On Monday evening in Milan, Lionel Messi was crowned “The Best” at FIFA’s glitzy annual gala. But the accolade came a matter of hours after he stood on the field in Granada, participating in one of the worst Barcelona performances in recent memory.
The Blaugrana headed to newly promoted minnows Granada on Saturday knowing that with a win, they could have climbed to the top of La Liga on goal difference, thus putting a shaky start to the season behind them. Easy.
Just two minutes in, they were behind. Summer signing Junior Firpo let the ball run across him before completely stumbling to the floor. Granada attacker Antonio Fuertas then saw his attempted cross turned into the net by a cruel Gerard Pique deflection. (The calamity of it all disguised the fact that Puertas could have picked out two teammates who were completely unmarked in the six-yard box.)
Barca left with a 2-0 defeat, and not even a 2-1 win over Villarreal on Tuesday, during which Messi returned to the starting lineup from one injury and left early with another, can mask that the Catalans have underperformed in all areas of the pitch.
Valverde, a former Barcelona striker, has won consecutive La Liga titles since replacing Luis Enrique in May 2017. He oversaw a 43-game unbeaten spell, won the Copa del Rey in 2018 and reached the final last season.
But any good grace Valverde achieved with Barcelona’s fanbase has long dissipated.
Barcelona off to poor La Liga start
Before Tuesday’s win, Barcelona were off to their worst league start in 25 years, having conceded in every league game this season and trailed in four of them. They look bereft of ideas, unable to create chances and ill-equipped to cope with the high-pressing, fast-paced demands of the game.
Much of the blame for Barca’s form has been blamed on the absence of Messi. Ultimately, the blame must lay with Valverde. His selections, his tactics, his ability to corral his highly talented charges into a team that befits the badge.
Firpo, signed for $33 million with add-ons over the summer, is an excellent fullback. But he looks lost in Valverde’s system. The same can be said of Antoine Griezmann, the man whose arrival arguably prevented the return of Neymar. The Frenchman played on the left earlier in his career, but would be far better suited in a central role. Yet Valverde insists on playing him on the wing, instead of benching Luis Suarez.
Why has Sergi Roberto been played out of position? Why did Arthur, who was excellent against Borussia Dortmund, stay rooted to the bench in Granada? Why was Firpo replaced by Ansu Fati in Granada, a move that weakened the midfield by shuffling Roberto even further out of position?
“I am responsible,” Valverde said after the most recent loss. And he is. Highly experienced players in his team appear bereft of creativity and unsure of how to win the ball back. Their beautiful passing no longer has purpose.
A popular narrative suggests that Valverde’s Barcelona were irreparably damaged by their Champions League semifinal exit at the hands of Liverpool last season. Taking a 3-0 lead to Anfield, the Catalans were expected to breeze their way into the final. Instead, Liverpool staged an incredibly unlikely comeback. Barca were the victims of the biggest and most shocking turnaround on the European stage since Luis Enrique’s side inflicted the same fate on Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.
Since that devastating May night, Barca lost the Copa del Rey Final to Valencia and dropped points to the likes of Eibar, Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and Granada. Their return to the Champions League was a blunt 0-0 in Dortmund last week.
Like a prize fighter whose confidence is shattered after a knockout, perhaps Barcelona’s players have not recovered from their night at Anfield.
In the wake of that defeat, Valverde would have had the ideal jumping-off point. Instead, the 55-year-old appears to have stayed in the dugout too long.
This is a Barcelona side in transition, who are adjusting to life after Xavi, and laying the foundations for life after Messi. Given recent evidence, Valverde is not the man to guide them through this period.
Jose Mourinho a better fit for Barcelona?
So who is the right man to take charge?
Incredibly, the bookmakers’ favorite is currently Roberto Martinez. The out-of-work Max Allegri is also in contention, while a return has also been touted for Enrique.
The most intriguing contender, however, is the man who started his career at Barcelona, working alongside a precocious midfielder named Pep Guardiola. He cut his teeth as a translator for Barca manager Bobby Robson, and was entrusted by the Englishman to take coaching sessions and offer input into managerial decisions.
That man is Jose Mourinho.
For now, speculation will continue to swirl, but it is important to remember that the season is young. It is important to note that this is not the first “crisis” to be suffered by a Spanish giant.
In Barcelona’s lauded treble-winning season of 2008-09 under Guardiola, they began the season with a loss, a draw, and a Champions League qualifier defeat in Poland. Even the best campaigns can have auspicious starts.
But if form and team spirit do not drastically improve, Valverde’s days will be numbered.
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