
His domestic success was ultimately soured by those European nightmares. Where Pep Guardiola lifted the Champions League twice in four seasons, Valverde was unable to build a side with such mental fortitude.
Speaking after the Anfield debacle in May 2019, he said: “The most painful thing is to repeat [the mistake] of a year ago.”
As they crumbled to defeat against Atletico, there were reminders of those collapses in Rome and Liverpool. The growing feeling was that further anguish on the continent lay in store.
Woeful defensive, away records
Things have unravelled since the start of the year as Wu Lei rescued a late point for Espanyol in their 2-2 derby draw. In a top-versus-bottom clash, Barcelona were expected to dominate, but they were a shadow of themselves, suffocated by their opponents.
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The dismissal of Frenkie de Jong was symptomatic of how the contest had gone for the visitors as he was punished for a sloppy mistake with his poor decision-making forcing him into producing a second bookable offence.
The reasoning behind Valverde’s appointment in the first place was based on glowing references from his peers in the game. Guardiola, Andres Iniesta and Luis Enrique all hold him in high regard, but ultimately the board felt obliged to make a change based on results.
A midfield of Sergio Busquets, De Jong and Ivan Rakitic should be producing better performances, but they have laboured in games this term, and their failure to control that contest against Espanyol pushed Valverde closer to the exit.
It was the seventh time in 10 away La Liga games this season that Barcelona have failed to keep a clean sheet, with 11 goals conceded in that time, winning on just four occasions.
Losses at Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante plus draws at Osasuna, Real Sociedad and Espanyol are unbecoming of a club of Barcelona’s stature, irrespective of the ongoing challenges at the Madrid-based rivals.
Mes que un club?
Barcelona’s motto – “More than a club” – points to the Blaugrana becoming a symbol of Catalan culture and Catalanism.
But the entrepreneurial ventures of Gerard Pique in recent years has reportedly angered club hierarchy to such an extent that clauses are now inserted in contracts that curb non-footballing commitments.
The centre-back has played a significant role in the revamping of the Davis Cup competition in tennis, while he has also purchased a controlling stake in Andorra FC.
Valverde felt undermined by Pique when the 32-year-old left for Orlando without permission following the Spanish Super Cup in 2019.
The club, in their determination to avoid further high-profile mishaps, have acted the protect its image and to bring the priorities of its players back on the football itself.
Was Suarez injury the final straw?
To add salt to the widening wounds, Barcelona confirmed at the weekend that striker Luis Suarez will be out for an estimated four months after he underwent surgery on the meniscus on his right knee.
Valverde has been too reliant on Suarez and Lionel Messi this season with the pair accounting for 24 of their 49 league goals (48 per cent).
The Uruguayan turns 34 in February, meaning steps will be taken to bring forward plans to find his long-awaited successor. Having Valverde still at the helm with the club at a natural crossroads from the point of view of seeking firepower, didn’t make sense.
Inter Milan striker Lautaro Martinez has been linked with replacing Suarez, but the Argentine has a £95m (€111m) release clause inserted in his contract.