The enigma of Ernesto: Looking back on Valverde’s Barcelona reign
An in-depth breakdown of the team’s performance, the tactical positives, and the ultimate shortcomings during Ernesto Valverde’s time as manager of Barcelona.
Time does funny things in the world of football. For some, the passing of time elevates their status to new heights, often as fans come to realize their true value.
For others, time, along with the new faces and ideas that come with it, exposes a harsh truth – that it was perhaps them all long who was holding their team back.
As Athletic Club announce the re-appointment of Ernesto Valverde as club manager, the effects of time are pulling his legacy in all different directions, surprisingly within the Barcelona fanbase, too.
? Ernesto Valverde is Athletic Club’s new head coach— Athletic Club (@Athletic_en) June 30, 2022
The record holder for most games as Athletic manager in history returns for a third spell in the San Mamés dugout. #OngiEtorriValverde #AthleticClub ? pic.twitter.com/OIlXuD6RWB
There are fans who argue that the club’s recent lack of La Liga silverware reflects his unappreciated impact and insight, while adversaries maintain the seemingly popular view from January of 2020 – the Spanish manager was holding the club back.
It may be impossible to fully isolate Valverde’s impact amidst the general chaos of the club at the time, but we can at least try to look back at his reign through an analytical lens. With that in mind, let us dive into the Ernesto Valverde era.
The underlying performance
A good place to start when analysing a side is taking a step back and looking at their underlying numbers. This does not mean how many trophies or big matches they won, but their ability to create sustainable goal-scoring chances and prevent their opponents from creating them.
To do this, we can use expected goals (xG) – a metric which measures the probability of a shot being scored based on factors like its location, the body part used, and the position of the goalkeeper.
Essentially, xG is used to measure the quality of the chances that a side creates and concedes, not just how those chances are converted, which often comes down to luck and unsustainable finishing.
Here are what the underlying numbers say about Barcelona’s recent seasons:
Off the bat, it seems fair to say that no recent Barça manager should truly be viewed as a generational genius or, on the flip side, a totally incompetent failure compared to the others.
The underlying performance under Valverde in 2017/18, Quique Setien in 2019/20 (though his sample size was only a half-season), and Ronald Koeman in 2020/21, was actually very similar.
To be fair to Valverde, the team’s defensive performance in his 2017/18 season was probably better than the overall numbers suggest. In the final stretch of the campaign, the side started conceding far more chances. However, one would probably have to put this down to more of the complacency of the squad.
Either way, both graphics show the gradual decline of Valverde’s teams, and even though the 2019/20 title was eventually lost under Setien, Barça definitely started playing better after the managerial change.
Well, you might be asking, how were Valverde’s early sides so much more dominant in La Liga then? A mixture of finishing variance and shot-stopping performance provides part of this answer.
Looking at that NpxG overperformance column, Barça’s finishing under Valverde saw them convert chances at an incredible rate. This was a luxury that his successors did not have.
Outside of 2019/20, the same goes for shot-stopping. In his two full seasons at the helm, Valverde had Marc-Andre ter Stegen at his undeniable best. Since then, Barça’s shot-stopping numbers have dipped to right around or below average.
In addition to how the team performed as a whole, we can attempt to gain some understanding as to how much of that performance came from what has become known as Messidependencia.
With the Argentine ageing well into his thirties, it at least should have been part of the manager’s job to start developing a side that could function without him. While you still obviously want one of the best playmakers in the world to be on the ball as much as possible, it is important to achieve a balance.
While there was not much change over the years when it came to Messi’s share of possession, the 2020/21 season under Koeman was the first time his share of the team’s goal-scoring chances fell.
If you remember back to that very first graphic, Barça’s 2020/21 attack was still creating chances very well (better than in the previous two seasons and slightly below 2017/18), but Messi was just having to take on less of this responsibility.
It was under Valverde that this situation reached its unhealthiest point and seemed to bode very questionably for the future. It certainly would have been interesting to see how the Spaniard would have adapted if he were the one given the mantle of carrying Barça into the post-Messi age, but that only boils down to speculation.
Overall, the underlying numbers can tell us that Valverde’s Barça, at their best, were quite good, but not actually that much better than what we have seen from his successors.
His title wins relied heavily on incredibly clinical finishing and shot-stopping, which did not really continue after his departure despite mainly the same players remaining at the club.
Still, there are aspects of management that go beyond having the best-performing side. Certain squads can only be pushed so far, plus integrating and developing players is also important. As such, we have to take a more holistic view of the Valverde era.
Squad makeup and management
The first big mark of Valverde’s reign was the shift to a 4-4-2 after the sale of Neymar. This gave the side a more industrious feel, as it left just the pair of Messi and Luis Suarez up top both offensively and defensively.
The ‘winger’ spots in the lineup thus became quite interesting roles. Andres Iniesta was used quite a bit on the left, as well as Philippe Coutinho in the second half of the season.
The right side was an area of constant rotation. Sergi Roberto was pushed up for some minutes there, Coutinho got a few, and Paulinho and Ivan Rakitic were shifted out from the centre at times.
Valverde’s usage of Paulinho that season does deserve credit, to be fair.
The Brazilian midfielder acting as an outlet for Messi would serve as inspiration for following managers. We would then see Arturo Vidal, Frenkie de Jong, and even a bit of Riqui Puig under Setien play a role as runners into the attacking third and penalty area.
It must be pointed out, though, that Valverde did have younger versions of Barça’s ageing veterans at his disposal than his successors. Most of that generation was still in the tail end of their primes or just beginning their decline.
The following season saw Barça return to much more 4-3-3 usage. Here, you had a mix of Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé coming in to try and make more of a true attacking trio.
There was a bit more integration of younger profiles with Dembélé and Arthur. Both showed some flashes, but were still not trusted much in bigger moments.
It was 2019/20 when things fully went off the rails for Valverde. The big introductions of Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann saw two new profiles emerge that the Spaniard seemingly did not know how to utilise.
The veterans were now even older. The attack lacked cohesion. The battle at right-back continued – neither Roberto nor Semedo developing to the point of being a confident first choice.
It was only after the Spaniard’s sacking that a serious injection of youth was given to the first team. The 2020/21 season saw the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Pedri, Sergiño Dest, Ousmane Dembele, and Ronald Araujo all play big parts, giving the squad a much-needed look towards the future.
This is reflected when you look at the players still remaining in the current Barça squad. The lack of key squad members who were integrated during Valverde’s time at the helm is quite startling.
There is really only one key piece — de Jong —, who was transferred in during Valverde’s reign, and it must be said that the Dutchman looked far more comfortable after the Spanish manager left left.
Hopefully, a healthy Dembele can be added to that list, but in general, Barça’s transfer business during the Valverde era was abysmal.
Here, we start to encounter some trouble when it comes to assigning blame. It is almost impossible for us to know how much of a role Valverde played in the club’s decision-making versus how much was due to the board’s incompetence.
However, we can see that almost every big signing made under Valverde did not develop as was expected.
Dembele can be exempt due to his injuries. Coutinho has been sold and Clement Lenglet looks to be on his way to Tottenham Hotspur.
Semedo, Malcolm, and Arthur never really nailed down a place in the side and were all unceremoniously shipped off. De Jong and Griezmann definitely became crucial players eventually, but both made jumps under Koeman.
Perhaps the best true Valverde transfer was that of Paulinho. The Brazilian was brought in for one season, played his role very effectively, and then was sold back to China for the same fee. But, again, there was no long-term value there.
To reiterate, it is hard to know how many of these decisions can be pinned on Valverde. It is definitely fair to say that many of these signings were not the right profiles.
At the same time, though, you also have to look at just how little progress almost every one of these players made under his management and sense that something was a bit off.
Many of the La Masia graduates who made their first-team debuts under Valverde ended up suffering similar fates to the big signings. Ansu Fati was the only youth product really given a major role, and he is now the only one with what looks like anything close to a long-term future in the side.
Riqui Puig and Alex Collado remain at the club, but nobody knows for how long. Meanwhile, Oriol Busquets, Marc Cucurella, Abel Ruiz, Juan Miranda, Chumi, and Carles Perez have all departed.
Essentially, the two major long-term introductions of Valverde’s reign were Fati and de Jong – possibly Dembele. While he certainly can’t take all of the blame for the club’s transfer dealings, his lack of player development is certainly a stain on his legacy.
He took a side with many established players who were in the tail end of their prime and extracted a lot from them, but the introduction and progression of new profiles always seemed like a challenge.
So, what actually were the benefits of Valverde’s managerial style? One of the first things that stands out when watching a Valverde side at its best is a counter-press that is quite intense and actually effective.
With StatsBomb’s open data, we can actually see the number of ‘counterpressures’ made per 90 minutes by Barça sides over the years:
- 2016/17: 35.85
- 2017/18: 42.14
- 2018/19: 41.24
- 2019/20 (Valverde): 37.27
- 2019/20 (Setién): 32.94
- 2020/21: 33.06
Valverde did a very admirable job of ramping up the intensity here, and it is very clear how little organisation there has been in this department since he left the club.
With the likes of Rakitic, Busquets, Paulinho, and Vidal, the Spaniard brought a good deal of robustness behind Messi and Suarez. When the ball was lost high up the pitch, Barça closed down with great speed, often suffocating opponents and winning possession back.
In the play below, you can see a tackle coming in on Lionel Messi high up the pitch.
Paulinho and Rakitić arrive quickly to close down the opposition’s immediate short options.
Busquets shields the back line and reads play behind the two higher midfielders.
Ultimately, the Spaniard is able to intercept just the second opposition pass after the tackle, and Barça regain possession.
A similar pattern is followed in this next play, albeit with different personnel. Here, Suarez loses the ball high in the attacking third.
After some quick, immediate pressure to force the opponent back, you can see the two higher midfielders, Arthur and Vidal, stepping to close down the immediate exit options.
Sweeping behind them, in this case, is Rakitic, who is able to step and recover the loose ball after Vidal’s pressure.
Barça comfortably regain possession in the attacking half, and one pass from Rakitic pushes the ball to Messi, who is in the final third.
Plays like this were massive for Valverde’s side to maintain pressure on the opposition defence and not turn the game into an end-to-end track race.
Unfortunately, as time went on, Barça’s old legs grew older, and Valverde tried, rather unsuccessfully, to fit players like Coutinho into these situations, the intensity and success rate seemed to drop off quite a bit.
But, in the early days, it certainly was a joy to watch an actual committed and organised counter-press instead of a one-man chase from Pedri, as was often the case in 2020/21.
Compactness and protection of centre backs
Remember when we mentioned the defence of Valverde’s 2017/18 team being a bit undersold by the numbers? Well, watching that season’s side in particular, another defensive strength of Valverde’s stands out: a low number of isolated situations for the centre-backs.
With many of Barça’s central defenders in recent years lacking in the athleticism department, limiting situations in space against dynamic attackers was extremely beneficial.
Like the counter-pressing, though, this is another principle that has not been applied very effectively since Valverde’s departure – just look at some of the trouble Eric Garcia has gotten into last season.
To prevent these issues, Valverde was able to have his side settle into quite a compact shape. Busquets and company were active in front of the back line and shielded the centre-backs.
Even Iniesta, with his defensive positioning and understanding of angles, was often a valuable defensive piece and helped maintain a strong shape. It was very rare to see this Barça “wide open.”
In the picture below, with Barça defending a bit higher up, you can still see the very limited space between the lines.
Valverde’s reputation always seemed to be as a defensive coach, and this is definitely fair. He drilled some very important principles into the side that often compensated for its lack of athleticism and gave players important protection.
Use of a midfield runner
Some plaudits have to be given to Valverde for the way he utilised the aforementioned midfield runner role. While this is not as much of a true tactical strength of his as the defensive organisation and more so just a tweak, it still proved to be quite effective and contributed to the defensive solidity as well.
When Messi dropped off into “quarterback mode” and Suarez occupied the central defenders, a well-timed, direct run from midfield was always dangerous.
In addition to a potential ball in behind, the run could also prove to be a destabilising force that opened up space for Messi to drive into.
In this play, you can see Suarez, even in a static position, garnering most of the attention of the opposition centre-backs. Paulinho makes a run right through them.
Messi drops in a pinpoint ball over the back line, and Paulinho’s strike forces a strong save from the goalkeeper.
These plays certainly provided a template that future Barça managers would look to follow, and for good reason. The use of a profile who could get ahead of the ball and be an outlet, then recover into the defensive shape, helped reduce the stress on the rest of the squad.
Bravery to break away from “The Barça Way”
Lastly, we have perhaps Valverde’s most controversial strength: the willingness to play a different way. Some hated it at the time, and have probably come to understand it more since then, but Valverde knew that the best game plan for an effective and even entertaining performance was not always to live and die by dominating possession.
For instance, look back to Barça’s trip to the Benito Villamarin Stadium on March 17, 2019. That season’s Quique Setien Real Betis side were quite exciting, but it was clear how open they were during defensive transitions.
Valverde went back to a 4-4-2 for this match, with his industrious midfield and the Messi-Suarez partnership up top. The side ended up keeping an astonishingly low 44% of possession but walked away with a deserved 4-1 victory.
It was an entertaining, effective, and memorable attacking performance. There were a plethora of great chances created, and some incredible goals were scored, as Valverde’s men were very efficient – not even necessarily direct – with the ball.
Just look at the central space in front of the Real Betis back line here, especially with William Carvalho vacating the area to step to Busquets.
A first-time pass from the Barça pivot was all that was needed to create an essentially 3v3 attack with Messi driving into space.
Different opponents can require different solutions. Valverde, perhaps aided by the fact that he was not seen as a major icon of the club, was not embarrassed if his side dropped below 60% possession and did not complete 1,000 passes.
Among other examples, he won both of the league El Clasicos that season with possession tallies of 51% and 53%.
Sometimes, that was how that version of Barça needed to play to get the best result possible, and those matches often became more entertaining than overly pragmatic possession.
Poor game management on the biggest stages
But, in addition to his poor record of player integration and development, Valverde definitely had his tactical weaknesses. The most high-profile failure of his tenure was undoubtedly his poor game management in some of the side’s biggest matches on the continental level.
While the blame for Barça’s results in Rome and Liverpool must fall on a large number of people, it is impossible to watch these matches and let Valverde off freely.
In Rome, issues began with the starting lineup. The Italian side came out with incredible intensity – most of which should have been anticipated.
Valverde, playing into his reputation, took the seemingly pragmatic approach of starting Semedo and Roberto together down the right flank, with Roberto as the winger.
This was a game where it just seemed like Roberto was needed as a pressure release valve at right-back, with someone like Paulinho (even if we rule out Dembele as too attacking) in the lineup to inject any kind of run-making into a static midfield.
This could have been much more effective for destabilising Roma’s defensive shape than tiny bit to create at least a semblance of control.
Instead, Roberto was a winger who could not stretch the Roma back line or cut inside and drive forward as he liked to do from deeper areas. Behind him, Semedo struggled under pressure, and any form of ball progression was essentially nonexistent.
While Roberto was not the best defender, Semedo was not much safer with his positioning issues, and the danger on Roma’s left wing was only Radja Naingolan and Aleksandr Kolarov.
To simplify the dynamic game as much as possible: this was the general tactical battle when Barça tried building out from the back (with Roberto operating on the right of an asymmetric attack or midfield, depending on how you view things):
In the highlighted area below, you had Roma’s front three aggressively closing down ter Stegen and the centre backs man-to-man.
The Roma wingbacks stepped high and did the same to Barça’s fullbacks in the wide areas.
Roma’s three at the back then had numerical superiority over Messi and Suárez, making it nearly impossible for the pair to take in the blind long balls being forced from Barça’s deeper players. Roberto was not a threat in behind and was almost never going to be able to receive a straight ball up the line from Semedo.
This all left Barça with their numerical superiority in the midfield – 3 vs. 2.
It did not feel like this was the case, though. The Barça trio of Busquets, Iniesta, and Rakitic severely lacked dynamism. Additionally, while all of them are intelligent players, there were no effective rotations to take advantage of the extra man.
Barcelona were completely overrun, and Valverde’s lack of in-game adaptability was on display as he did not make a single substitution until the 81st minute. The player he introduced was Andre Gomes – another static midfielder who had little in his repertoire that could help the side progress the ball.
The lack of adaptability ended up being the killer at Anfield the following season. Starting Coutinho on the left-wing and hoping for him to be an effective off-ball runner was, as usual, an odd choice, but what might be forgotten about that match is that it was basically even throughout the whole first half.
While Roma completely shut down and overwhelmed Barça in every way, this match was relatively open. Valverde, perhaps learning from the previous year, started Roberto at right-back, Alba was actually able to get forward, and Messi created a lot of chances.
Issues, though, could be seen from pretty early on with how Barça were dealing with Liverpool’s midfield runners.
In the first minute of the match, Jordi Alba had to scramble to poke a ball away from Jordan Henderson, arriving at the back post.
It was then Henderson’s off-ball run past a ball-watching Busquets and into the box that led to Liverpool’s first goal. Later in the first half, the Englishman would fire off another warning shot after a cutback from Andrew Robertson.
What did Jurgen Klopp do at halftime? He brought on Georginio Wijnaldum. The Dutchman was almost always used as a possession retainer for Liverpool, but those who have seen him play in the Eredivisie, for Newcastle, and for his national team know of his goal-scoring abilities.
What did Valverde do? Nothing. That is, until he brought on Nelson Semedo with Barça 3-0 down after two Wijnaldum goals.
Here you can see Wijnaldum (approaching the semicircle at the top of the box) making the run for his first goal. The central space in Barcelona’s penalty area was clearly there to be exploited.
Vidal could only slide in from behind, and Wijnaldum ended up converting a relatively uncontested shot.
Again, the losses as a whole cannot be pinned on Valverde. He is not responsible for Jordi Alba heading the ball straight into the path of Sadio Mane, or for the entire team not being ready for a corner.
But, when the manager’s stubbornness reaches a point where they wait so long – until after everything has gone wrong – to finally make clearly needed changes, there is an issue.
Sub-optimal attacking setup
Valverde was never big on creating attacking patterns or a true plan for the team’s advanced players. While his defensive acumen helped to protect and get the best out of players, his philosophy for attackers seemed to be to get the ball to their feet and let them go.
There were different ways of accomplishing that first step (i.e., the lower-possession approach against Real Betis), but it is safe to say Valverde was not an attacking phase coach. To be truly elite – a Klopp or a Pep Guardiola – a manager has to show it on both sides.
In 2017/18, Valverde’s positioning of Messi tended to bring this weakness to the forefront against well-organized opponents.
There were times when trying to keep the Argentine very central made it almost impossible to get the ball to his feet. As the attack relied so much on moments of individual quality from Messi to create chances, the end product could be severely limited.
While the seven-time Ballon D’or winner always drifts inside, over time, he would end up starting his moves wider under Valverde. This made it easier for the Argentine to find the ball and leveraged his ball-carrying and creativity more effectively.
However, due to the lack of high-level coaching to raise the ceiling of the rest of the squad, as well as the questionable profiles being pigeonholed into the off-ball roles, this change did not even make the team more dangerous going forward as a whole.
Valverde’s main strength in possession was generally setting up his sides well to counter-press.
Again, the top attacking coaches do this while also instilling in their players the right guidelines and automatisms to create an attacking system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
With all of this in mind, people should look back on Valverde the manager in a positive light. He proved to be a very strong “stabilizing” manager and extracted a lot of value from Barça’s established core.
His 2017/18 side was likely the best version of Barça in the post-Luis Enrique era, with his defensive capabilities on full display. While the Spaniard received quite a bit of stick for being a bit different, this was probably needed for the side in the short term.
However, his struggles with player development and system evolution, his lack of attacking intellect, and his high-profile failures certainly showed that he was not going to be the man in the long term to take Barça to the heights where Liverpool, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich currently are.
Valverde was definitely aided by a sizeable amount of variance and luck that seemingly ran out for his successors, which has inflated the way in which some fans have come to view his exploits.
We have to be wary of this approach when it comes to judging coaches and teams. Ignoring context for a topic as nuanced as managerial performance can be very harmful, but it must be said that Valverde succeeded in what he was brought in to do.
How long the club chose to keep him at the helm and how they chose to replace him amidst the overall chaos behind the scenes might be a different story – one that does not truly tie into evaluating the Spaniard’s performance.